How to Help a Parent with Alcoholism or Drug Addiction

Helping a parent who may be struggling with addiction can be challenging. They may hide how much they drink or use drugs, deny they have a problem, or rationalize their substance use. It can be difficult to confront your mother or father about their drug or alcohol use when they are the authority figure; however, there are some ways to make this process easier. This guide will provide some information on addiction, how to recognize the signs of a substance use disorder, and how to help an addicted parent.

Helping Your Parent with Alcoholism or Drug Addiction

To best help a parent who is struggling, you’ll want to be able to recognize the signs of addiction, choose a safe time to discuss rehab, enlist family support, and have appropriate information and resources available.3

How to Know if Your Parent Is Struggling with Drug or Alcohol Addiction

The signs of substance use disorder may include:3

  • Taking the substance for long periods of time or in larger amounts than intended.
  • Being unable to cut down or stop substance use despite a desire to do so.
  • Spending a lot of time obtaining, using, and recovering from the effects of the substance.
  • Experiencing cravings for the substance.
  • Failing to fulfill obligations at home, work, or school due to substance use.
  • Continuing substance use despite having interpersonal or social problems that are caused or worsened by substance use.
  • Giving up social, recreational, or occupational activities due to substance use.
  • Using the substance in risky or dangerous situations.
  • Continuing substance use despite having one or more physical or mental health problems caused or worsened by use.
  • Tolerance, which means needing more of the substance to feel the effects.
  • Withdrawal, meaning that unpleasant symptoms occur when substance use is decreased or ended.

Talking to Your Parent About Their Addiction

Helping a parent generally starts with a conversation where you bring up your concerns and potentially introduce the idea of treatment.10 Be sure to prepare a plan for your discussion in a safe, comfortable place, while your parent is not intoxicated. Try to avoid yelling or becoming overly confrontational, even if you feel very angry and hurt. Do your best to listen without showing judgment.10

If talking to your parent about addiction feels like a difficult discussion to initiate, remember that directly expressing your worry over their drug use or drinking, while showing your love and support, may help your parent to see clearly that they have a problem. Because addiction is a disease strongly rooted in denial, you may need to prepare yourself to have this conversation more than once.10,11

It is important to express to your mother or father that addiction is a treatable disease and that you are available to help them find the right care.1 When talking to a parent, you can express that you know it takes courage to get help and that ample research-based evidence shows that addiction treatment works. 3 If your parent is resistant to help, suggesting they talk to their primary care doctor may be a good approach.4 Your parent may be more likely to listen to a professional than their child. If you’re unsure whether your mom or dad’s PCP will be able to properly discuss substance use disorders, you can call and ask ahead of time and/or ask for a referral to a doctor with more experience on the topic. 4

How to Get Your Parent into Addiction Rehab

If your parent feels helpless or unsure where to begin, assure them that treatment in any form (whether inpatient or outpatient, short-term detox and rehab or a long-term addiction treatment program) is a great way for them to begin the recovery process.8 Offer support to help them through the process. You can do this by exploring potential treatment options that are available. Treatment for addiction may take many forms and could include:

  • Medical detox. Supervised medical detox is often the first step in addiction treatment. Detox generally takes 5–7 days to complete but could take longer depending on which substance(s) your parent is dependent on.
  • Inpatient drug and alcohol rehab. Inpatient rehab is where the patient stays at the facility 24/7. The length of stay will depend on your parent’s particular needs and can range from several days to months.
  • Outpatient addiction treatment. If you have work or family commitments, outpatient rehab offers more flexibility with services so your mom or dad can keep a relatively normal schedule.
  • Telehealth addiction therapy. Through telehealth treatment, your parent can access services online from the comfort of home.

The right kind of care will depend on your parent’s individual needs.8 They may need an inpatient setting to recover, or they may do well in a flexible outpatient program. You can discuss their needs and preferences with them and potentially with a doctor or staff at a treatment facility.

To help your parent get into rehab, you may also want to begin by checking their insurance coverage for rehab. They may not know if or to what extent their plan covers. You can help them check their Summary of Benefits and Coverage or call the number on their card with questions. If your parents don’t have health insurance, there may be alternative options such as payment plans or loans to help cover out-of-pocket costs.

Helping your parents search different facilities online can give them an idea of what to expect in a rehab program. You can read the reviews and email or call with any questions you may have.

How to Get Help for Yourself

Everyone in the family can be affected, in different ways, when a parent struggles with addiction.7 Family members may suffer from financial hardship, legal problems, emotional distress, and sometimes violence.7 Children of addicted parents also experience an increased risk of developing substance use disorders themselves. 7

In addition, research shows that children living with parental addiction may develop into what psychologists call a “parentified child,” because the child may have to parent themselves and sometimes their siblings as well.7 This role reversal can be very difficult for a child who may already have seen their own needs go unmet and now have to bear the responsibilities of taking on the parental role, which can be a heavy load to carry. For these reasons, caring for yourself and seeking out your own support is critical while you’re helping your parent with addiction.

To care for yourself as you attempt to offer help to your parent, try the following:6

  • Find community caregiving resources such as adult care services or respite services, which give primary caregivers a break from their duties.
  • Asking others for help when you need it.
  • Joining a support group such as Ala-Teen, Ala-Non, Nar-Anon, or Codependents Anonymous.
  • Taking time to be with family or friends.
  • Taking care of your health: make time to exercise, eat healthy foods, and get enough sleep.
  • Prioritizing your health: avoid skipping your own checkups or doctor appointments.

It’s important to note that children of those who suffer from a substance use disorder are vulnerable to struggling with addiction themselves at some point. If you are beginning to recognize a pattern of problematic substance misuse in yourself, be sure to reach out for help.

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