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Advice For Parents With Adult Children That Have Drug and Alcohol Problems

Updated on October 4, 2013

What To Do

Here is some of the advice I give parents trying to get their adult children into treatment:

  • Verbalizing your concerns is absolutely okay. Your child might be angry in response, but they will not move towards treatment by you remaining quiet or hoping that they will go to treatment on their own.
  • When you talk to your child make sure that your concern and worry about their health and welfare comes through and not your anger or frustration.
  • If your child denies, let them know that you will pay for a urine test and it's fine if they want to "prove you wrong". If they won't take the urine test this should be a signal that perhaps your intuition is correct. After all, they have the opportunity to prove they are not using.
  • Always agree that you will pay for treatment, if they insist they don't need any or won't go. In my experience, eventually they do come around and will need help paying for treatment.
  • Work with a professional to help you sort out what is support and what could be enabling the problem. The professional can also help identify family patterns keeping the alcohol and drug use intact, and be a sounding board for the parent working through their emotions and guilt over the course of this process.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous and Adult Children of Alcoholics groups can be helpful for the family.

Parents frequently ask me, "how long will it take for them to realize they need treatment?" My answer is always the same. It could come about quickly or take a long time. It's important for the parent(s) to keep the door open to talking about the problem and being available to help with treatment. There are usually very few options for mandating your child into treatment in most states once they turn 18. Usually adult children with drug and alcohol problems are only mandated as a result of getting into legal problems that result from their drug and alcohol use.

How Do I Get My Adult Child Help For Their Drug and Alcohol Problems?

I get calls from parents about this topic several times per month. The parents know that their adult child is altered, using, or drinking. They have often already confronted them with no effect. They call me with a sense of helplessness while watching their child deteriorate right before them.

Many of these adult children have lost jobs, had to leave school, or have boomeranged back to their parents homes due to their use of drugs or alcohol. Their parents have tried to be supportive, tried to guide and direct, but have not been able to coax their child into treatment or even an evaluation. The parents wonder if their support of their child is actually enabling, but feel intense guilt in setting limits. Often times, what comes across from the parent is frustration and anger and what does not come across is the intense worry and concern over their child's health and welfare.

Will These Problems Get Worse?

Richard Jessor (1977) did research on adolescent and emerging adults with problem behavior including drug and alcohol use. His findings concluded that for the majority with problems at this age, those problems decreased into their late 20's and did not follow those with problems into their 30's.

"Recent research into how the brain develops suggests that people are better equipped to make major life decisions in their late 20s than earlier in the decade. The brain, once thought to be fully grown after puberty, is still evolving into its adult shape well into a person's third decade, pruning away unused connections and strengthening those that remain, scientists say." (Health Journal, August 23, 2012)

In my work with emerging adults, I can tell you that those with problems (drug and alcohol use, unemployment, educational problems) are much more open to getting the treatment they need when they approach their mid 20's. That is why I tell parents to remain available to help their children get treatment once they are ready.

The Link Between Mental Health and Substance Use

According to the National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI), "Certain groups of people with mental illness (e.g., males, individuals of lower socioeconomic status, military veterans and people with more general medical illnesses) are at increased risk of abusing drugs such as marijuana, opiates, cocaine and other stimulants, and alcohol. Recent scientific studies have suggested that nearly one-third of people with all mental illnesses and approximately one-half of people with severe mental illnesses (including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) also experience substance abuse. Conversely, more than one-third of all alcohol abusers and more than one-half of all drug abusers are also battling mental illness." (

Adult children abusing drugs and alcohol are likely to have mental health issues as well. Research indicates that the best care is treating both at the same time.


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