How to Support Parents Struggling with Addiction

Having one or multiple parents struggling with addiction can be challenging. This is the case even if they didn’t abuse substances until you were already grown up. You may wonder what you can do for them as their adult child. Having a supportive network is crucial in achieving a full recovery, but navigating substance use disorders within a family can be challenging. Here are some actionable tips from Harmony Ridge Recovery Center to support parents struggling with addiction.

Educate Yourself on How to Support Parents Struggling with Addiction

Educating yourself when it comes to the nature of substance use disorders is one of the first steps you can take. Making a conscious effort to end stigma is one of the most effective and compassionate ways to support parents struggling with addiction.

The best thing you can do in the case of addiction is not to treat it as a character flaw or moral shortcoming. It would be best if you treated it exactly like you would any other serious physical illness, such as diabetes. This is so because addiction is a treatable, chronic illness. However, you may harbor resentment and mistrust towards your parent because their SUD made them unreliable and inconsistent in the past.

Someone highlights the word motivation in pink in a dictionary
Addiction recovery is not all about motivation.

Addiction and Willpower

While their willpower is important during recovery, it’s not all there is to it. Your parent will not make a full recovery just using their willpower. They need external support from psychiatrists and therapists, and potentially MAT (medication-assisted treatment), depending on the substance they are addicted to. A diabetes patient may choose to be disciplined regarding nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle advice given by their doctors, which makes a huge difference in whether they make a full recovery. However, they still need the help of doctors to monitor their glucose levels and administer insulin.

The same is true for addiction. This is why, at Harmony Ridge, one of the first steps in rehab is a motivational interview. The patient’s efforts count for something, but full recovery is impossible without proper medical intervention. Condemning or stigmatizing addiction will only lead to your parent feeling isolated, lonely, and ashamed. This will only perpetuate the vicious cycle they are already in instead of supporting parents struggling with addiction.

A teenage son and his father are having a discussion
Support parents struggling with addiction by communicating clearly and openly with them.

Open Communication

Keeping communication open and honest during your parent’s addiction recovery and rehab is another actionable way in which you can help him or her. You can show them support and love through your words while keeping your boundaries clear.

Do keep in mind that an addict in recovery may be going through a lot of difficult emotions. These include mood swings, shame, defensiveness, and all the negative feelings and thought patterns they were evading by using their substance of choice.

However, communication is also the primary tool for actively involving yourself in your parent’s support network. A support network is crucial during recovery as it provides emotional support, encouragement, motivation, and practical assistance. Not only family members qualify for being members of someone’s support network. You may also have friends in your support network, people the person in recovery met while in a rehab facility, AA sponsors, therapists, and so on.

The “SET UP” System of Communication and Why It Works with Parents Struggling with Addiction

The “SET UP” system for communication is a great way to communicate with people going through mood swings and instability. These are typical of the recovery progress. This system of communication works with parents struggling with addiction because it makes them feel supported and understood.

However, it is also effective because it helps you restate your boundaries and the impact of their actions. A lot of the communication tips in this framework integrate principles that are also present in DBT. DBT (Dialectical behavior therapy) is a type of therapy that helps patients regulate their emotions and avoid acting impulsively.

A child holds the hand of her parent while she supports her through addiction recovery
Be openly supportive during the recovery of your parent

“S” in “SET UP”: Support

The “S” in SET UP is all about support. Make truthful “I” statements repeating your commitment to your parent’s recovery process. An example would be, “I care about you making a full recovery.” This will prevent your parent from getting defensive because they read your tone as cynical or uncaring.

“E” in “SET UP”: Empathize

Follow it with an “E” (“empathize”) “you” statement. “I can only imagine how depressed you are right now” is an example. Otherwise, your parent won’t hear the rest of your message because they may perceive you as caring about their addiction recovery process. Still, they will perceive as not understanding it. Therefore, they may invalidate what you say.

A person highlights the word true in a dictionary
Set clear boundaries and restate them when necessary.

“T” in “SET UP”: Truth

The most important part of the message comes last, after enough “Support” and “Empathize” statements. It’s about “Truth.” However, “Truth” statements will go over the head of your parent struggling with addiction if they are not convinced you care about their recovery and you understand what you are going through.

“Truth” statements are all about setting clear expectations and boundaries, as well as making the addict understand how their behaviors impact the people around them. Substance Use Disorder, especially if it goes on long-term, can lead the individual to have a distorted view of reality and the facts.

Some examples of “Truth” Statements

  • “I will continue to show up for you and answer your late-night calls as long as you keep showing up to your Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on time.”
  • “I do not judge you if you relapse as long as you’re honest with me if that happens. I won’t judge you if you tell me; I promise to keep calm while discussing ways to manage that crisis together.”
  • “Your drinking is getting out of control, and you have failed to show up to work on time three times this week.”

“Truth” statements are best delivered with a neutral tone, and refrain from giving them an emotional charge. Stick to the facts and avoid stigmatizing or judging your parent. “Failing to show up to work three days in one week” is a fact; “being difficult and toxic” is harder to prove. Of course, your feelings are still valid, and you should address them in a therapeutic context.

Your parent may not have the best history when it comes to hearing the truth about their condition. However, this kind of feedback is invaluable once they are in therapies like CBT. CBT is all about correcting negative patterns of thought and behavior. To correct what is wrong, though, they first need to know what exactly they could change or improve about what they are already doing.

A person is reading a book on how to support their parent recovering from an addiction
Educating yourself about Substance Use Disorders is the best way to support parents struggling with addiction.

“UP” in “SET UP”: Understanding and Perseverance

The last two letters in “SET UP” are “Understanding” and “Perseverance.” They are more about attitudes during communication and over time. This will lead to your struggling parent trusting you more and your “Truth” statements getting through, especially as time passes.

Taking Care of Your Needs

It can be easy to neglect your own needs while trying to remain supportive of a struggling parent. If you were underage when the Substance Use Disorder of your parent started, you may have experienced a role reversal. You may not have had the experience of being a kid. Instead, you had to focus on parenting your parent. In some cases, your parent may have told you details that were too intimate or relied on you for emotional support while intoxicated.

A person hugging themselves with a smile on their face
Before being there for someone, make sure you take care of your own needs.

How Many People Are Children of Parents Struggling with Addiction?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that more than eight million children younger than age 18 live with at least one adult with an SUD. This amounts to more than 1 in 10 children. These children later grow up to be adults who become more prone to developing Substance Use Disorders themselves, as well as having various chronic physical and mental health issues.

Does The Time When Your Parent Became an Addict Make a Difference?

In the best case scenario, your parent developed their SUD when you were already an adult, and thus, it didn’t have any impact on your developmental years. This doesn’t mean it didn’t disrupt your adult life, but it does mean you could grow and develop as an adult without an erratic and inconsistent parent.

If your parent developed their SUD before you were an adult, it is a testament to the good qualities of your parent that you still want to help them and be there for them. However, it’s important not to keep interpersonal cycles in your relationship with your parent that may be hurting you both.

If your parent has been struggling with addiction for a long time, you may have mixed feelings about it. You may be afraid for these feelings to come to the surface now that they’ve finally made the decision to get better.

However, it’s important to address any anger, sadness, shame, guilt, and resentment you may feel. Of course, maybe at the beginning of their recovery, you shouldn’t air these feelings with your parent. However, it’s important to discuss them with a therapist or trusted loved one so they don’t start to fester until you lash out at your parent, possibly driving them to relapse or compromising their healing.

A young father looks at his child right before school
If you were a minor when your parent developed the Substance Use Disorder, this will impact how you cope with it in the present.

What to Watch Out For If Your Parent Has Had an SUD Since You Were a Minor

These are some specific interpersonal dynamics to watch out for if your parent has had an SUD since you were a minor. As an adult, it’s important to start paying attention to these so you don’t continue a negative dynamic. This is so because continuing these cycles can end up enabling your parent with unhealthy behaviors and weighing you down. Of course, you aren’t supposed to work on these dynamics alone. There are family therapy options in WV, so you work through your issues together as a family.

  • Becoming a caregiver as a child. This stunts your emotional growth and social skills since you didn’t have the opportunity to be a child or teenager and had to take care of adult matters instead.
  • Emotional incest. This term refers to parents who treat their children like they are adult peers instead of children. They may rely on them emotionally like they would on a partner, sibling close in age, or best friend. This is the term used even when there is no sexual abuse. Emotional incest also stunts the growth of the child.
  • Feeling guilty or responsible for your parent’s issues. It is fairly common for children to assume the responsibility of their parents’ SUD. It’s important for children to know that substance use disorder is an illness. Substances and certain behaviors create dependence. This means the person struggling with addiction feels a strong urge and craving to use the substance. You being well-behaved or a burden as a child is never the reason why your parent is addicted.
  • Staying isolated from your community and other family members. You may feel ashamed of your parent when they are intoxicated. They may not have wanted people outside the family to know about their SUD. Thus, you both learn to isolate socially because you’re scared of the stigma around addiction. You are concerned about what it will say about your parent and, by association, about you. However, social isolation and a lack of community support will only make matters worse, both for you and your parent.
  • Judging and condemning your parent. Perpetuating stigma towards addiction is never productive for anyone involved. Make an effort to conceptualize Substance Use Addiction as exactly what it is: a treatable chronic illness.


In short, there are several ways to support parents struggling with addiction. They include being open to educating yourself about the substance use disorder in question and how it works, some techniques to communicate openly and effectively, and intentionally taking care of your needs.

A more holistic approach to addiction treatment and rehab takes into account the well-being of the addict’s loved ones. If possible, professionals encourage people struggling with addiction to fix and improve their relationships with family members, such as children, so they’re better equipped to deal with life once they are out of the facilities. Find out more about treatment options in West Virginia here at Harmony Ridge.


Kreisman and Straus (1989), I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me: Understanding the Borderline Personality.

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