Empowering Parents of Young Adults with Drug/Alcohol Problems: Taking the Failure out of "Failure to Launch"

May 04, 2011 1:36 PM | Anonymous
By April Wise

April Wise Ned and Carla came to their first session looking like other successful 50-something couples in their upper middle class community. They were well dressed and socially appropriate. Their amiable introductions belied sadness and a sense of failure which quickly became clear as we started to talk. Their son, Eric, now 28 years old, had moved back in with them again, this time while being treated for a detox prescribed by their M.D. for withdrawal from addictive prescription drugs. As their story unfolded, I noticed the similarities of their story with others, now all too familiar.

Eric had partied in high school. Carla and Ned had worried, but saw him start into college hopeful that he'd find his way and not get any deeper into drugs and drinking. Then followed several years of not making grades, dropping out of classes, some legal skirmishes; an arrest for possession, a DUI. Each time he returned home, Carla and Ned tried to be understanding, and employed different strategies to help. In between starts and failures of school, Eric sometimes worked for short jobs which never seemed to last, and had many reasons why he couldn't commit to anything. Seeing his frequent mood swings, his worried parents decided he was depressed, and offered counseling and/or medical help. They moved him to other towns and supported him with rent on apartments. They tried not to interfere but became reluctant to leave him home alone when he was living with them because of disturbances when they were gone, and/or money and property missing or damaged when they came back. Carla described living with Eric as feeling like a hostage in my own home. At the same time, she and Ned wondered what they were doing wrong that Eric could not succeed at anything. His failures became their failures.

The crisis precipitating their call to me started when, several months prior, Eric's landlord called complaining of non-payment of rent. Suspicious and concerned since they had been sending money regularly to Eric for support, Ned decided to make a surprise visit to Eric's apartment. To his dismay, he found Eric in the apartment, clearly high on drugs, with paraphernalia cluttering the filthy room. He persuaded his son to come home, and contacted their M.D. who diagnosed opiate dependency and put him on buprenorphine and what s called an ambulatory detox. With little information about his prognosis, Ned and Carla were adrift about what to do next.

When seeing parents, whether couples like Ned and Carla or single parents, first (and throughout) I try to help them rebuild a sense of selfempowerment.

Empowering includes frankly discussing what the parents know about their child's problems with drugs/alcohol and the extent of the involvement . I recommend that they become educated on chemical dependency and treatment options. I refer them to websites such as www.SAMHSA.org and www.nida.nih.gov to give them reading lists on the subject. This also helps the parent to make clearer and less reactive decisions on how to help and when. (Example: paying rent for an apartment in another city isn't going to help just by providing a change of scenery. ) I refer them to support groups, which helps them feel less isolated with the problem.

Empowering the parents to act includes assessing what's worked and what has not. For Eric, early attempts at counseling had not helped; nor had the financial support for school, rent, car payments. Moves, advice, and threats had been equally ineffective.

Much has been written about caring for spouses who are alcoholic or drug dependent, and similarly for children who are still minors. Unique to the failure to launch family is this dilemma: the child is no longer a child; he/she is legally an adult but not living as a responsible adult. Usually the parent is living in fear that if they do not continue to support this child, he/she will end up on the street. Simply put, the child is emotionally too young to handle life's responsibilities, leaving the parent feeling obligated to continue to take care of them. This Boomer generation of parents often did drugs or alcohol themselves, grew up with enough financial security to make life relatively easy, and feel a tremendous guilt from that combination, which makes it difficult for them to say to their adult children; enough is enough.

Children who come back to Mom and Dad because they ve finished school/trade but can t afford to live on their own, or who have been self-sufficient but had some life-event that makes them dependent on a temporary basis is certainly a different story. In those cases, agreements about how long the child might be staying, and for what purpose, is usually enough to allow a healthy transition to happen. Young adults who are responsible but need a temporary hand up , will be willing to pay rent and participate in the household as equals. In most of my Failure to launch families stories, there is a continuing pattern of under-responsibility on the young person's side, superimposed by a parent/parents who are over-responsible and have bailed them out of financial, emotional, social, and sometimes legal trouble time and again.

As Ned and Carla began to understand that drug abuse was a major contributor to Eric's difficulties, they also understood that his failures weren't necessarily their own. In the following weeks I suggested and we worked on the following goals; a structured approach which I find helpful with parents of struggling young adults:

    1. Make a realistic plan about what treatment, if any, should be supported and offered. Make another plan for the eventuality that treatment is refused. Professional help is especially beneficial at this point.

    2. Reduce fear by looking at the resources their child already has. The we can t let him live on the street argument is often very far-fetched when we talk about what their son/daughter has been able to come up with on their own, when left to their own devices! At the very least, we look at what is actually available in the community that would afford shelter if the family makes a decision at some point to withdraw living at home as an option.

    3. Learn and practice emotional detachment . As Milam and Ketcham state in Under the Influence, if the alcoholic's family or friends become emotionally embroiled in these excuses and denials or believe they are somehow responsible for causing the alcoholic's unhappiness, the real problem-the physical addiction- will get sidetracked, and the psychological symptoms will be mistaken as the source of all the trouble.

    4. Refocus their time and energy on themselves. Often the marital relationship is suffering as a result of the stress. The partners, or single parent and other family members may have different opinions on what help to give, or how much money should be spent. Not uncommonly, the son or daughter becomes the confidant of one parent, and uses this to manipulate getting what he or she wants, driving a wedge between the parents. For the single parent, there is the added burden of not having support, and sometimes fear of not wanting to sever a relationship with the child, however tenuous. Parents need to look at what they are giving up in service to their child, and reconsider their own lifegoals.

    5. Understand that their credibility to encourage their child will be less if they are abusing substances or alcohol themselves. However, lapsing into guilt and accepting blame beyond honest acknowledgement will not help their child deal with his/her own issues.

    6. Get support from others, especially Al- Anon, Nar-Anon, or similar organizations. Many treatment programs offer on-going family support and free educational sessions.

Eric's parents decided, after learning about his addiction and the need for on-going intensive support after detox, to offer him 30 days to get into a residential facility or a TLC (clean and sober home for people in recovery 30 days or more). With support, they came to realize that keeping him at home longer would be reinforcing his dependence on them.

In essence, by gaining a new sense of empowerment, the parent/parents are also learning to detach in a healthy way. Jane Adams says in When Our Grown Kids Disappoint Us, Detachment demands that we rethink our priorities and shift them from our kids to ourselves. It requires us to see them for who they are, which is not us, and even if she has her mother's gift for languages or he is the spitting image of his father; we are separate individuals with separate lives on which neither has a permanent claim. Our detachment forces them to take charge of their own lives. It allows us to go on, despite the fact that our questions about why this happened to our kids-and yes, to us- will probably never be answered...

Carla and Ned continue to work on feeling empowered to make changes. Eric did decide to live in a TLC. His recovery, like most, has its ups and downs. His parents are feeling more at peace with letting him make his own decisions, and imparting that stance is allowing Eric to have more confidence in himself. Meanwhile, they have begun to take more enjoyment in their friends, activities and each other.

April Wise, MFT is a Psychotherapist, EMDR Consultant and Instructor. She has been in practice for twenty years, specializing in family relations, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. She is adjunct faculty at JFKU, and has taught for U.C. Berkeley Extension and Cal State East Bay in Addictions Studies and Treatment of Trauma. For more information about April Wise see: www.aprilwisemft.com.


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