As a child, you live and breathe excitement. You get busy taking in all the cool new stuff that life brings. Everything feels like an adventure. For instance, you feel big emotions and you think big thoughts. You cry loud and you laugh loud. You tell the truth about everything, whether that truth is welcome or not. You’re learning what it means to be human. Our parents teach us the most about that. They are our models for figuring out what it means to be a person. But we’re not perfect, and neither are our parents. For better or worse, we learn how to live from them. We learn about relationships, love, money, work, and how to deal with (or avoid) tragedy and disaster. Some of the life skills we learn might be helpful. Others not so much.
If you grew up with an alcoholic parent, you may have learned to use alcohol to cope with stress. Alcoholism and abuse of intimate partners frequently occur together (1). About 40% of abusive parents are also alcoholics (2). Alcoholism doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It exists along with other maladaptive behavior patterns. These kinds of patterns extend into the people around the alcoholic. Beneath the addiction lies family dysfunction and trauma, often passed from one generation to the next. So what is a person with an alcoholic parent to do? How can one person confront and change a problem so large, with so many different factors? How do we help a parent struggling with addiction?
Narrow Your Focus
First, you must narrow your focus to your own thoughts, feelings, and actions. You didn’t ask to be born to the parents that raised you. You couldn’t have influenced the home you were born into. But now, you are your own person. You have your own life, your own skills, your own responsibilities. Recognize that your alcoholic parent made choices that led them to their current struggle. Those choices were theirs to make. And while those choices may have involved or impacted you, they are not because of you. You are not responsible for your parent’s choices.
Put Aside Judgment
It’s hard not to judge parents. They have so much power over our lives, especially during our formative years. But our parental relationships shape, not only our relationships with other people but the very ways in which we relate. As we grow older, reflecting on our lives can reveal flaws and mistakes our parents made. And while we may be completely justified in addressing those flaws and mistakes, we must put aside our judgment. For an alcoholic, judgment is unhelpful. Likely, an alcoholic parent already feels shame for his/her choices. Judgment will not motivate them to seek treatment.
Loving an addict is no easy task. You may feel anger, bitterness, or frustration. These are normal emotional responses to these kinds of situations. In spite of how we feel, we must assume a posture of trust. Without trust, we cannot help. To establish trust with an alcoholic parent, practice active listening. Look them in the eye when they speak. Focus on their words, but also on nonverbal cues. Observe the tone of their voice, as well as their body language. Affirm what they say with quick phrases like, “yes,” “I see,” and “go on.” Don’t argue or debate. Now isn’t the time for that. Instead, once they finish speaking, try rephrasing what they have said. Put it in your own words, starting with something like, “So what I’m hearing is…” or “Let me make sure I understand…” This will show that you are making an effort at empathy, and will increase the likelihood that your parent will trust you. Once they trust you, they may be more willing to seek treatment.
Help a Parent Struggling With Addiction: What Next?
If your mom or dad is struggling with alcoholism, or any other addiction, call Harmony Healing Center at 856-475-6166.