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Addiction affects millions of families every year. When a parental figure is struggling with addiction, their children are affected as well. No matter how old a child is, it is often challenging for them to set boundaries with their parents, especially when addiction is involved. If you or someone you know is experiencing a situation like this, it is essential they get the support and education they need to build a healthy parent-child relationship. 

Family dynamics play an important role in every interpersonal relationship amongst family members, including with the addicted parent. An addicted parent may behave like a tyrant or completely deny they have a drug problem. As family members learn to cope, they may mirror their parent’s denial or adopt the belief that drug use is normal. Some family members may try to ignore the parent’s substance use, rejecting their own feelings and emotions. This type of thinking can impair their mental functioning, limiting their ability to validate what they know, see, feel, and experience. This is especially true in the case of young children learning to navigate their world. 

Explaining Addiction to a Child

To understand how to navigate relationships with parents that have substance use problems, it is important to understand how addiction works. It might help to know how to explain addiction to a young child if you are an older sibling or guardian. Even if a child does not have a parent currently in active addiction, educating children reduces stigma and better prepares them if they do encounter substance use at some point in their lives. 

It is essential to start conversations with children about addiction early so that they understand it is not caused by a child’s behavior. This limits feelings of guilt and shame that often affect children who blame themselves for their parent’s disease. It is important to promote honesty and give children a reliable support system with trusted loved ones they can confide in. Children need people who can provide answers to difficult questions while they navigate life on their own. 

It is also important to let children know that addiction affects everyone differently. Environmental and genetic factors both play a role in the development of addiction. To limit the chances of a child experiencing similar substance use issues as an adult, it is important that they understand their risk of developing addiction in their lifetime. 

Understanding Addiction as an Adult

As we age, it may help to learn about addiction and how it functions in greater detail. Important concepts like the biology involved in the development of addiction can help give you perspective. Drug addiction is a dysfunction of the brain’s reward system. Learning about addiction not only teaches you healthy coping mechanisms and how it affects a loved one; it also helps you realize that addiction is not a choice. 

Life may seem overwhelming when you are an adult with an addicted parent, especially when it may feel like their addiction is taking precedence over your relationship. It is even more challenging to know if and when to intervene in your loved one’s situation. Having an honest conversation usually helps, but when talking things out isn’t productive, it might be necessary to set boundaries for the sake of your and your parent’s mental health. 

Setting Boundaries With Your Parent

You recognize that you want the best for yourself and your parent, and that means establishing necessary boundaries to keep the peace. Setting boundaries means deciding how you would like to be treated, and affirming that decision when others behave in ways you find unacceptable. Boundaries teach you that you are allowed to say no and put your own mental health first. 

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to setting boundaries. Every situation and relationship is different, which means the boundaries that are set will also be different. When setting boundaries, identify what you need from your loved one in order to feel safe, heard, and loved. 

Here are three examples of situations that benefit from establishing boundaries.

#1. Your parent constantly relies on you for money, whether it be to pay for bills or to pay for their substance of choice. A healthy boundary would be to stop lending them money or to only help them financially if they agree to go to treatment.

#2. Your parent gets angry or violent when they are using. A healthy boundary might involve affirming that you will no longer tolerate that kind of behavior from your loved one if they want to continue to have a relationship with you.

#3. Your parent has gone through a treatment program but continues to relapse, thinking that their substance use is not a problem. A healthy boundary would be to limit your communication with them until they continue treatment.

Setting boundaries with a parent or loved one is never easy. You may feel their substance use taking a toll on your mental and physical health. Without setting proper boundaries, you will likely become mentally exhausted and suffer from codependency and guilt. For young children and adults alike, it is difficult to know how to understand how to navigate a relationship with an addicted parent. Learning about the nature of addiction can help to bring perspective to the situation, especially knowing that this experience is shared by millions of other people. When you are able to identify your needs in order to feel safe and heard by your parent, you will be ready to set the necessary boundaries with them. West Coast understands the challenges involved with establishing healthy boundaries with a close loved one. Your loved one deserves intensive treatment to combat their addiction. Call us at (760) 492-6509.