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Growing Up With an Addict
James "Jamell" Bodrick

When a parent or other loved one suffers from a drug or alcohol addiction, it has an effect on the entire family, especially the kids. We talked to Dr. Kim Sumner-Mayer, a licensed family therapist who helps family members understand addiction and work out the problems that are caused by it. Sumner-Mayer works at the Center on Addiction and the Family at Phoenix House in Brooklyn, New York.

Q: What makes a parent turn to a drug? How can someone do that if they know they have kids to take care of?
There are lots of reasons why people start using. Sometimes they don’t know how to solve problems, or they’re in a lot of pain and looking for a quick escape, trying to numb out sadness. Sometimes it’s because they haven’t figured out good solutions to life’s problems. And once they start using they can’t stop.

When someone is in active addiction it looks to everyone else like they love drugs more than they love their families. But in reality they don’t have a choice because their body craves that substance. They need it like you need air and water, and getting it becomes the single most important thing to them.

Q: What are some common feelings kids experience when their parent or another family member is addicted?
A child growing up with addiction doesn’t know any other way—does a fish know it’s wet? If the family is secretive, then secrets are normal for that child. If the parent seems fine one day and out of control the next, that’s what the child thinks is normal. They may even think violence is normal.

It can be hard for kids in families with addicted parents to know appropriate ways of showing affection. Maybe no one hugs each other or says “I love you” except when the parent is high. Perhaps boundaries around touching one another aren’t respected.

There’s often a lot of fear, too. A child may be afraid that if he tells someone he’s going to be taken away from his family, or his parent will get in trouble with the law. That isolation and keeping quiet reinforces the idea that he’s alone, and maybe even that it’s his fault.

It’s helpful to remember the “three C’s of addiction”: You didn’t Cause your parent’s addiction; you can’t Control it; and you can’t Cure it. If you can accept the three C’s, you can start to take care of yourself instead of focusing on trying to get the other person to change.

image by Imagens Evangélicas

Q: Can a child motivate a parent to quit? Can people recover on their own without rehab?
Treatment does work, and yes, children are a huge motivator to many parents. But wanting to quit is not the same as being able to quit. Most parents don’t understand at first how much their addiction has hurt their children. The further they get in recovery, the more they understand it and that can contribute to relapse.

Most addicts are not able to stay off drugs for a solid year on their first try. If they go to treatment, their chances are much better. Most people are going to have relapses along the way to sobriety. Relapse is not failure. It’s like when you first learned to ride a bike: You fell, but you got back on. Each time you fell, your muscles learned something that helped you eventually stay up on the bike.

Q: How can you talk to your family member if you have concerns about a drug addiction?
If you want to try to make progress with your parent, you need to let them know how their problems affect you. Try saying, “I feel” instead of “you did.”

You have a right to all your feelings, and anger is a natural response to the things that happened that were not fair or right. But reacting angrily toward the person who hurt you may not be the most effective approach. Try letting out those feelings to your therapist, teacher, mentor, friend, or other family member before and after confronting a parent.

Lots of times in families with addiction, people don’t know how to argue fairly. You have to learn how to work through being let down, and that you can love someone and still express anger to them.

You also have to be prepared that your parent may not change as a result of your confronting him. But expressing your feelings can help you take care of yourself.

Remember never to confront a parent who is drunk or high. It won’t be helpful, and it could get dangerous.

Finally, don’t hesitate to seek out professional help before and/or after confronting a parent. A counselor or therapist can help you understand your parent’s behavior, your responses to it, and your entire family situation better. They can also help you communicate with your family in ways that support your well-being and your right to a healthy, happy future.

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