Not Enabling adult children with money may be the ultimate test of parenting skills, especially in families with substance use issues. First, it’s important to remember that no one wants to become an addict, and no one wants to finance a dangerous habit. So what happens when you find yourself supporting a grown child who may or may not be using? Further, that adult child has a tantrum, or leaves you when he/she doesn’t get what he wants? All of us parents who have traveled the addiction and recovery path have experienced this phenomenon. And we have to learn how to manage it.
Codependency starts innocently enough
Naturally, as a parent you want to help a struggling child, teen, or adult. You also want to believe positive things your offspring tells you, even when you secretly think, or wonder, if they are lies. Unfortunately, those two primal, natural urges (to help and to believe) often develop into a codependency that holds you both hostage. And the struggle often ends up being all about money, which brings on the rage.
Enabling adult children makes them want you for your money
That’s the destructive conditioning that often occurs with helping, whether financially or in other ways. Your support can be very one-sided. You, as the loving parent, are offering help, money, understanding, and maybe compassion, too. You may expect things like respect, gratitude, sobriety, and responsibility in return. But your adult child delivers only threats or promises to get you to comply, and downright abuse and blame when you don’t cough up the dough. It hurts.
Everyone has to grow up
Growing up in recovery is something we all have to do. It was hard for me as an adult and a mom, and I’m not alone. One of the hardest lessons for all parents/friends/family of people struggling with substance use disorder is how to manage their unconditional love. You can love someone to pieces and not fall down the rabbit hole of enabling adult children on a self-destructive path. Here’s how.
Know what’s really going on.
Learn as much as you can about your child’s habit (s), when she/he started, how, why, etc. This historical information is helpful, not so that you can change your child, but rather to help you deal with reality. Educate yourself about any drugs he/she may be using or used; including how his/her behavior changes when on drugs.
This will help you with your interactions because if you child is high no matter how old, your ability to communicate with her or him will be compromised. Look into support systems for people who have addiction in their lives. It helps to know you’re not alone. The education is valuable and hearing from others in your situation helps, too. Al-Anon is a good place to start.
What unconditional love is all about
We want to love our children all the time, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept or agree with what they do. For example, your child’s getting in touch with you when he/she needs something and then “dumping” you after the fact is typical addiction behavior.
Substance users tend to come home when they are in trouble, hoping for a bail out. Disappearing until they need something again is common. It feels personal and hurts a lot, but it is part of the disease. I struggled for years with anger at my loved ones for not recovering quickly enough, for their blaming me for everything that went wrong, and for my continuing to help when help didn’t help. I had to grow up and get over worrying about what other people (including my loved ones think of me). After all, I know who I am.
Codependency becomes part of the addiction dynamic
We all struggle with our own codependent/enabling behavior. There are different philosophies about what is enabling and what is helping. If we have a loved one who is diabetic and can’t stop eating incorrectly or taking medicine or checking their blood sugars, we don’t abandon them. How is this different? Why do we have to grow up?
Like other chronic physical diseases, Substance Use Disorder (SUD) as addiction is called today requires help and support. Unfortunately, the behavior associated with it is often much more dangerous than diabetes. Also, the type of help we can provide is different. So we must determine when and in what way we will help someone we love, who also hurts us and him or herself. Setting boundaries is the first step.
How to stop enabling
People often find that giving substance users money is a bad idea, but there are alternatives to handling out cash. Buying food, for example, is a way to help. You can help in other ways without compromising your own values, finances or their sobriety.
And then there’s behavior
When your child is not appreciative, or is downright abusive, you might start by learning a new language that helps you develop guidelines and set boundaries. “I love you, honey, but I will not tolerate this behavior towards me,” is a clear message of how you feel. You can hang up. You can leave. Don’t just say you’re hurt, you have to literally stop listening. You can also say “I will communicate with you when you are _____ but not when you ____.” Fill in the blanks. And then you stop trying to talk.
Changing your response will ultimately help you all
Let’s get real about behavior changes. Setting boundaries and guidelines will not work immediately. You will feel awful and guilty. Your loved one will be angry, will become even more manipulative. He, or she, may become even more verbally abusive. May leave you for a while. If you are in danger, don’t try to go it alone. Get help from an addiction professional. Tell others in your family. Keep yourself safe.
This is also the time to make sure you have financial safety control of your finances, credit cards, and home security. Be financially safe when your loved one is using. If there are grandparents or others who can be manipulated, have a frank conversation with them about not giving money.
How long does it take to change
Breaking the cycle can take months, even years. Two sets of habits need to change. Yours and your child’s. You could consider setting up a separate account with parental controls on new debit cards for kids or teens, which would enable you to track and limit spending. You need to practice saying no, and you need to accept that the journey to independence for you and your growing or grown child will be dramatic and painful, but you can evolve into much better relationships than you ever had before if you keep working on it. Note. Addiction can be very complicated if mental illness (like depression, bi polar disorder, or anxiety, fuel the disease), so seeking professional guidance can make all the difference.
It will get better when everyone gets better
With any other disease, you would be armed with the facts, you would know how to take care of your loved one. Addiction is a family disease that affects everyone. Luckily, recovery is a solution that works for everyone. It’s never too early or too late to start.
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Leslie Glass became a recovery advocate and co-founder of Reach Out Recovery in 2011, encouraged by her daughter Lindsey who had struggled with substances as a teen and young adult. Learning how to manage the family disease of addiction with no roadmap to follow inspired the mother and daughter to create Reach Out Recovery's website to help others experiencing the same life-threatening problems. Together they produced the the 2016 ASAM Media Award winning documentary, The Secret World of Recovery, and the teen prevention documentary, The Silent Majority, distributed by American Public Television. In her career, Leslie has worked in advertising, publishing, and magazines as a writer of both fiction and non fiction. She is the author of 9 bestselling crime novels, featuring NYPD Dt.Sgt. April Woo. Leslie has has served as a Public Member of the Middle States Commission of Higher Education and as a Trustee of the New York City Police Foundation. For from 1990 to 2017, Leslie was the Trustee of the Leslie Glass Foundation. Leslie is a proud member of Rotary International.