Parents and other caregivers who have reached out to our helpline have asked many questions about how to parent an adult child with substance use problems. In addition to the concerns related to substance use, parents have told us that they are struggling with a child who:
- Has dropped out of school with no plans to return
- Sleeps the day away and is up all night using substances, gaming, or gambling
- Can’t keep a job or resists looking for one
- Wants to live independently but needs the family to cosign a lease
- Is disrespectful or abusive with their language or behaviors
- Doesn’t help around the home
- Comes and goes as they please without letting family members know where they are
- Needs help for mental health and/or substance use problems but won’t consider treatment
- Takes things that aren’t theirs
- Is involved with the justice system and wants the family to fund lawyers, court costs, fines, etc.
- Has a child they cannot care for
- And more…
It can be hard to know how best to support and care for an adult child. There is no playbook. It can sometimes be more challenging if they are not living at home, especially when you receive that panicked phone call they need help. Or they have not communicated at all, and you are worried about how they are managing.
While there are no one-size-fits-all answers to these concerns, we will offer some suggestions as to ways you can maintain positive relationships with your adult children.
It can be particularly challenging to communicate your concerns about substance use or other issues to your adult child. On the one hand, you want to convey how worried you are and insist (perhaps often) that they change their lifestyle or get help. On the other hand, you may feel that anything you say falls on deaf ears or results in an argument.
Try to stay calm and not raise your voice. It’s important to show love, care, and respect to your adult child even when you’re feeling frustrated with their behavior. Rather than lecturing, it helps to listen. Asking questions like “What do you think about the situation?,” “How do you want to handle it?,” and “What are the next steps?,” can get them to open up. Our free online parenting skills course has more information on having effective conversations. The examples used are more for parents of teens but you may find them helpful.
It helps to stay focused on your main priority which is their health and safety. While it can be tempting to cover a laundry list of concerns in your conversations, it’s best to pick one issue at a time. Talking about substance use, money, schooling, their job, or lack of one, other family conflicts and more all at once can be overwhelming for both you and your child. It can help you to write down a list of all your concerns and rank them. Some parents and other caregivers choose to pick the one to talk about that is the easiest – the most likely to meet with success. Others pick the one at the top of the list that is the greatest concern.
Think about when the best time is to have a conversation. For example, if either of you are tired, racing out the door, watching the “big” game or if your child is under the influence of substances, it’s best to wait.
In addition, before having the conversation, think about what you’d like to accomplish. Is it just to raise the concern or do you want them to take specific action? Be prepared to negotiate and welcome any steps they are willing to take toward their well-being.
The “Information Sandwich”
Some parents and other caregivers find the Information Sandwich technique helpful when bringing up difficult topics. The top layer of the sandwich is an invitation to the conversation. For example, one might say, “Hey, I heard some interesting information about well-being today and would like to share it with you. Is now a good time?” If your child agrees, you can continue. If they say “no”, either drop it for the time being or ask if there is a better time to have the conversation.
The middle layer of the sandwich is the “meat” of what you want to say. This can include information, opinions, observations, requests, etc.
The bottom layer of the sandwich is checking back in to see how what you said was received. “What do you think about that?” “Does that make sense to you?”
Putting it all together, a parent concerned about their child using substances alone might say,
Top layer invitation: “I heard something interesting about safety today that I wanted to run by you. Ok?”
Meat of the sandwich – a request: “There is a free phone app that people use to alert anyone they choose if there is an overdose. It’s called the Brave app and I’d like you to use it.”
Bottom layer to check in: What do you think?”
Some families agree to talk about difficult topics for a limited time – say 10 or 15 minutes, using a timer if needed. This can be especially helpful if things heat up and the conversation is going in circles. After the time is up, each person takes time to reflect on what was said with an agreement that the topic will be revisited at another specific time.
If your loved one does not live with you, you may not know what they’re doing day-to-day. Consider scheduling a call or weekly Facetime. Texting can be helpful as well to check in. If they are not receptive to your outreach or you are not on speaking terms, try to connect with a trusted friend or family member they speak to regularly. You can ask them to provide you with occasional updates on your child’s health and safety, and they’ll be able to contact you in an emergency.
Addressing abusive language and behavior
Sometimes adult children can be abusive or aggressive towards you in their text and verbal conversations, whether in person or on the phone. If this is the case with your child, you may want to set boundaries around respect. For example, you can decide not to respond to text messages if they are rude or offensive.
If you are on a call and they start ranting, you can tell them that you are hanging up and will resume talking when they are calmer. And if they are losing control in your presence, you can leave the house if safety is an issue or simply leave the room – saying you need to go to the bathroom is a perfectly fine excuse. They will seldom follow you in there!
Behaviors that include any physical violence, breaking or throwing things, threats, harassment, etc., are considered domestic violence. While calling the police on your child may feel very uncomfortable, your safety is important. Keeping a journal on what is happening and having a “to go” bag may be necessary with your essentials in it (e.g., medications, house or car keys, etc.). To be better equipped to address this issue, consider reaching out to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence to learn about ways to reduce the tension and anger as well as to develop a safety plan.
Often families face many problems and feel like they are trapped, walking on eggshells, angry, resentful and more when struggling with an adult child. Parents have told us that they are worried about leaving their home to go out for any period of time, wondering if they should help with money, worried that their child will fail out of school, concerned about legal issues … the list goes on.
Rather than feeling like there are no options, it may be helpful to do some problem-solving. It’s best to focus on one issue at a time. Next brainstorm solutions. Any ideas are worth thinking about no matter how wild they seem. Then decide what you think is the best option to try.
For instance, families concerned about leaving their child at home may brainstorm these ideas (and remember, anything goes when brainstorming no matter how far-fetched): ask a friend to check in, install a camera, have a dog walker come over (assumes you have a dog:), ask the adult child to stay somewhere else during the period of time, limit access to certain rooms of the house, pay for a hotel room for a night, have a relative stay, have regular Facetime calls, etc. Once all the ideas are listed, choose one idea, or combine some ideas to try out.
Learn more about the specific steps to solving a problem here.
Other family members
It’s very important to present a united front if you are co-parenting your adult child. Just as when they were little adult children may go to the parent that they are sure will give them what they want because they know the other parent/partner will say “no”. They need you both to be consistent with rules and expectations. To learn more about collaborating, read this article.
Many parents are concerned about the way other siblings view what is happening. Brothers and sisters may feel the attention the adult child is getting is unfair. They may be angry and resentful of the time, energy, money and second (third or fourth) chances the adult child gets.
Talking about it as a family and letting them share their points of view can be helpful to get their thoughts out in the open. Educating siblings on substance use as a health problem may help. There are also support groups such as Alateen for 13 to 18-year-olds. Older children may find help at Families Anonymous meetings or SMART Recovery for Friends and Family.
Individual or family counseling may also be helpful. Your insurance company may be able to offer a referral list or try Psychology Today.
Boundaries and consequences
It can be difficult to know when to intervene in your adult child’s life and when to take a step back. Setting up boundaries can be essential in having a healthy relationship while protecting your own well-being.
Work with your child to establish and enforce boundaries. Listen to their needs to understand what will be best for everyone. You can acknowledge the challenges they are facing and emphasize your support for them, but you can also make it clear that you have limits for what you are willing to accept.
For example, if your child lives in your home and is using marijuana, you can set a boundary that they are not permitted to smoke indoors. If they use a car that you own to drive to work or meet up with friends, you can set a consequence that they will lose access to the car if you find paraphernalia or suspect they have been under the influence when driving.
Setting boundaries around money can also be helpful. This article on managing money has several useful tips about credit and gift cards, cell phone services, transportation, rent etc.
It can be tricky if you find that your adult child is taking money or other valuables from the home. Some parents opt for discussing and requiring repayment. For instance, this can be in the form of taking money from an adult child’s job if they have one, extra projects around the home, the sale of a child’s possession(s) to cover the costs, not buying birthday and other holiday gifts, taking money offered as gifts by other relatives, etc.
Other families will threaten to report what has happened to the police. “If you do this one more time, we’re calling the police.” Try not to make empty threats. It’s important to follow through on any consequences you have stated.
That said, calling the police can cause stress and a rift in the relationship, so thinking it through is important. It can have lasting consequences on their life; having a legal record can make it difficult to find a job, get housing or obtain a loan. Going through the legal system can also be very costly. Additionally, some families may not feel comfortable or safe reporting their loved ones to the police, especially if they are a person of color.
You may wish to set boundaries around what kind of support, if any, you will provide if your child is involved in the legal system. Communicating this with your adult child ahead of any incident can be important so that they understand what you will and won’t do. This includes paying for speeding tickets, lawyers, bail, fines, court costs, etc.
If you are involved in other aspects of your child’s life, consider working with them to come up with consequences. Often people are more motivated to avoid consequences when they are part of developing them.
It’s also important to know that natural consequences others impose can be a more meaningful learning experience for your child. For example, suppose your child gets a speeding ticket. If you step in and pay the fine, it may teach your child that you will always be their safety net and that can make it harder for them to become a responsible adult moving forward. However, letting your child deal with court, the fines, points against their license, etc., teaches them that the world has rules to follow. It’s the natural consequence of their actions.
Make sure you stick to the boundaries and consequences you have set. Stay consistent – the guidelines you set with them regarding your relationship can help them understand how the world works.
It can be quite easy to take note of everything your child is doing wrong. If every conversation focuses on these concerns, your child may avoid you altogether, tune you out or become defensive. Instead, noting what they are doing right or toward improving their well-being can have a big payoff.
For example, they may often leave a huge mess in the kitchen but one evening, they do a good job cleaning up. Rather than thinking this is what they should do (and they should), it helps to provide positive reinforcement when they take responsibility for this. Tell them that you appreciate their efforts. When we notice what our adult children are doing right, it’s more likely they will repeat the behavior.
Your adult child has more things to manage and obstacles to contend with than when they were younger. If they are currently struggling with substance use or are in recovery from a substance use disorder, they may have missed developing certain life skills. Managing stress, handling emotions, and making healthy choices are all aspects of well-being that you can support them in developing.
Encourage them to engage in healthy activities like sports, volunteering, or other hobbies, which can help take their mind off using substances to cope with stress. Help them find substance-free social activities to expand their circle and connect with those who will encourage them to make healthy choices.
You can also assist them in learning basic time management skills and developing a routine, which can set them up for success as they enter the workforce, go back to school and/or start living on their own. Use your experiences as a jumping-off point and consider offering incentives to help encourage your adult child to stick to a schedule and structure a life of their own.
They may also benefit from connecting with Young People in Recovery (YPR). They offer a program called EPIC, which is geared toward learning life skills.
It can be frustrating to have an adult child who expects to be waited on hand and foot without helping around the home. Parents often complain about dirty dishes, messy rooms, piles of dirty clothes, forgetting to feed the pets, etc. A starting point may be to list all the chores that need to be done followed by a discussion of who will do what. Including them in the conversation rather than telling them what to do works with some adult children.
If they do complete a chore(s) as asked, be sure to notice. Everyone enjoys a pat on the back regardless of how small the accomplishment. Some parents use incentives like if you help with the dishes for the next week, we will make your favorite breakfast.
(And at this point, if you are thinking – seriously, you want me to reward my child for something they should be doing anyway, you’re not alone. That said, rewards can work so try it.)
If they continue to refuse to help, you may have to brainstorm a solution. For example, the parents of a 24-year-old shared with us that they had had it with their son’s messy room. There were dirty dishes in it, clothes all over the floor and an unmade bed. They decided to tackle the clothes on the floor first by placing them in a big garbage bag and setting the bag outside the front door. They told their son that he could use the local laundry mat and if he kept his room clean for a month, they would consider allowing him to use the washer and dryer in the home.
If your adult child has experienced or is experiencing a substance use disorder, chances are they may have had some difficulty holding a job or entering the workforce. A stable job can help with daily structure and put them on the path towards more independence.
One question to think about is whether they have the skills needed to be in the workforce. If not, look into local community colleges or adult schools. They can offer help with getting a GED or learning technical skills needed in the labor market. Also, Coursera and other online educational programs offer certificate programs (often without needing a degree) to meet the needs of hiring companies.
If your adult child doesn’t know what they want to do have them check out My Next Move and O*Net Online. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, they are excellent tools for finding careers that may suit your child’s interests and skill sets.
Think about what might be most helpful for them. You can offer to help them with creating or updating a resume or practicing a mock interview together. This can help prepare them to find a job and boost their confidence as they search for one.
Many people get jobs through networking. Suggest to your child that they let friends, family, former co-workers, social media networks, etc., know that they are looking for work.
It can be more difficult to find a job if your child has a criminal record, but there are companies that will hire people with felony records. The construction, trucking, landscaping and restaurant industries often need skilled labor.
If your child lives at home, you can decide if you want them to pay rent and/or help with utilities. Set expectations for their contributions to the household. This can help them understand the importance of these responsibilities and set appropriate boundaries between you.
Funding housing can be challenging if your adult child wants to move out or if you want them to move out. For instance, if they live with you, they may not have the money for common rental fees such as first and last month’s rent and a security deposit. They may also need you to be a guarantor or to co-sign the lease. You may consider working with your child to figure out a plan, even if they’re not planning to move out immediately.
If money is an issue, social services in your community and state may be helpful to see if your adult child meets the requirements for subsidized housing. Try calling 211 to see what help is available, whether in your area or where your child is living or wants to live. Looking on Craigslist or another classified advertisement website and in Facebook groups to find month-to-month leases or a boarding house might be a cheaper option and won’t require as much money upfront.
If you don’t have these financial options, but you and your child agree it’s time for them to move out, you could also call upon a trusted relative or friend who might be willing to take them in for a short period of time.
More creative options include living in a van, a tiny house, a shed, a yurt, a tent, a hostel, a co-living space, or a house-sitting arrangement. Websites like Out and Beyond or Frugal for Less may give you more ideas.
Recovery housing may also be a housing choice for your adult child, especially if they’ve just completed a treatment program. This article can help you learn more.
As a last resort, there are homeless shelters, but this kind of housing is far from ideal. On a day-to-day basis, they limit the number of people they can take in so your child may end up on the street. And to be healthy people need permanent housing so coming up with a longer-term solution is best.
Managing money can be a major stressor and for some adult children, a trigger for substance use. Set clear and realistic boundaries and rules for your financial support. For example, you may decide to cover only certain expenses, such as health insurance, and require them to pay for others, such as food, rent or entertainment. You can also set a limit on how much money you are willing or able to give them each month and stick to it. Some parents decide they will pay for certain expenses for a limited time. This gives their child advance warning that in a month or two (or whatever time period you choose), the funding will stop.
Teach them the basics of budgeting and money management. Help them create a list of their monthly income and expenses and show them how to track their spending and save for their goals. You can also help them learn how to use a credit card responsibly, build their credit history and avoid debt.
If your child is actively using substances or is in treatment or early recovery, they may struggle to manage money. It can be difficult to know how to support them at this point in their life. Should you still provide them with financial support? What if you are unable to or want to cut back on your contributions? Figuring out your role can be a delicate balance. Again, this is where taking some time to create a list of pros and cons of offering financial support may be helpful as you decide next steps. This article on managing money has tips and ideas on how to help. Keep in mind that supporting a child’s essential needs like housing and food, if you are able, can help them focus on their recovery without these stressors.
As a result of the opioid epidemic and other issues, you may be involved in some or all aspects of raising your grandchildren. This can stir up many mixed emotions. On one hand, you love your grandchildren, but the emotional, physical and financial toll may be more than you bargained for. Plans for the golden years of retirement may be placed on hold indefinitely as an adult child struggles with substance use.
Your mental health may also be affected by suddenly becoming “parents” to grandchildren or others. The stress you feel in dealing with the often traumatic situation(s) that led to this, in addition to childcare responsibilities, may result in ongoing stress. Taking care of your mental health will positively impact both you and the children in your home.
You may feel that your child needs help with their substance use and/or mental health problems while the only problem they think they have is you bringing it up. If this is the case, check out this article on motivating a loved one to seek treatment. Try to be open to what they are willing to do. Perhaps seeing a counselor or doing online group sessions seems more inviting than intensive programs. They might be willing to get help for anxiety, insomnia, self-esteem, etc., rather than their substance use problems. Welcome any positive movement. If you receive a flat-out refusal, consider a harm reduction approach. Harm reduction is a way to reduce the risks while increasing the safety associated with substance use. It recognizes that some people aren’t ready or willing to stop using substances, but they may be agreeable to taking steps to be safer and healthier.
A note about safety: If your adult child is using opioids including prescription pain pills, heroin and fentanyl be sure to have naloxone (e.g., Narcan) on hand. It’s an over-the-counter medication that can reverse an overdose. If your child doesn’t live with you, consider sending them naloxone.
Also, many overdoses occur when people are alone. The Brave app alerts anyone your child sets up to help them in case of an overdose. There is a service called Never Use Alone that may be helpful as well.
Your health and well-being
It can be easy to forget to take care of yourself when you are focused on supporting your adult child Remember that prioritizing your health and well-being is the most important thing you can do to help you feel better and to better help your child. Consider finding a therapist or counselor to help you navigate through this, especially if you are finding it difficult to get through the day.
Several support groups are specifically designed for parents and caregivers of adult children. The Partnership offers Online Support Community Meetings for parents and other caregivers of teen and adult children substances. The meetings are hosted by parent volunteers who have walked in your shoes. The topics vary but are aimed at helping you help your child move toward a healthier life. Click here for more information.