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Learning to Deal with Adult Alcoholic Children

Alcoholic adult childIn one of my articles I talked about how addiction and codependency can be two sides of the same coin. That generated yet another request for an article about dealing with alcoholic children.

It’s a difficult assignment for me because the psychologist who helps others with relationships tainted by any of a myriad of issues, including addiction, codependency and dealing with adult children and parents who abuse alcohol, has himself fallen into many of the same traps.

It seems that objectively goes out the window when it’s your own son or daughter. Dealing with a son’s drug and alcohol abuse has been the most difficult and divisive challenge my wife and I have had to face in our decades together.

He was charming, generous and creative. But like all addicts, he lied easily and took advantage of other people’s generosity. This led to conflicts between my wife and me, especially in those extended periods when he had returned home to live with us.

My wife and I each got professional help, and over time we mended the rift. Our son went into various treatment programs. However, after the years of substance abuse and general neglect, he became disabled through failing health and died at age 40.

This multi-decade experience taught us things we may have already known intellectually, but had never really understood. Here are a few of them.

The hardest lesson of all was accepting the reality of his addiction with all it entails and the reality of his probable early demise. [SIZEWARP]As parents we fought hard to deny this, but we could not change the reality.[/SIZEWARP]

We had to learn to refrain from rescuing him. Each rescue let him off the hook for taking responsibility. When we stopped rescuing him, he became more responsible.

We withdrew direct financial support: no more enabling him with money handouts, no matter how small. However, he was always well fed when he visited and we always took food with us when we visited him.

We stopped letting him stay with us other than for a weekend visit. We stopped enabling him in avoiding responsibility for his life.

We had always listened to him talk about his struggles, but we had to learn to accept our own feelings of helplessness. This was very difficult for two people who seem to be hardwired to jump in and fix things. We attempted to restrict our advice to those times he asked for it.

As we got the lessons and our son came to understand the new reality, our relationships with him became more love-based again. Communication opened up. We had a beautiful mutually-supportive relationship with our son, especially during his last year. It meant a lot to us. It meant a lot to him.

Had we continued to deny reality, to rescue and to enable, we might never have made peace. His early death would have been even more tragic.

Having to deal with adult addicted children is something I could never wish on any parent, but sadly, it is a reality in many parents’ lives.

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Dr. Neill Neill retired his psychology practice at the end of 2013. He maintains an active coaching practice via telephone or Skype with select clients dealing with alcoholic husbands or ex-husbands. Check out his book, Living with a Functioning Alcoholic: A Woman's Survival Guide. http://drneillneill.com

28 comments to Learning to Deal with Adult Alcoholic Children

  • Marcella

    Dear Neil,

    Thank you for your honesty and genuine heartfelt words.
    Thank you for your continuing work in the field.
    With much love and light.

    Marcella Clinical Psychologist

  • Donna

    I am so sorry to hear your story. My daughter has been diagnosed as an addict, alcoholic, self harm, maybe other things, and I don’t know what to do. She is 19, seeing a psychotherapist and quite open with our GP. She lives at home, but has no ambition, plans etc. She has many talents, art, music, languages, and did well at school. Any advice would be much appreciated. Her father, who I divorced 10 years ago, due to his alcoholism moved to South Africa and is dying of emphysema.

  • Johanna

    Thank you as your article helped after a very difficult holiday with my 27 year old alcoholic son.

  • Myra

    I also have a 39 yr old alcoholic son who was in rehab for 24 weeks, he came out and within 6 weeks he has started drinking again. The difference with me this time is that with the help of Alanon, which I started over a year ago, I have been able to stay away from him and let him take responsibility for what he has done. One of his AA friends saw me yesterday and told me to leave him as he has to understand what his actions have done to him.

    He has cleared out his bank account and has no money, but if he comes to me I will have to be strong and say, “NO!” No more enabling for me as this is what I have done in the past and now see it was so wrong for him and for me. I can only trust that his higher power guides him back to AA and he takes control again of his life or he will not have one to care about.

    It if very difficult for a mother to have to carry this out, but I just know this is the right thing to do.
    So if anyone out there is in the same dilemma, please seek out Alanon as they are there for you and the program is for you, not the performing alcoholic.

  • I watched my mum and dad suffer with my beautiful brother John who died aged 40 due to alcoholism. My 18 year old nephew is also having problems and there is such good support out there, but he feels that he would be ridiculed to go there.

    I also went to Alanon when I visited my mum in Scotland and took mum. It really helped me and I shared it with John. My abiding memory of John is telling me he loved me, but knowing that he had given up. I am crying as I write this but I am so grateful to have this space to share. I also know that the divine energy surrounding us at this time can support us in letting go of the trend of addiction in our families.

    With much love and light always,

    Fiona

  • My heart goes out to you, Fiona.

  • Rita

    Hi. I can relate with the ABOVE. I am not sure if my son is addicted to alcohol, but when he does drink, which is at least 3-4 times a week, he tends to go OVERBOARD and when confronted at that time he defiantly walks out of the house and switches off his mobile. My heart is in my mouth wondering when he will return, so I have learned to ‘let it pass’ at that time and broach the topic the next day when he is sober.

    He is in denial and never admits to the addiction. I don’t know how to tackle this and help him out. He’s an intelligent man of 30 and enslaved to alcohol. I keep telling him, “Why be a slave when you can be a MASTER?”, but he emphasizes that he isn’t dependent on alcohol, but just has it to feel numb and forget certain problems.

    I am living on edge. Unless he ADMITS and wants to be helped, what do I do? I would rather he be at home drinking than outside because if in case there is an emergency, at least we are there for him and can do the needful. I feel helpless and hopeless. Any suggestions shall be truly appreciated.

    Thanks. God Bless.

  • Clair

    Your story was very touching and certainly hit home. I have 4 children, 2 of whom have an addiction issue with alcohol. They can’t just have a couple beers. A couple leads to 4, 6, 8. Then of course bad behavior, missed work, loose jobs, etc….. and the cycle repeats.

    When these 2 (identical twins) were 9, their father (a functioning alcoholic) committed suicide. We were in family therapy for some time. The older twin did go to rehab and half way through, my mom died and he came out as they were very close to her. Now it seems they both need help and I don’t know what to do. Both have been to counselors. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  • Amy

    My prayers are with all of you. May God bless you all in your darkest hours.

  • Lea

    Prayers to your family. I have brother that is going through his second relapse with alcohol. It happened 2 months ago (and 2 years ago), this time almost killed him. They diagnosed him with Wernick’s Kirkoff syndrome, but not sure that is correct because of how well he is doing now. The first episode caused him to lose his wife and job. This episode forced my parents to sell his house and move him to a physical therapy place closer to us.

    I am really scared because they are thinking of moving him in with them (we are not sure if he will be able to live alone yet). I would rather see him in assisted living for a while, he has already told a counselor friend of ours that he doesn’t like AA (only went 2 times the 1st episode) and that he can handle it himself! I am so afraid that he will take advantage of my parents and will go back to his old ways!! So sad!

  • Elizabeth

    My alcoholic son committed suicide in 1996 at age 36. He had lived with me for fifteen years and it was a nightmare. He was in and out of rehab. In the last year before his death, I had moved to another town, to stay with another son, hoping to make my alcoholic son take responsibility for is addiction. The Salvation Army took him in for nine months, kept him sober, but he never lost his need for alcohol. I returned home and took him to the local mental hospital, telling them my son was suicidal. I didn’t have money for his care. They wouldn’t admit him.

    On the night he died, he called me to tell me he had a bottle of an anti-psychotic given to him by a medical center that had taken him in overnight to sober him up. He had passed out and an ambulance had been called. He had the medication plus a bottle of vodka, and wanted to tell me goodbye. He had reached a point of no return. I understood what he was going to do, and I didn’t call anyone to stop him. I told him I loved him. Yes, I live with guilt. But, I still feel I did the best thing for him. It ended his pain.

    I pray that anyone posting here who is facing this kind of pain, will find the help and support they need.

  • Barbara

    It helps to read the comments of others going through this pain of having an alcoholic child. My 52 year old son just seemed to get it together, however after three months of sobriety, finding a job, an AA program, a place to live, his drivers license back, his SS card back, looking forward to finding a vehicle, having the support of family and friends, is drinking again to loose it all, again. Pray for us.

  • Patti

    My 56 yr old brother who is an active alcoholic and prescription drug abuser is living with our 84 year old parents. He has been living with them for 2 years since he suffered a stroke as a result of his lifestyle. Although my parents are aging they are of sound mind and choose not to force my brother to leave. My family is tragically divided. Some blame my parents for enabling him and being lost in codependency. Some blame my brother for taking advantage of them in their senior years. It is horrible to witness and seems impossible to remedy.

  • sharon

    Our 49 yr old son is an alcoholic. He is a good looking and wonderful person, if he is NOT drinking. If he is drinking he is belligerent , nasty, forceful and not a pleasure to have in our home. He is on probation until Nov. 2014. H has a so, so job in hospitality. He is good at what he does, but does not have enough hours. He is trying to start a business, but when he drinks, he has no motivation. He has no money, so how can we ask him to move? Do we have to pay for his apt? Where could we send him? We are in our 70′s and never expected this mess. I Wish there was someone we could talk to/see to get help.

  • Jan

    My 45 year old daughter is an alcoholic, and smokes pot daily and takes many different pills. In an effort to help her, I moved her closer to me, thinking having family close would help her. Instead, she got pregnant at 40, right after the move, and now has a four year old son. Because of my grandson I have helped her get apartments, paid rent and bills, and let her stay here intermittently when between homes. The last time she went in to one of her raging fights she picks, and I could take no more and asked her to leave my home. She left the next day and is staying with her child’s father. I believe she also has a narcissistic personality disorder, and I have reached the end of what I can stand, in terms of abuse and being used and taken advantage of. At this time she will not speak to me or allow me any contact with my grandson, who I am extremely close to and worried about. I am trying to grieve this loss, and at the same time feel responsible to help my grandson, even though it is out of my power to do anything at all. I am too old to do this anymore, and people just keep telling me, “you’re co-dependent,” even though the protection of a child is involved. How do I deal with this? Should I have kept allowing her to stay here along with my grandson, and keep getting screamed at, called names and treated horribly as I continue to help? This has been going on for years, but it is WAY worse now that an innocent child is involved.

  • Susan

    My 28-year-old niece is an alcoholic and now has to live in her car, because she drank in my home. My sister lives with us and my niece moved in, after her last binge, after going to detox and making an aftercare outpatient plan (with lots of promises to us), which she quickly didn’t follow. She started her road to sobriety less than a year ago and has had frequent lapses. This is so heartbreaking. She is a master at lying and making promises, which I think she probably believes at the time. Her words to me last night were a defiant, “I don’t need to go to a 30-day rehab,” to which I said, “no you need to go longer.” Alcoholics side track the entire family (those that know anyway and the stress of keeping it a secret makes it worse). We are hoping that our tough stance will get her to wake up. She has burned bridges and still seems to feel like the victim. I only hope and pray that she wakes up before something terrible happens to her. It’s a relief not to have her here and the anxiety of not knowing what we will find when we get home. I can’t love this away for her. She is a college educated, witty, amazing person and her life is going absolutely nowhere now. Stay strong, and know that you are not alone.

  • dan

    My wife and I have a 44 year old alcoholic daughter. She lives with her boyfriend. She constantly needs to “borrow” money. Very seldom pays any back. We feel we have helped her enough (through many years). the time has come to close the “bank”. So we have.

  • Kathleen

    The rawness of your story was so stabbing/shocking. I realized it was going to be my own or could be my own story . Over fifteen years of believing that one more time, yes this will be it, this time it will really be different..different for this bright, endearing, loved young man . It is not to be, never will be and the hopes for one’s child are gone. I break, I stall in anger and desire acceptance. It is all a process for am I not as ill as he? Thank you for sharing your acutely down-to-earth story, it somehow has made it all so much clearer (again). We do move forward after time ……and help.

  • My 27 yr old son has lost every job he has had, steals and lies. I think he believes his lies. He is an angry, hostile drunk. He has hit 2 of his live in girlfriends. One who has a restraining order against him. We will not let him live with us any more. He is handsome and gets girlfriends easily. He just got his girlfriend pregnant last year and has a 4 month old daughter. He still drinks and his girlfriend is starting to realize what a mess he is. Their wedding is this summer, but I doubt it will happen. They fight all the time when he drinks. Last night he was drunk and told me I will never see my grand daughter again because I was a terrible mom and he does not want her around me. This was after he and his girlfriend went out and drank and got into a fight where she jumped out of the car. I was babysitting the baby and told him he was drinking and could not take her in the car. I am afraid of him because I think he would hit me when he is drinking. This kind of drama happens all the time. I went to Alanon. It helped me know I did not cause it and can not cure it . I pray the rosary and hope for the best for my son and grandchild. Please pray for them all. We don’t know what to do.

  • My son is 26 and still lives with us. He will go a week or two without drinking, then he will go get a bottle of whiskey and drink it all in one afternoon. He is verbally and physically abusive to my husband and to me. Last night he held my husband down and choked him and held a knife to his throat. He works temp jobs and makes some money and then he’s off for a while. He has no health insurance. We want to kick him out, but we are so afraid of him dying. He has had pancreatitis, has asthma, and spasmodic dystonia, which requires Botox injections in his neck. We have to pay for his medical care out of our pockets. I wish I knew what to do. Most painful thing I’ve ever gone through!

  • Mary

    I don’t know what to do. I have a 33 year old son who is addicted to pain pills and alcohol. He only drinks when he takes the pills. I see him drifting away. He is unhappy in his marriage but loves his 3 children, loves his job as a detective, and I want him to stop destroying his life. I need to get him to realize it’s wrong before he can’t turn himself around. I pray every day for answers. What should I do, tell his boss? I don’t want him to hurt anyone or himself, what and how do I help him?!

  • Gerda

    I have a 33 year old daughter who has been a chronic alcoholic for 15 years. She used to live me me, but then got a housing commission flat. She has been to long term rehabs, also several times to private clinics. I had her locked up in a mental home twice to save herself. She has had two cardiac arrests and at her lowest point she drank metho. She also takes a huge amount of pills and still has an eating disorder. She is also a lovely, caring and beautiful person, which I have not seen for a while, as she continues to drink. What I find amazing is that none of the specialists in all those clinics have made any difference to my daughters life. I have been in touch with the AMA to find out if they can insert a probe into the brain to deactivate the sensation they get when drinking. No response so far. It’s terribly hard!

  • S Fann

    Next week my 44 year old daughter will be returning to my home after her third stay in a rehab facility.
    She is married, but she and her husband are separated, in part, due to her alcoholism. Basically, she was brought to my house and left here. I have not got much faith that this round of rehab is going to work any more than the other two did. Her father and I are divorced, both of us have recently lost our spouses. Her father says he is willing but reluctant for her to stay with him.

    When my daughter drinks, she shuts herself in her room, not eating and barely drinking any liquid except for vodka for several days at a time. During this time she becomes so dehydrated that she requires ER treatment to detox. Twice she has had seizures while trying to detox without medical assistance. (she is also epileptic and bi-polar). She does not need to live alone, but I am not really wanting her to stay here. Although I am 63 years old, I need to continue working for at least a couple of more years. I am at my wits ends and don’t know what to do. I am not sure I could bear to tell my daughter she is not welcome to stay here, and I know I could not physically kick her out of my home if she refuses to leave. I need a plan in place when she comes home and starts drinking again, which I am sure will happen. I don’t know what to do,

  • Beach girl

    I had an alcoholic father, and an alcoholic first husband. I watched my mother enable my father, I knew what not to do. When I married my first husband I did not know there was a problem, it became apparent after the the first year. I’ve been reading these posts and I can relate. I have a 26 year old alcoholic step-son. My current husband and I married when his son was 15 yrs old.

    He is a trained Chef, has lost more wonderful jobs than I can count, had two DUI’s, spent 9 months in jail on the second charge, has guilted his father and I out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, court costs, car insurance, car payments, health insurance, rent, doctor bills, rehab, dental costs, clothes and the list goes on and on. I love my husband, he is 60, and now dipping into his 401k to help him out.

    I won’t help him. I always tell him no when he asks for money or rides. I tell him, “I’m not the one who lost my license.” My husband gets upset when I do this. I have explained that by picking up after him constantly is just enabling him. We are not helping by doing for him, what he is entirely capable of doing for himself. At this point I am more concerned for my husband than our son! How do I convince him that he must stop supporting him? How do I get him to realize what I already know, that if we don’t stop now, it will never stop! He will always have an excuse for not being able to cope, deal or quit. It’s always someone else’s fault that he has lost his job, someone else’s fault he was misdiagnosed with ADHD when he was a kid, and given the wrong medication, and now he is suffering. GUILT! GUILT! GUILT! I can say no to our son, but how do I save my Husband???

  • This is so very frightening, but I know that in order for my adult son to begin to accept responsibility
    leaving him on his own must take place. He is addicted to alcohol, uses drugs when his spirit is down and gambles on ballgames. His charming personality and good looks make him an excellent waiter and bartender. However this is an occupational hazard that haunts him. He only works for a few months before quitting and taking a few weeks to find another job. He has been living with his sister and takes advantage of her generosity. I shudder to think of what will happen to him left to his own devices. Please pray for strength for his sister and his Mom to see this through.

  • Dear Dr. Neill Neill

    I’m a mother of a 24 year old alcoholic son. My son has been abusing alcohol since he was 16 years of age. My husband and I have gone through difficult experiences because of his heavy drinking habits and many a time the police had to intervene due to his aggressiveness towards us and to our property. Up to the time when he was not working, we used to give him pocket money, just enough to socialize with his friends and help him kick the habit. But unfortunately, he used to drink his friend’s drinks or he used to take advantage of their generosity.

    Last November his psychologist advised him that he needed rehabilitative therapy. The following month, knowing himself that he badly needed help, he started a program, but unfortunately stopped half way through it. When once we visited him he informed us that most of the fellows attending the program were relapsers, there for their second or third time. This might have induced lack of confidence in his rehabilitation. Soon after leaving the center he found a job and with money at hand has turned to heavy drinking again. On weekends he often sleeps at a friend’s house to avoid coming home drunk. However, he is very often brought home in a state of unconsciousness, to the extent that he is unable to realize the whereabouts of the house, his bedroom or bathroom, sufficient to say that on one occasion, not realizing where the bathroom is, which is right next to his room, he peed on the floor.

    I am sure you know the usual stories, tending to find excuses for drinking, first because of his studies, then because of his girlfriend, who cared for him dearly but whom he eventually left, then, although a graduate, because he could not find a job, and now? We have tried our best to understand his problem and to help him kick the habit.

    Unfortunately, like you said, objectivity often goes out the window when you’re dealing with your own son. However, we are now at a loss, our lives shattered, to say the least, and are trying to cope with the eventuality that he needs to leave the house. Any suggestions would be very much appreciated.

  • Mona

    I have a 48 year old daughter that has drank and done drugs since she was 14. I realize I have always enabled her. Tonight I tried to talk to her because she and her ex are making their oldest sons life hell! I am very close to him and worry about him health wise from dealing wit 2 alcoholic/drug parents. I cannot talk to her and made the big decision that I am done! I love her, but do not want to deal with her any longer. Her younger sister committed suicide which nearly made me want to end my life. Her father, who drinks, but says not a problem because he’s a corporate retiree and very narcissistic, and his wife say my child would be alive if I hadn’t caused her death! Dr. Gave her 5 anti-depressants and destroyed her brain stem! She told me I’ve always been negative and hard to get along with. I made the big decision tonight that I love her but am totally done. My heart has a peace that haven’t had for a long long time. So I pray that you will find your peace also.

  • To all of you who have had to walk away, I empathize. My heart knows your pain. My husband and I had to do this just 6 weeks ago. This was not out of emotion or anger. This came after 20 years of being on a roller coaster of dealing with, trying to help in every way humanly possible our now 44 year. old son. I am talking about an incredibly brilliant, handsome, educated, had all that life could offer, Christian man. One who was raised with good morals and ethics and no access to alcohol at home. My husband, being a pharmacist, always taught our children the dangers and consequences of chemical addictions. He chose his own path around age 22. It would burn up your computer for me to list all of the wonderful jobs my son has lost, all of the hospitals he has been in to detox, jails from DUI, DWI, and PI’s. All of the many rehabs, mens shelters and ministry recovery programs. He has lost 3 marriages and his beautiful daughter, now 15. Our son can get any jobs he applies for because to look at him or talk to him you would never know he is an alcoholic. His ability to con and manipulate amazes all. If his mouth is moving he is usually lying. He gives our phone number at hospitals and used to our address and all bills were sent to us. We did not pay them. The tax payers did, you and us. Now he puts his aunts address down. She has let him con her into living with her 3 times and finally said, “no more.”

    Recently, after his having his best job in years, working at an amazing company where he had huge responsibilities and dressed in a suit and tie everyday and felt so good about himself, he had finally mended relationships with his daughter and his sister. We got him a used car to go back and forth to work (he lived at a recovery house) he CHOSE to drink. You know the rest. He was fired, ended up in hospital, lost his place to live ended up with p.i and his car impounded and now lives at Salvation Army. After 20 years of this repeated behavior, my husband, our entire family and his daughter have made our CHOICE to stop the madness for ourselves. We told him we are finished. He always finds someone to rescue him through his charm and presenting himself as this poor victim that everyone has done wrong. We finally woke up and decided he will probably live his life out doing this, but we don’t have to. It has damaged us financially and my health, but no more. We have an incredible 40 year old daughter and son in law and 5 amazing granddaughters and we plan to focus on all of us from here on out. I know this sounds cruel and how could parents do this, but we have to even though it hurts like the dickens. I have cried several times writing this, for him and us and for hope and dreams lost. Sometimes they never change, but that doesn’t mean we have to stay the same.

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