Alcohol/Drugs: Parent Enabling & Empathy


By: Deb Owens


As a Licensed Professional Counselor and Certified Alcohol & Drug Counselor, I hear a lot about the constant worrying.

Parents trying to figure out how to help. They long for a healthy loving relationship with their child. It can be a struggle to show compassion and support when a potential addiction feels like a wedge in the family dynamics.

Parents of young adults struggling with a substance use disorder fear they may be “enabling”. They don’t want to hinder more positive behavior but feel pulled to keep consequences at bay. Risks are high.

It’s exhausting.

The anxiety can be relentless.

In some cases these drug or alcohol related behaviors occur along with other mental heath issues like Anxiety, Depression, or ADHD.

Parent can’t sleep. Focusing on work or other relationships seems impossible.

Marital conflict is common. Siblings suffer.

There’s intense sadness even depression. Irritability and fear dominate your thoughts. It can feel so, so alone.

Some parents were raised with an addicted or alcoholic mother or fatheror are in their own recovery so a return of substance issue or addiction into the family system may trigger these memories too.

The road is jagged and full of potholes. Navigation requires a tool set parents don’t yet have.

In my counseling office I work with many brave parents of young adults concerned about their child’s use of alcohol or drugs. It’s an honor to work with families courageously fighting for health, recovery, and hope.

Enabling: Shades of Grey

I’m not a huge fan of labeling behaviors as enabling. I have mixed feelings about the terms codependent and codependency as well. Sometimes the term enabling can be misused. Calling your natural reactions to protect your child enabling can feel critical of the family member with a son or daughter with an alcohol or drug problem currently identified in the counseling profession as substance use disorders.

Especially since parents are often trying to do everything they can to help.

There can be a middle ground where one can offer loving support, compassion, and connection and still make better choices as far as what response works best for a given family. According to Dr. Joel Young, author of “When Your Adult Child Breaks Your Heart”:

“When your child was born, you likely vowed that you’d do anything to keep him safe. A parent’s deeply ingrained protective instincts can work against her when a child suffers from mental illness or substance abuse problems, and helping can easily cross the line into enabling.

The line between enabling and helping is a blurry one, and parent/child relationships are often complicated and highly emotional.

Every parent who struggles with a teen or young adult child makes a few mistakes along the way, so there’s no need to beat yourself up if you find you’re engaged in enabling behavior. Instead, focus on learning from the past and consistently working toward a healthier, more balanced, and loving relationship with your child.”

Deb’s Suggestions

Your own self care is essential. Please get help for yourself even if your teen or adult child is not ready to do so.

Research demonstrates that a family members involvement in counseling and support groups, even if the family member with a potential substance use disorder is not yet ready to accept help, correlates with a higher success rate for both the person directly struggling with alcohol and/or drugs or an addiction as well as the entire family system.

You can access tools such as:

  • CRAFT an evidence based approach that is focused on learning specific skills to help a child or partner with substance use problems. It is a compassionate and effective approach outlined through videos and workbooks on the website for The Center for Motivation and Change in NYC. Use link above to check out their free 20 minute Guide for Parents. Good stuff.

  • Parent support groups (free) on the link below are independent and run by parents. They are open to any parent worried about a child’s addiction, alcohol, or substance use. Located across several states and growing. These parent groups sometimes have behavioral health, addiction, or family therapy professionals present at some of the meetings. Occasionally, a child of a parent group member may attend as a guest to share their recovery journey. Many times the child in recovery speaks along with their parent describing how they were able to repair and strengthen relationships often eroded and traumatized by the addiction. The main focus is on parents supporting other parents at whatever point they are in the discovery, addiction, or recovery process. Many parents who are now seeing their children succeed and their family relationships heal participate even years later to inspire hope. They are committed to helping other parents who are at an earlier point in the process. Check Caron’s website for details and locations.

  • One of their newer vibrant parent support groups (free) for parents of teens and adults with any type of mental health issue, including substance use disorders, is held at the New Leaf Club in Rosemont on the Main Line in Montgomery County, PA.

  • Free self help groups like Nar-Anon and Al-Anon. Online and live meetings are available across the U.S. and the world. Parent and family members who have “been there” share their “experience, strength and hope”. Check Naranon or Alanon websites for locations of live and online meetings. These one hr. meetings are not therapy.

  • These groups help parents feel less alone. It can feel so isolating when you are in this situation. The weight of the “secret” can feel un bearable. You don’t need to speak or participate unless you wish to do so. Parent groups can be empowering. Yes, really. Many families who are now in a better place continue to attend to share their and ups and downs with parents who are still struggling.  About half of the attendees are fathers.

  • Although these parent groups are geared toward alcohol and drug problems, many people who misuse alcohol or drugs may also experience other mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, disordered eating, ADD, trauma, etc.

I get a good deal of push back when I suggest my parent counseling clients consider checking out one of these groups.

There’s a lot of anxiety about attending.  I try and accept my counseling or coaching clients where they are and understand this is not something all are ready to try.

I nudge a little anyway.


Because I get incredibly positive feedback from those who get past that initial reluctance.

They are relieved to interact with other parents from decent, loving, and resilient families who are struggling with a child with an addiction or potential substance use disorder and possible mental health issues like depression and anxiety too.

Parents are surprised to see how much the process can give them direction.

Hearing from others who have gone through this in the past as well as from those brave parents currently trying to figure this out gives them clarity. They gradually get a better perspective on what’s working and what’s making things stay stuck in negative patterns. They learn about what approaches might work for them or their family member with a drinking or drug problem or addiction.

Yet so many parents put themselves last. They do not follow through on the help they need and deserve.

These same parents would do back flips to help their child yet somehow following through with their own counseling or therapy process, even though it’s recommended by the experts, is scary.

Perhaps they fear being blamed.

That’s not what happens.

Counseling can be helpful and empowering. A quality counseling process can assist you to build strength and restore the positive connections in your relationships.

Many Paths to Change with Alcohol, Drugs, and Family Relationships

There are many paths to change. It’s never a one size fits all scenario when it comes to changing addiction related behaviors. What works for one family or individual may not work for others.

Take in as much information as you can. Be open minded. Then trust your ability to sift through the options.

In my experience as a therapist who specializes in working with families effected by substance use I find that a variety of strategies and resources are necessary.

It can be a fluid process.

Some roads are bumpier than others.

In my own counseling practice in Chestnut Hill and Lower Gwynedd, PA, I’ve learned that our helicopter generation of parents tries so hard to do the right thing. It’s frustrating when such an approach seems to backfire with certain children.

Caring, compassion, and a positive connection are needed for the young person but parents also need support, tools, and guidance too.

Take Action

You can learn to better manage the anxiety and uncertainty that continues even if your child is on a road to “recovery” or is changing in a positive direction.

Therapists who specialize in counseling parents worried about substance use or addiction are available to consult with you and provide the support and direction you need. If I’m not the right fit for you I can recommend local counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists who specialize in this area both for parents and the teen or young adult with an alcohol or drug problem, addiction, or substance use disorder.

Check out any of the groups and on-line tools mentioned in the bullets.

Don’t wait until it worsens.

There is hope and help.

Get it.


Deb Owens, Licensed Professional Counselor, Advanced Alcohol & Drug Counselor, counsels parents, adults, and couples in Chestnut Hill, PA and Montgomery County, PA near Lafayette Hill, Blue Bell, Fort Washington, and Huntingdon Valley, PA.    Her counseling specialties include anxiety, marriage counseling, midlife transitions, and those effected by their own or loved one’s alcohol or drug use including parents and ACOAs., 215-802-6521