Substance Use Disorders & PARENTS: Paths to Change

Written by: Deb Owens, Licensed Professional Counselor

“It’s a hero’s journey when your life and relationships are impacted by a child’s substance use disorder. And impacted they are. In ways that are unimaginable A roller coaster of emotions.”  Deb Owens

Parents long for a healthy loving relationship with their child. It’s so hard to show compassion and support when alcohol or drug addiction sets off alarm bells in your head.

Navigation requires a tool set parents don’t yet have.

Just like with Depression or weight issues, what works best is often influenced by what that person is willing and open and committed to implement. One is not “better”, or more worthy, or “real” recovery. Lives are at stake. A little humility from my fellow professionals is in order. Criticizing medicated assisted treatment (MAT), psychotherapy, or anonymous or 12 step programs makes no sense to me.

What helps one family or individual may be less useful for others. What feels right one year may be different than what’s working at a later or earlier point in the journey toward health and recovery.

Various forms of psychotherapy, self-help, medications, on-line support, yoga, exercise, all can be helpful at different points and often in combination with other things. If anyone tells you only one approach works or always is best, or suggests you totally disregard certain tools or resources based on their own values—well, that’s not been my experience.

Whatever is useful or helpful at any point in the process should be considered. Withholding any options because of a therapist’s bias or misunderstanding is unethical and dangerous.

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

Approaches focusing on Compassion, Understanding, and Support work better for many families.

In my experience as a therapist who specializes in working with parents impacted by substance use or addiction, I find that a variety of strategies and resources are necessary.

Set backs go with the territory and can be a major part of growth. Still, I get it, the anxiety can be overwhelming. Marital conflict is common. Siblings are often affected and may sometimes feel their fears and opinions are ignored. Focusing on work or other relationships seems impossible.

Fears dominate a parent’s thoughts.

Desperate yet brave, caring, resilient parents struggle to figure this out. Sometimes they feel the treatment system exploits, fails, or ignores them.

As a Licensed Counselor in private practice, or on-line, I work with loving parents of young adults concerned about their child’s use of alcohol or drugs. I also work with parents and couples when their child is getting positive traction, in recovery, or making progress. It’s critical for the family to heal to be able to move forward.

It’s an honor to work with these families who courageously fight for health, recovery, and hope


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. Parents are trying to do everything they can to help and keep their family safe.

Science and experience tells us that many children respond better to more supportive approaches.

CRAFT is an approach that is focused on learning specific skills to help a child or partner with substance use problems. CRAFT offers 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.

Check it out. Digest it. Then get support to implement part or all of their suggestions if it feels right and works for you.


It can feel so, so isolated. Running into other parents or friends who don’t have this challenge sets off feelings of dread. Avoidance becomes a frequent tactic.

Please get help for yourself. No matter what stage you are in. Research and experience tells us that a parent seeking support or therapy for themselves makes a huge difference in outcomes for both the person with a substance use disorder and the family system.

They are dozens of Free Parent Groups that offer a place to honestly share and learn new tools. These groups are not therapy. You can attend and not say a word if you are uncomfortable sharing in a group. Most take about an hour of your time.

A quality professional counseling process can assist you to build on your strengths and restore the positive connections in your relationships. Parent Groups and Counseling can be helpful and empowering.

The child with a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) may be more sensitive to tension and other issues in the family. Really. They may be more affected by their parent’s experiences, relationship challenges, and mood than is recognized.

Yes, it seems they don’t care. But sometimes they care a lot more than we think. So resolving your own personal, emotional health, family of origin, or relationship issues and getting unstuck is critical.

When there are two or more parental figures getting on the same pg. is essential. Marriage or couples counseling may be necessary.

Getting help for yourself is often ONE THING YOU CAN DO to influence the trajectory of your child’s and your family’s health and recovery.

In my own counseling practice in Chestnut Hill and Montgomery County, PA, I’ve see the frustration but HOPE and ACTION can and does over ride it.

Parents “push” their child to seek treatment yet seem to not recognize that doing it themselves concretely demonstrates commitment and willingness to change even once your child is on a road to “recovery” or is changing in a positive direction.

Modeling that ability to seek and benefit from help gets noticed. It makes a huge difference.


Deb Owens, Licensed Professional Counselor, counsels and coaches parents, adults, and couples on-line, by phone, and F2F in Chestnut Hill, PA and Montgomery County, PA. Her counseling specialties include couples and marriage counseling, midlife transitions, and those impacted by their own or loved one’s alcohol or drug use including parents and ACOAs and those in recovery.