According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over 14 million adults have alcohol use disorder (AUD), and 10% of U.S. children live with a parent with alcohol problems. While many resources exist on how to help a loved one receive clinical help, finding ways to repair and maintain interpersonal relationships with an alcoholic parent can be challenging and may at times feel impossible.
As an adult with an alcoholic parent, I have found myself playing many roles. One day I am a caregiver, checking in on my parent’s health and wellbeing. The next I am a therapist, taking in my parent’s deepest emotions and attempting to provide relief. Sometimes I am also an emergency responder, recognizing the risks for self-harm and proceeding to call 9-1-1. Each day can feel unpredictable and each step in the right direction has been coupled with an intense fear of relapse.
Despite the complexities of this relationship, I have recognized the need to set boundaries with my alcoholic parent. Creating a set of guidelines has allowed me the freedom to live my life fully, while also providing support to my parent in a healthy and sustainable way.
Break the Pattern
You can make small changes to end toxic cycles.
Relationship patterns are developed over time and require two people to participate. Recognizing the impact my actions and words had and how they contributed to the dynamic that was no longer serving me helped to pinpoint sources of distress and unhappiness. While I couldn’t change my relationship with my parent overnight, I could commit to a set of small changes to break the pattern. For example, rather than anxiously calling my parent each day for a status report, I could call once a week, providing both of us space to lead our separate lives. Similarly, this change allowed me to build trust with them over time and relinquish pressure I felt to act as a caregiver.
Communicate your needs
You can become an effective communicator, even if your parent is not.
Given our parents have known us quite literally our whole lives, we sometimes think they can read our minds. Yet just like any relationship, clear communication is often needed. Originally, I was happy to listen and cater to my parent’s emotional needs; I felt needed. Over time, it slowly took a toll on my own mental health and wellbeing. Learning to effectively express my emotions to my parent through “I statements” enabled us to build respect for one another and put limits on our conversation length and depth.
Express empathy and patience
You can choose how you respond to others and yourself.
It’s a profound moment in a child’s life when they realize their parent is also human.
While I am not sure what it would feel like to be struggling myself with AUD, I can imagine the fear, anger and confusion my parent feels. I can imagine it would feel debilitating and isolating. I remind my parent that their feelings are allowed and valid as they express them. I encourage them to dig into their emotions by asking questions and actively listening as they speak. I try to remain patient in their road to recovery, knowing it is a marathon not a sprint. Lastly, I reassure them of my love and support, which remain unconditional.
Likewise, having an alcoholic parent has evoked a number of negative emotions within myself, including fear, neglect, anger and resentment. I continually try to exercise patience with myself, recognizing my own emotions are also valid.
Know what’s in your control
You parent’s behavior is not your responsibility nor is it a reflection of your efforts to help them.
As the tables turned and I played more of a caregiver role in my parent’s life, it gave me a greater sense of responsibility over their choices. Despite my best efforts to persuade them to receive treatment, to comply with existing treatment or to make better lifestyle choices, there were times when I was inevitably let down. It took time to see that I am only one person, and I cannot control my parent or their illness. Remembering this each day is an exercise in humility and allows me to be present and mindful in moments of my own life
Ask for help
You are not in this alone.
The pressure from parents with AUD can be insurmountable. The fear and stigma associated with the condition can make it even more difficult to reach out for help on your family member’s behalf. Create a list of family members or friends you can turn to in order to help your parent. I have found that delegating responsibility and facilitating connections for my parent has lessened the responsibility I feel and allowed them to form additional, meaningful relationships. Similarly, know what clinical resources exist in your area for your parent to access. Work with other loved ones to research and discuss options.
Children who have grown up with an alcoholic parent may struggle with depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions and find it difficult to form other intimate interpersonal relationships. It is okay to seek treatment for yourself in whatever form you may need. For me, this is weekly therapy, having an exercise routine, and spending quality time with my close friends and partner. I prioritize these three areas of my life, knowing they are crucial to my emotional and physical well being. Allowing myself to lean on those close to me without shame or guilt has strengthened my support system and allowed us to dive into new levels of respect and understanding.