Adult Children with Addiction, Alcoholism or Mental Illness (ACWA)

In the 1980’s, we began a national discussion about growing up with an alcoholic parent. The ACOA (Adult Children OF Alcoholics) movement opened an honest dialogue of the hurts and issues of how addiction impacted the children.  Fueled by the work of John Bradshaw and Claudia Black, the conversation expanded to include drug addiction and mental illness. The term “Dysfunctional Family” gave a collective voice to adult children who once lived with the secrecy and shame of “growing up alcoholic.”

Currently, the rampant epidemic of opioid addiction has resulted in an upswing of families caught in the web of addiction; this time, it is the parents who are in crisis as they struggle with the reality of an adult children wrestling with addiction, alcoholism or mental illness.  Change “of” to “with” and we have an entirely new population devastated by a loved one’s addiction; Adult Children WITH Alcohol( or drugs, or mental health.)

It is not as easy for parents who find themselves blindsided, betrayed and shocked; often they had “no idea.” The mothers of the ACWA’s who come into my office feel ashamed, frightened, confused, hurt and often feel betrayed. Certainly by their child’s hidden life, but in a more practical way as well: many ACWA’s find themselves financially struggling to maintain their habit and it is from their parents they are mostly likely to steal money, prescription drugs, alcohol or jewelry to pawn. And while ACOA’s felt helpless as minors to intervene of their parent’s behalf; the parents of an ACWA are shocked to find they are equally helpless; a child over twenty-one is legally an adult and therefore parents find they have very little recourse to intervene.

Regardless of the diagnosis; be it addiction, alcohol or mental illness, these families of ACWA’s share a number of issues.

  1. Due to HIPPA laws, they do not have access to the medical records of their adult children; nor can they MAKE their child seek help. Since the only source of information about treatment comes from the ACWA, the parent experiences considerable anxiety and distrust; ACWA’s are often in denial and use minimization and lying to cope with their own shame. Many parents become panicky and often find themselves snooping and even stalking; going through their adult child’s checkbook, calling their friends, searching their apartments. While the parent is attempting to quell their anxiety and “monitor the situation”, these actions only result in their feeling badly about their own behaviors and create larger chasms in the relationship with the struggling adult child.


  1. When is it help, when is it enabling? No one wants to see a loved one struggling financially or living on the street. Often, on promises they long to believe, parents give/lend money to the adult children only to find that money didn’t go to rent or groceries, but to the local package store or drug dealer. Boundary setting with an ACWA is a day to day struggle for every loving parent.


  1. Parents don’t always agree on how to parent/”help” their ACWA. In fact, they rarely do. One party seems more likely to get very angry and see addiction as a sign of weakness, while the other feels “bad” or responsible and want to protect. Sometimes one denies there is any problem while the other goes into panic mode. Then they get so involved in blaming each other, the ACWA issues aren’t really addressed. Widow’s feel bereft of having to deal with this issue alone, while those dealing with another parent often find their approaches so diametrically opposed that they undermine each other, bicker constantly and a slow chasm of resentment and distrust grows between the parents, whether divorced or married.


  1. Siblings often feel resentful; they are the child doing it “right” and often get overlooked as the ACWA’s issues seems to suck up all the oxygen in the room as the parents become obsessed with this crisis and bickering about it.


  1. These moms struggle in their peer groups; I have heard it from both friends who find themselves dealing with this struggle as well as clients; they feel no one will understand. In hushed, apologetic voices they “confess” what feels like their failure, their shame, their cross to bear. They often begin isolating from friends as hearing other women speak about their children’s successes leaves the mother of an ACWA feeling sad and alienated. “My son just got arrested for dealing drugs” is a conversation stopper. They worry they will be judged; they worry they are violating their child’s privacy. They worry this will be seen as a parental failing, rather than what it really is-an Illness.

Recently, as I was speaking with a client who is struggling with her ACWA. Due of the fear of being judged or ostracized or alienating the ACWA, she has no one with whom to speak about this outside of therapy. There is a “code of silence” surrounding this issue.

I have heard this story or variations of it over the last months and so in September, I will begin a mothers group to dress just these issues. If you are within driving distance to Farmington, CT and are struggling with an ACWA or know someone who is, please take a look on the services page or call me for more information, 860-678-8855.

If you are a reader in another part of the country, I urge you to contact a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor or rehab center in your area about starting a support group. Last but not least try Al-anon, a non-profit group for people who struggle with the addiction of a loved one. These groups are free, confidential and can be extremely helpful.

Addiction is referred to as a family disease for a reason- the addiction impacts every member of the family on many levels. Even if your ACWA refuses treatment, you need help. Many people don’t realize that while the addict is addicted to a substance, the parent of the addict can get addicted to trying to fix the situation and in doing so, their own lives become equally unmanageable.

One of the wise AA mantras is ,” You are only as sick as your secrets. “