In the 1980’s, the ACOA (Adult Children OF Alcoholics) movement opened an honest dialogue of how parental addiction impacted 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 more 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 child 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 illness.)

This is not as easy road for parents- they are blindsided and shocked; often they had “no idea.” The mothers of the ACWA’s who come into my office are ashamed, frightened, confused, hurt and feel betrayed by their child’s hidden life. The impact is often beyond emotional: many ACWA’s find themselves struggling financially to maintain their habit and it is from their parents they are mostly likely to steal money, prescription drugs, alcohol or jewelry. While ACOA’s feel helpless and powerless in their alcoholic family; the parents of an ACWA are stunned to find they are equally helpless; a child over eighteen is legally an adult, therefore parents find they have very little recourse to intervene.

Regardless of the diagnosis; be it addiction, alcoholism or mental illness, these families 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. The only source of information is usually from the ACWA, who, at best, is an unreliable resource. ACWA’s use denial and minimization to cope with their own shame. They lie about the severity of the situation and the consequences. 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 behaviors only result in their feeling “out of control” and creating 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. No one wants to see a loved ones addiction destroy their lives. Often, based 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 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. They can get so involved in blaming each other, that the ACWA issues aren’t really addressed. Their approaches can be so diametrically opposed that they undermine each other, bicker constantly and, whether  married or divorced,  a slow chasm of resentment and distrust grows between the parents. Widows and single moms feel bereft and overwhelmed having to deal with this issue on their own.
  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.
  1. Moms also struggle in their peer groups; I have heard it from both friends and clients; they feel no one will understand. In hushed and apologetic voices they “confess” to me what feels like their failure, their shame, their cross to bear. They sometimes isolate from friends because hearing other women speak about their children’s successes leaves the mother of an ACWA feeling sad and ashamed. “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, 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 does not discuss her concerns outside of therapy. I have heard this story or variations of it over the last months. To address these concerns, in September, I will begin a Mothers of ACWA Group which will provide the opportunity to share, support and affirm each other’s journey in a safe, confidential setting. If you are in 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. Regardless of whether your ACWA pursues 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 life becomes equally unmanageable.

Please reach out. A wise slogan of AA is, “We are only as sick as our secrets.”





© 2016 Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC is a psychotherapist in private practice in Farmington, CT since 1986. She has a special interest in working with people dealing with life transitions. She is the author of the award winning From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce which is available in Kindle format for $9.99 as well as in paperback. She has been running women’s groups since 1986  and finds the group experience to be cathartic and powerful for all involved.



  1. Wendy on the 12. Jul, 2016 remarked #

    Opioid addiction is sad, scary, and ever-increasing. An acquaintance’s son recently passed away due to a heroin overdose. In a courageous act, the father included this fact in his son’s obituary in the hopes of shedding light on this subject. On his Facebook page, the father posted a poem that his son had written while in rehab. The poem was about the pull of heroin. It was heart-wrenching.

    For families who are dealing with opioid addiction, there is an outstanding middle-grade novel called, “The Seventh Wish” by Kate Messner. She tells the story of a college student’s addiction and the impact on the family through the lens of a middle-school girl.

    It might help a family start a dialogue about this topic. Check it out first, Donna, and see what you think.

    • Donna Ferber on the 12. Jul, 2016 remarked #

      So sad. One of the problems in the culture is that it is still a “courageous” act to mention addiction. Only when we can de-stigmatize addiction and recognize it for what it is…an illness- can we really begin to address this epidemic in a meaningful way. Your friends chose to move the dialogue forward in a positive way. I am so sorry for their loss and I applaud their choice to be honest. Secrets and shame only insulates the problem and maintains the status quo.

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