My parents are addicts: What can I do?

Living with an addict can feel like living in a tiny, dark, airless box. How do you escape, how do you breathe, how do you live your life? Here, we provide some tools that let you feel a full range of emotions and learn to take care of yourself.

minute read

Stuck with addiction

Being a teenager is hard, no matter what the circumstances in your life. You are stuck right in the middle of childhood and adulthood trying to navigate the push and pull of growing up and making your own decisions with needing guidance, care and love. Even in “normal” families this time is enormously challenging as parents are learning when to let go and how much they need to hold on. How much more difficult is life when your parents, one or both, have a problem with addiction and can’t be there when you need them the most!

What is addiction?

Why do parents become addicted to drugs or alcohol?  Being an addict means that you are physically or mentally dependent on a substance. Being dependent on something means that one thing is determined by something else. Getting up in the morning is determined by how much you had to drink last night. Making dinner is determined by whether or not there is money for food after buying more drugs. Just being aware of what is going on, being able to pay attention to the people around you is determined by whatever substance may be in your system!When you live with an addict your life is not determined by the regular things we expect to impact our day, life is impacted in every way by the drugs, alcohol or behavior that our loved one is dependent on.

When I was a teen growing up in an addicted home I would fantasize about someday being a parent who would be available to listen to my children when they were having a bad day. I imagined listening, giving them a hug, telling them that being a teen was so hard, and that things would get better. I imagined what it would be like to give someone what I desperately wanted from my own parents without ever really understanding why they couldn’t be there for me.


The hardest part of living in an addicted home as a child, and there are a lot of hard parts, is how utterly and totally powerless it feels. Until you are an adult you are not in control of your own life in many ways, and the person who is supposed to be taking care of you frequently just can’t. Often it feels like they just won’t or they don’t want to, and that can be even more difficult to understand and accept.

Letting yourself feel

Letting yourself feel sad for not receiving the love, care and support you deserve is important: it is the first part of learning how to take care of yourself emotionally. It is equally important to acknowledge all the other emotions that go along with living with addiction: anger, frustration, resignation, grief, and on and on. You need to feel because feeling something, and accepting the emotions you have is about taking care of yourself and creating the room to let someone else provide care that the addict cannot give.

Understanding addiction can be impossible

You probably won’t ever understand why someone is an addict, or why relapses occur. I don’t understand it myself. I still have days, many days in fact where I don’t understand why my parents wouldn’t rather be sober and havingreal relationships than sitting at home high and/or drunk. It is something that is simply not understandable. It just doesn’t make sense, it is frustrating, and that probably won’t ever change. But acknowledging that confusion, accepting the difficulty in some way let’s me know that what I feel is okay, is real, and helps me to make choices that are proactively caring for myself.

Addiction is horrible. That is a fact and doesn’t really need more of an explanation. When you are stuck living with an addict there are a lot of things in your life that really suck because of that dependence. You cannot make the addict well, just like you did not make the addict sick. What you can do, all you can do is take care of yourself, give yourself room to feel what you feel and know that someone, somewhere loves you!

An exercise for dealing with someone else’s addiction

Here’s a brief exercise for coping with someone else’s addiction and learning how to feel your feelings: spend 5 minutes everyday writing down what you feel, without judgment or explanation. If you don’t have 5 minutes, take 2 minutes. If you don’t like to write then draw, if you don’t like to draw use color to represent what you feel. Do this every day for 45 days, if you miss a day that’s okay but start over from 1 and work to get to 45 consecutive days!

Also, feel free to leave your questions, comments or experiences here. We’ll do our best to respond to you personally and promptly.

About the author
Maggie Harmon is a writer, speaker, leadership coach and business consultant who approaches every engagement through a holistic understanding of the situation. Her consulting practice focuses on deeply understanding who or what you are and what you want to achieve, and from there helping to create a plan, develop tools, and access resources that let you get where it is you want to go, and do what you do, better! You can connect with her here or via Maggie's Blog.
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