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Navigating the Holidays When Your Adult Child Has Substance Issues

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Editor’s note: The names of the parent and the son were changed at their request to protect their identity and privacy.

Dec. 28, 2022 — Lawrence McCarthy, a Texas-based doctor, is looking forward to seeing his 26-year-old son, Sam, during the holidays. Sam, who’s been living in another state and hasn’t been home for many months, has an alcohol use disorder and has also been a frequent user of marijuana. 

McCarthy, who asked that his real name not be used for this article, says that he looks forward to seeing his son, but he has a bottom line. 

“I’d prefer for him to be working his own recovery program and not using. I haven’t seen him for a long time, and I don’t know if he’s still committed to his recovery. But even if he’s using, I’m still willing to see him — as long as he doesn’t use at my house and he’s sober when he’s here.”

McCarthy arrived at this approach after extensive work in a parent recovery group, which not only gave him support but also helped him develop and adhere to boundaries. 

“I don’t know how I would have navigated this situation without the group,” he says. 

Unfortunately, many parents are navigating this difficult situation alone. A new online platform, Recovery Education and Applied Learning (REAL), has been launched to address the needs of these parents. 

“We’re a comprehensive, evidence-based online educational platform that includes a course and resources as well as access to a community where other parents of youngsters with substance abuse issues are asking the same questions,” says REAL’s Chief Medical Officer Eric Collins, MD. 

New Resource

Collins joined REAL because he knew parents needed “access to more information, support, and community as they help their adolescent and young adult child work toward recovery.”

Laurie Dhue, the chief brand officer of REAL, has been in recovery, sober from alcohol and drugs, for 16 years. Prior to her work in the recovery field, Dhue was an award-winning national news anchor who hosted shows on three major cable news networks.

Dhue was still a national news anchor when it became known that she had a substance use problem. 

“The world found out that I had an issue with alcohol and drugs and my anonymity was broken publicly,” she reports. “I thought my life was over and at first; I felt stigma and shame. But telling my story publicly was what eventually led me to leaving the news business and getting into the recovery community full-time and led me to join REAL.”

 Dhue, who is almost 54, says her substance use started in college. 

“I drank alcoholically and abused cocaine until age 37,” she says. “My drinking and drugging got worse after I left college and I drank all the time, not only during the holidays.”

In those days, “there were few resources and no internet. Parents weren’t as aware back then as they are now. But even now, parents are often in the dark and feel isolated and stigmatized. I’m sure this resource could have been very helpful to my parents if such a thing had existed.”

You Are Not Alone

The REAL platform consists of four components:

  • An 18-module course that provides education about aspects of parenting, addiction, and navigating the issues that arise
  • A library of resources that is continually updated and used in the coursework
  • A calendar of events – live weekly workshops in which parents can talk to experts, who provide answers to their questions
  • Community, which enables participants to connect with others in similar situations.

Dhue entered a 12-step sober community, Alcoholics Anonymous. 

“It saved my life. Parents will find comfort on our platform, realizing they’re not the only ones going through this, and find connection and community,” she says. 

The approaches presented on their platform are “consistent and appropriate, and anyone in the 12-step world would appreciate and recognize them,” Collins says. But the platform also uses other approaches that appeal to people who don’t necessary resonate with the 12-step approach, including evidence-based psychotherapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

The comprehensive platform also offers information about medications to reduce risk of overdose and to reverse overdoses. 

Pre-Holiday Conversations

“The holidays are a festive time. For people with substance use disorders, holidays can be an excuse to drink and use drugs,” Collins says. Kids coming home from college may continue their heavy alcohol or drug use, while those returning from rehab centers may meet up with former “drinking buddies.”

“Communicate your values and engage in problem solving before the holidays start, since one ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he advises parents. Initiating these conversations can be challenging, but “children want those conversations, even if they act like they don’t want them.” 

The REAL course encourages parents “to rehearse the conversations with their partners before planning to have a conversation with their kids. You get better at doing things the more times you practice.” It’s a “complex process,” he warns, and kids “might get angry.” But practicing the conversations allows you to deal with their anger as well.

Setting Boundaries

McCarthy says that effective conversations come best from parents with clear boundaries. 

“Do I want to see my son? If so, do I have healthy boundaries to protect me? Am I working a program of recovery to heal my own issues and work with any difficulties that may arise before and during his visit? Do I have a power outside myself to reach out to, and am I part of a group of other parents in similar situations who are finding mental, emotional, and spiritual healing through a 12-step program like Al-Anon?”

If the answer to these questions is “yes,” that doesn’t mean it will be easy, but it’s much easier. 

“I can communicate to my son that I would really like him to come over but that he needs to be sober, respectful, and honest when he’s here,” McCarthy says. 

Boosting Your Child’s Chances of Sobriety

One question that has come up among the families in McCarthy’s recovery group is whether alcohol should be served during the holidays if the recovering child is visiting, or if there should even be alcohol in the house.

“Every family is different,” he observes. “But the most nurturing and supportive thing that I’ve found is not to have alcohol in the house when someone with substance use issues is coming over.”

This may be difficult to accomplish, especially if other guests want to bring alcohol to your meals and also involves setting boundaries. 

“Tell your guests you have an alcohol-free home and they need to respect that.”

He advises avoiding potentially “triggering topics of conversation during family get-togethers, like politics or religion, or triggering topics specific to your family that might evoke unpleasant memories or old conflicts when the recovering adolescent or young adult is around.”

If family members want to engage in these discussions, McCarthy suggests going into another room or area of the house.

If you’re part of a recovery group or REAL, don’t hesitate to reach out. This is a time when parents need to be there for each other for emotional support and practical suggestions.

Clear boundaries, open conversations, and a helpful support system can give you the best chance to have holidays that lead to family bonding and set the groundwork for ongoing healing in the future.

Resources for Parents

REAL

A subscription-based educational platform for parents and families of young adults navigating a substance use disorder starting at $49.95/month.  

Al-Anon Family Groups

A free 12-step program offering in-person and online meetings for family members affected by a loved one’s alcohol use problem.  

Families Anonymous

A free 12-step program offering in-person and online meetings for family members affected by a loved one’s alcohol use problem.  

Smart Recovery Family and Friends

Offers free online and in-person resources and meetings to help family and friends of people with alcohol and substance use disorders to cope with their loved one’s situation.  



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