Submitted by: Sharon Wagner

Traditional parent-child roles are ingrained in our culture. Society sees parents as people who teach their children to listen, be creative, and be good citizens. Children, on the other hand, are supposed to play, break the rules, and explore their own possibilities.

But sometimes parents are the ones who break the rules and fall prey to new vices. For their children, the revelation that mom or dad has an addiction or suffers from an untreated mental disorder can come not only with shock, but with a sense of outrage. While these feelings are valid, it is important to more fully understand the complexities of these issues before passing judgment. So here, Centennial Adultcare Center takes a closer look at this timely topic.

How Addiction Works

Daily life was a struggle for survival throughout most of human history. Food supplies were sporadic, enemies were ever near, and disease could appear seemingly out of nowhere. Our brains developed sophisticated mechanisms for dealing with these threats, one of them being the pleasure response. When we do something that aids in our survival, such as finding food, defeating an enemy, or finding a rich source of food, a part of our brain called the nucleus accumbens releases a chemical called dopamine, which makes us feel pleasure and, consequently, strives to repeat the action. This reaction is behind the elation you feel at getting a raise or learning that someone you like also likes you.

There’s nothing wrong with feeling good as long as the pleasant sensation is tied to a worthwhile goal. But certain drugs are able to trigger a rush of dopamine all on their own. When this happens, the drug hijacks the victim’s brain, enslaving them to the compound. This is why the word “addict” stems from a Latin word meaning “enslave.” It’s also why telling the addict to “just try harder” is rarely helpful. Their problem is due to a medical condition, not a character defect.

Why Mental Health Goes Unchecked

Mental health has only recently come out into the light. Historically, issues like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders were taboo – things to hide shamefully in the darkest basement. If your parent was alive in the 1960s and 1970s, they saw people with these conditions being institutionalized and tortured in the name of medicine. Therapy was for the weak and truly ill, not to work through issues and find peace. So it is no wonder that many adults simply endured – and continue to endure – these issues.

We now understand that an untreated mental illness affects more than the individual. But if you suspect that your parent suffered from one of these issues, this is not new information. You likely developed trust or abandonment issues, anxiety, or depression yourself as a result of your childhood experiences.

Research now shows that these negative effects on children can be countered by simple interventions that build trust, focus on the child’s wellbeing, and provide support for the parent. Unfortunately, many children grew up without this kind of support and now have to bear the ill effects of their parent’s untreated illness.

Exploring Forgiveness

Addiction and mental illness are not choices. It is easy to blame people – especially our parents – for falling into these categories, but blaming them for a disease is unfair. This does not invalidate how their illnesses affected you as a child and now as an adult; however, it is worth considering trying to reestablish a relationship with a parent who unintentionally harmed you as a result of their untreated disease.

If you are ready to forgive your parent and develop a new, healthier relationship, here are some ways to begin this process.

Communicate Openly

Be civil, yet frank about the problems between you. Trying to hide how you feel will only plant interpersonal “time bombs” that will go off sooner or later, damaging chances at lasting reconciliation.

Manage Your Expectations

Expecting things between you and your parents to be picture perfect is unrealistic. Focus on what you can do, not on what you wish you could do.

Help Them to Find Support

Many older adults struggle asking for help because they came from a do-it-yourself pull yourself up from your bootstraps era. We know this isn’t healthy, but they may still need some encouragement to get the support they need. Whether it’s a 12 step program, a therapist, or medication, use your resources to help them get the support they need. You can also help them to find a local rehab hospital that provides inpatient and outpatient support, depending on their needs. The responsibility is not yours to make them better; but making an effort to help them help themselves can go a long way in building your relationship.

Engage in Honest Self-Examination

Human nature makes us notice the faults in other people while ignoring our own. Overcoming this instinct is vital for seeing all sides of a problem, not just the parts we want to see. So ask yourself what you might have done better if you were able to rewind the past and start your relationship with your parents over.

Set Boundaries

It is important to set boundaries in order to protect your own mental health. Those boundaries are up to you, but identify them and stick with them. You may be willing to embark on this journey, but only if your parent agrees to therapy. Or you may establish that you will not give money or housing to your parent under any circumstances. These choices are difficult, but important to establish.

Consider Rebuilding Your Family Together

Children should not have to be the responsible ones in the family. They should be free to make their own mistakes and return to a loving, stable home. It is understandable to carry anger and pain for being put into this reversed parenting scenario as a child. But as an adult, it may be time to  rebuild – or develop for the first time – a healthy parent-child relationship. Understanding that addiction and mental illness are diseases is a start. Then, it is a matter of doing the hard work of honest communication

If your parent needs care beyond addiction recovery support, consider Centennial Adultcare Center. We offer both adult day health care and in-home services. Visit us online to learn more.