Yesterday I attended a program at the Northeast Counties Association of Psychologists of Bergen – Hudson – Passaic Counties (NCAP) (for more details, see http://northeastnjpsychassoc.org/). The program, entitled “The Convergence of Attachment, Codependency & Trauma: The Crisis of Parenting Adult Children Substance Abusers”, was presented by Osna L. Haller, Ph.D., and focused on this extremely difficult problem of parenting, which has become tragically prevalent in our private practices.
The problem of having an adult child who has an addiction, especially when that adult child is refusing to acknowledge and treat the addiction, is extremely terrifying and traumatic for the parents. Parents watch as their child’s life often veers out of control due to the addiction. Marriages fall apart, careers disintegrate, and dysfunction compromises the ability to maintain personal safety, adequate housing and to take care of one’s own basic needs. Middle class parents are called to make difficult decisions about the degree of financial resources they can direct toward the support and treatment of the dysfunctional adult child, often dipping into resources they need or into retirement savings. Parents are caught between the terror of what is happening in their child’s life and the limited influence they have on their adult child’s decisions. They feel their child’s life is in their hands, yet they cannot protect the child from his or her own bad choices, nor can they enforce treatment. The experiences of parents in these difficult circumstances involve intense ambivalence and confusion about what constitutes helping an adult child and what, in contrast, amounts to further enabling the addiction and the dysfunctional behaviors.
The program contributed to the much-needed and painful discussion of these issues, which are becoming more and more prevalent among middle class, highly educated, suburban families. Dr. Haller elucidated the need to help parents understand their own traumatic experience of the rupture in their relationship with the adult substance abuser child. Treatment of the parents, using EMDR combined with a psychodynamic understanding of attachment and trauma, might be particularly helpful in working with this population. Treatment can help parents find the strength to set limits and draw boundaries that foster more adaptive relationships, limit unhealthy co-dependency behaviors, and allow the parents to respond to the “crises” manufactured by the substance abusing child thoughtfully, countering automatic reactions based on fear and terror.