If you have a senior parent struggling with substance abuse, the odds are that the relationship between you has sustained some damage during the fight. But the holidays can be the perfect time to start healing wounds and rebuilding a healthy relationship, particularly if that parent has recently entered the addiction recovery process, signaling a willingness to change their lives — and yours.
Here are a few words of advice for adult children who want to reconnect with their parent and celebrate a healing holiday season.
The Preparation Process
Understand addiction – Abuse and addiction have less to do with the substance and the amount or frequency of use than the consequences of that use, according to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence. If drug use or drinking is causing problems at work, school, home, or in relationships, it likely signals an abuse or addiction issue. It’s also important to understand that addiction is a chronic brain disease that can’t be controlled by your parent simply choosing to quit.
Know you’re not alone – Estimates indicate up to 19 percent of Americans ages 50 and older misuse alcohol, prescription drugs, or both. And several factors make aging patients more susceptible to prescription drug misuse and abuse, according to AARP. For instance, 65 percent of Americans ages 65 and older reported using three or more prescription drugs in the past 30 days. What’s more, some prescription drug types, including opioids like oxycodone, are especially prone to misuse. Statistics also show opioid misuse rose for most subgroups of Americans ages 50 and older from 2015 to 2016.
Plan it out – Some experts suggest using a journal to explore your own feelings and expectations for a reconstructed relationship. This step also helps manage unrealistic hopes for a picture-perfect holiday. If you’re the one making the first move, consider writing your parent an old-fashioned letter and waiting a day before mailing it. Give your parent time to take in what you’ve written and respond. Finally, if your parent is also ready to reconcile, plan your first few meetings for low-pressure situations rather than waiting for your family’s big annual holiday party to mend fences.
Learn about your parent’s addiction treatment and related issues – Do they have individual therapy appointments, for example, and have counselors suggested family therapy? If so, attending joint sessions could help you both reconnect as part of your parent’s recovery process. You can also help your loved one keep track of peer support meetings and medical appointments and help them stay motivated when they are feeling demoralized or overwhelmed.
The Road to Repair
Cultivate communication skills – Work on communicating in a way that minimizes tension, maximizes support for the rehabilitation process, and emphasizes how much you care about your parent’s progress. Family therapy can help hone communication skills. Focusing on participating in positive, productive activities you both enjoy can also tame tensions.
Seek support – You may also want to enlist a separate counselor or join a support group to help you deal with feelings of resentment and anger that may have been building for years. Group and individual support sessions can help you begin to forgive your parent for past wrongs and look toward a loving future.
Play the trust C.A.R.D. – It’s also important for your parent to acknowledge the way their addiction has affected you and your relationship. You must also be willing to accept that your parent is willing to change and hold them accountable for their commitments if you both want the reconciliation to last into the new year and beyond. Substance abuse counselor and author Carole Bennett suggested using the C.A.R.D. acronym as your mutual guide. Once the parent in recovery starts demonstrating Credibility, Accountability, Responsibility, and Dependability on an everyday basis, that foundation of trust — with you and with themselves — is being rebuilt brick by brick.
Help them build a new network – Support any efforts to strengthen your parent’s network of sober supporters and friends. That could include encouraging them to participate in peer support activities and even attending meetings with them to help them find a group that fits their needs. Once they adopt a peer support system, learn the group’s philosophy so you can reinforce and reiterate it day to day.
Subvert stress – The holidays can be a stressful time for everyone, and that’s especially true for a recovering addict and those closest to them. Try to minimize anxiety by planning to rebuild your relationship gradually rather than expecting the holidays to heal all wounds. Don’t pack the calendar with days of events with your parent. Instead, pencil in downtime when you can both practice self-care strategies like long walks, meditation sessions, and quiet time alone.
Tweak traditions – Assist them in steering clear of situations where others will be using alcohol or drugs. For example, suggest activities such as attending a holiday concert or making handcrafted gifts together in place of the annual shopping spree that always started with morning mimosas. Or, if you’re hosting a family gathering, don’t serve alcohol if it was a trigger for your parent’s substance abuse in the past. Instead, offer festive, non-alcoholic beverages that everyone can enjoy.
Create new rituals – Help your parent create new traditions to celebrate sobriety. For instance, you can volunteer together to serve a meal at a homeless shelter. Research shows volunteering can have mental and physical benefits for those devoting their time and talents. Or you can give your parent a special holiday decoration that commemorates this new, happier chapter in your relationship.
Focus on the present – Holidays tend to bring up memories both good and bad. Rather than rekindling resentments from the past, try to stay in the moment. Remind yourself your parent has chosen the road to recovery and commit to helping them up peaks and past pitfalls in their journey.
Hopefully, educating yourself about your parent’s addiction and recovery, rebuilding trust, and rethinking negative holiday habits will mean you’ll be celebrating special occasions together for years to come.