Parenting Issues for Parents in Recovery

Get a better understanding of the critical factors and heightened risks for a child whose parent is struggling with substance use.

Adults in recovery face many day-to-day challenges, and for those who are parents, maintaining good relationships with children can be both rewarding and daunting at the same time. Addressing parenting issues during various stages of recovery can lead to enhanced quality of the parent-child relationship, especially during adolescence. Research has shown that effective parenting is one of the most critical influences on healthy adolescent development – and for parents in recovery, parenting might be an even more critical factor given children’s heightened risk for problems with substance use.

Parenting issues that appear to be especially relevant to parents in recovery are:

Overindulgence as a coping mechanism for guilt 

Parents in recovery, just like all parents, should be encouraged to set limits, monitor and supervise activities and friends, and provide a structured environment that encourages responsible behavior.

Discipline issues

All parents find it difficult to balance warm and supportive parenting with having to hold a child responsible for his/her behavior. But parents must realize that age appropriate rule-setting and positive discipline are necessary and will most likely lead to better child outcomes in the long-term.

Preoccupation with maintaining recovery

Despite the importance of occasionally making major life changes, parents in recovery should work to ensure sure that changes are handled with care and monitored to make sure children are adjusting well. Moreover, day-to-day issues like arranging for alternative activities for children during the times that a parent attends recovery support services or NA/AA/Al-Anon meetings can sometimes be stressful if not planned carefully. Drawing on help and support from trusted neighbors, extended family members and community support networks is another strategy.

Parental absence 

There is no one best strategy for confronting the sensitive topic of past parental absences during the time when the parent was in the active stage of addiction. Many families find counseling helpful to overcome these issues. Ongoing open and honest discussions between parents and children can help as well. Parents need to keep in mind that children differ in their responses to such stressful life events, with some being much more sensitive than others. Also, as children grow older, their capacity for processing information and having discussions about such past events might improve.

Rebuilding trust between parent and child

This process can take a lot of time and work for both parent and child, the latter needing reassurance a parent can be relied upon to be responsible when it comes to caring for a child. Even the smallest demonstration can make a difference, such as being on time to pick up a child from a friend’s house or prompt attendance at a sports or school event. Encouragement from family members, significant others and family friends can help.

Overcoming stigma 

From a clinical point of view, there appear to be no clear strategies for helping a child – or recovering parent – overcome the stigma of drug or alcohol abuse. Recovering parents should expect to have to deal with the challenge and focus on the positive aspects of their recovery (for themselves as well as their children) and the new behavior patterns they have or are trying to establish.

Adapted from an article in Counseling Magazine by Amelia Arria, Ph.D. 1 , Jerry Moe 2 and Ken C. Winters, Ph.D. 1, written for the Betty Ford Institute.

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