Is It Time for New Traditions? Here's How to De-Stress the Holidays When Your Child Is Addicted

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Portrait of loving family on dark snowy background.
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We have to make space for the details that make life precious.

Most of us have cherished holiday memories from when our children were younger: the little ones hovered around the kitchen on Thanksgiving morning, eager to help out. They fought over their favorite cooking duties—usually preferring the messiest ones—and they all avoided the touch of the cold, pimpled turkey flesh.

The home was full of pleasant aromas, laughter and things to be thankful for. But things quickly changed when addiction joined the family, and those precious memories now feel like they happened in another lifetime.

When a child becomes addicted, everything changes. Few moments are safe from worry and fear, and we parents would trade anything in the world for the happiness and safety of our child. How can we possibly enjoy the holidays when our child is addicted, and they can't stay sober from alcohol and other drugs?

This article contains five tips for parents to get through and even enjoy the holidays, and provides some helpful quotes and sorely needed insight from mother and author Sandy Swenson.

Five Tips for Facing the Holidays When Your Child is Addicted

The holidays might look completely different nowadays. The laughter and smiles have been replaced with the tokens of addiction: an empty place at the dinner table or unspoken feelings of disappointment, anger and fear. Whatever we feel, thankful we are not.

If our child has been addicted for some time, we perhaps haven't had a "normal" holiday in some years. Our child may have long stopped pretending to make plans to come home for Thanksgiving and other holidays. And no matter how long our child has been addicted to alcohol or other drugs, the pain always lingers, as does the hole in our home where our child should be.

Tip Number One: Let Go of Expectations and Feel Your Feelings

We tend to overcomplicate the holidays with expectations. We try so carefully to manufacture the picture-perfect day or to recreate those memories from when our children were younger. And in our attempts to make the day perfect, we set ourselves up for failure.

Our child is addicted, and we can't change or control that. What they elect to do—if they decide to be present or not, to be sober or not—is outside of our control.

It's incredibly disappointing. It's painful, it's maddening, it's sad. And it's okay to feel those ways, even and especially around the holidays. The day doesn't have to be perfect, and it rarely is when a child is addicted to alcohol or other drugs. But when we make space for those feelings, we also make space for better things to come.

Mother and author Sandy Swenson says:

"I plan ahead. I take the time to face my feelings—I take the time to grieve and cry for what was and what isn't—and then, acknowledging the pitfalls I don't want to fall into, I figure out ways to make the holiday work. And one of those ways is to ask for help—from friends, family, a therapist or counselor or any of the hundreds of support groups and meetings, like Al-Anon, Families Anonymous or The Addict's Mom."

Tip Number Two: Appreciate the Family Members Who Are Here

When our child is confronting addiction, it's natural to give them all our attention, whether they show up or not. We become hypnotized by the empty space at the kitchen table. Or we spend the day watching our addicted child's every move, and our thoughts become occupied with worry or anger. And as a result, we completely abandon those who are present.

When we try to control our child, and therefore addiction, we are trying to do the impossible. We can set stronger boundaries about our child's alcohol or drug use within our home, but we cannot guarantee that they will stay sober. We cannot guarantee that this day will end perfectly. But we can control who and what we pay attention to.

Let's make a plan to notice and appreciate the family members who show up and try to have a happy holiday. We can also involve family members and other adults in our plans to have a better day:

"[The holidays] are made all the better with family participation—which means asking for everyone's hands and hearts to be in the right place at the right time. Together we can prepare and adapt to the fact that our addicted loved one might not show up (or worse)."

Tip Number Three: Start Your Own Traditions

Now that addiction is a part of the holidays, it's time to try some new traditions that protect our mental health and restore us. Old family traditions aren't mandatory, and we don't need to exhaust ourselves in order to have a good time.

Instead of cooking the perfect dinner or designing the most picturesque holiday home, we can put our energy into the activities that make us happy. Sit down and ask yourself, "What would make me happy this holiday season?" Maybe it's an entire day spent watching our favorite movies. Maybe it's getting takeout from our favorite restaurant. Maybe it's even simpler. We can't control our addicted child. But we can control our priorities, and taking care of ourselves should be at the very top.

"When the holidays hurt, maybe it's time to try something different—something smaller or bigger, or somewhere new. The meal, the menu, an old family recipe, the way (or the place) that we've always celebrated the holidays… the little traditions mean nothing compared to the meaning of the big tradition itself."

Tip Number Four: Be Intentional about Gratitude

"Who is at the table is more important than what is on the table (or where the table is). In the holiday hubbub, it's easy to forget what the holiday is really about."

What are the holidays really about? It depends on the holiday, obviously, but most of them center around gratitude: noticing and appreciating the people and things that make our lives better.

How can we exercise gratitude? By being intentional: We have to slow down and breathe, and direct our attention to the family members and friends who show up. We have to make space for the details that make life precious.

Before we start, we may feel as though we have little to be grateful for when addiction has struck our family so hard. But we will feel differently once we get the ball rolling. There is infinite beauty that deserves our attention, and by focusing on our own recovery program, we will attune to life's special details.

"My need to fill the hole that addiction has left in both my heart and life is big. And I've found that helping others keeps me moving forward. It may be overwhelming to add one more expectation to a day already laden with so much, but giving thanks by showing thanks doesn't have to fall on one particular day in the fall. I've got 364 other days of the year in which to do what my heart needs to do."

Tip Number Five: Let the Healing Happen—Hope Will Come

"I'm finally strong enough to fill the hole in my life where my son should be with things that make the holidays better, not worse. I'm strong enough to face reality—to accept what is—to start new traditions, and to spend time with some happy old memories; those are mine to keep and enjoy forever."

Addiction has changed the holidays. In fact, it has changed almost everything. But there is still plenty to be thankful for, and there is still so much to hope for. We are working a recovery program of our own, slowly separating our happiness and welfare from our child's sobriety. We are finding ways to move forward and protect ourselves against the pain of addiction, and we are filling the holes that addiction left behind.

Our child is addicted, but their story isn't finished yet. Recovery is available to everyone who wants it. If and when they decide to get sober, if and when they agree to addiction treatment, we will support and encourage them every step of the way.

Over time and regardless of outcomes, we will learn how to feel safe and happy again. We will always hope that our child finds recovery, but we will always have our own recovery to fall back on. And in the end, we will get to a place where addiction doesn't control us, and we will slowly continue to heal.

One Final Note to Parents

If you have a child who's addicted to alcohol or other drugs, please start a recovery of your own. Their substance use and addiction affects you, but you can protect your own mental health and happiness.

Maybe your child will find recovery. Maybe your child will continue drinking or using drugs. Whatever happens, you need to find support. This journey is a marathon, not a sprint, and in order to find hope and healing, you need to have a reliable safe space to communicate your needs to others.

Support meetings like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon can be a tremendous help to parents. These meetings are filled with family members who are confronting addiction: they know what it's like to watch a child become addicted. They know how to support a loved who needs recovery, and they know how to look after themselves.

Please consider attending these meetings or others like them. You deserve to feel safe again.

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