Addiction, Mental Health, and Parenting: Why You Need to Connect the Dots


I can’t pretend to know what fighting addiction truly entails.  I have friends who fight for their sobriety every day.  They never miss a meeting…because to miss a meeting is to risk a relapse.  I have worked with young adults and adolescents who have fought for their sobriety.  They never missed a meeting…because to miss a meeting is to risk a relapse.  I have worked with children of addicts.  I’ve listened to them cry, yell, and ask the same question repeatedly.  Why?  Why is my existence not enough to keep my father/mother/fill-in-the-blank sober?

Addiction is complicated.  It might seem like a choice when you break it down to this-or-that, but then you have to travel the road of mental health, environmental stressors, and family history.  This-or-that fades into the background when you begin to peel the onion.

I’ve heard addiction referred to as “selfish”, and I can understand where people are coming from.  When you’ve sat across the office from a young child with giant sad eyes and an obsessive need to understand what role he or she might play in the addiction, you start to see the “selfish” angle.  You want to say to that parent, “Stop everything!  Look what you’re doing to your child!”  But you can’t say that.  Because that parent isn’t being selfish…that parent is fighting addiction.  That parent isn’t seeing the big sad eyes and cries for attention.  That parent is stuck in the vortex, and that isn’t selfish.

It’s same with depression and other mental disorders.  Would you call a person “selfish” for being depressed?  Would you tell you a parent to stop “being Bipolar”?  Of course not.  That would be ill-informed and inaccurate.  And yet, people do it.  They try to break it down to this-or-that.

The fact is that we can’t ignore the comorbidity factor when it comes to addiction.  We can’t pretend that addiction exists in a vacuum, and we can’t pretend that a single choice would alter the life of a family.  We can’t ignore the genetic components, the environmental factors, and the lack of resources available to the many people fighting (or losing the fight to) addiction every single day.

And we can’t pretend that our children are immune.

Every time an addict loses a battle, someone in this world is left behind.  We put celebrities on a pedestal and celebrate their amazing careers while we mourn the loss of the actors who music makers who touched our lives in some way.  But behind those celebrities are partners, children, and extended family who are left to pick up the pieces and somehow make sense of the loss.  They are the ones who suffer the most when the light goes out.

And that’s not all…

Kids (yes, KIDS) are using alcohol and drugs at an alarming rate, sometimes beginning in middle school (on average, boys start at age 11 these days, while girls, on average, wait until 13).  I won’t bombard you with statistics, but I will say that we need to change the way talk to kids about drugs, alcohol, and sexuality right this very moment.  Kids are taking unhealthy risks and making very poor choices, thereby setting themselves up for addiction, teen pregnancy, STD’s, and worse.  Because yes, drugs and alcohol can even take the lives of kids.  Think I’m exaggerating?  Check in with the CDC and SADD to arm yourself with information.

Remember that bit about comorbidity an genetics?  That applies to kids, as well.

So what can parents do?

Talk early and often:

Don’t wait until your child encounters alcohol and/or drugs to start the conversation.  Talk about it early on, and revisit it regularly.

I hear the parents joking about “mommy juice” (there is even a product by that name) and the like when they want to have a drink in front of the kids.  It’s a joke (most of the time) and it’s even a little cute (sort of)…but it sends a mixed message.  It’s not juice.  It’s wine or some other kind of alcohol and it should be identified by name.  It should be stated that alcohol is ok for adults (in moderation) but not for kids.

Instead of distracting or hiding, tell it like it is.  That sends a clear message to your kids.

Be honest:

Talk about addiction.  Talk about the effect that drugs and alcohol can have on your brain, your body, and your life.  Resist the urge to use scare tactics.  Remain calm, open the discussion up to questions, and provide information about the risks.

Talk about any family history you might and connect the dots between depression and other mental health concerns and alcohol and/or drug use.  Fill in the blanks so that your child can get a clear picture of addiction.

Identify the helpers:

Sometimes kids don’t want to talk to their parents about difficult topics, including alcohol, drugs and mental health. They might not want to disappoint them.  They might be afraid to admit that peer pressure is intense and difficult to resist.  They might fear that their parents will think less of them for wanting to fit in.

Identify the helpers.  Find a trusted uncle, aunt, or family friend who is willing to listen without judgment and provide a lifeline for your child.  Your child might not be comfortable approaching you, but that helping hand just might make a huge impact along the way.

Stop worrying about the stigma, and get the help that your family needs.  Inpatient, outpatient, individual, family…don’t wait until it’s too late.  Seek out the resources that can help you get to the other side.

Listen without judgment:

Listen to your children when they approach you with a problem, no matter how insignificant that problem might seem.  Hear their words.  Let them explain.

Listen for the sake of understanding, not for the purpose of crafting a response.

When we show our children that we are willing to listen, we open the door to future communication.  When we judge, snap, or reply too quickly, we risk shutting them down.  Open the door today, and don’t ever close it.

Stop glorifying Hollywood:

Get the magazines full of lies out of your home.  Stop putting celebrities on pedestals.  Listen to their music, enjoy their films, and laugh out loud when you watch their shows to decompress.  But stop pretending to know them.  They are people with struggles and they sometimes mess up, and that is more than ok.

Stop looking to the famous to act as role models for our children.  Taylor Swift isn’t really a role model for young girls.  She’s a young woman who sings her heart out and works hard, but how well do you really know her?  You don’t.  But you do know countless other people who can be role models…like that kindergarten teacher around the corner who dedicates her life to shaping young minds or that pediatrician who seems to make every child feel at ease in her office.

Look to everyday heroes to inspire your children.  They can truly make a difference…

For more information, or to make a donation to support research into drug abuse and addiction, visit NIDH.


About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)


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    Addiction, Mental Health, and Parenting: Why You Need to Connect the Dots