How to Help Your Adult Child in Rehab: A Guide for Parents

Getting your adult child to agree to go to rehab is the goal of so many parents whose families have been touched by addiction. However, many have been so focused on taking that first step that they find themselves lost about how to best support them when their child does enter rehab. By finding the right treatment, staying involved in the treatment process, allowing your child to recover, and getting your own supports, you can ensure that you heal together and set your family up for success during this transformative time.

In the not-too-distant past, Shaun was like any other dad grappling with understanding his son Carl’s illness and trying to find a path forward in the darkness of addiction. He wanted to help, but often felt helpless in the face of his son’s struggle as Carl drifted further and further away from his family. One night, Shaun and his wife got a call from the emergency room—Carl had overdosed, and they weren’t sure if he was going to make it through the night.

Carl survived that day. But the question of what to do lingered, as it would for years to come. Many people told him what they thought he should do; it seemed everyone had advice to offer. Some suggested kicking him out of the house. Others suggested a soft touch. A cop told him to send Carl to boot camp. Ultimately, Shaun decided to implore Carl to go to rehab; happily, he agreed. Shaun, of course, was relieved. For many parents of adult children struggling with addiction, getting their child into rehab seems like the ultimate goal. In the chaos of active addiction, after all, it can feel as though you are moving from crisis to crisis without the luxury of long-term planning and rehab represents the first and most concrete step toward recovery. However, the imaginary narrative often doesn’t extend to what happens during the rehab process itself. “I knew I was helping him,” Shaun remembers. “But when I drove away and left him there, I couldn’t help feeling like I’d betrayed him somehow, like I was abandoning him to fight his battles alone.”

Coping with the feelings brought up by watching your child enter rehab and creating a strategy for how to provide meaningful support during this time are important projects for which many are unprepared. By exploring the unique challenges faced by parents not only as the result of addiction but during the treatment process, you can better prepare yourself for the journey of recovery.

Find the Right Treatment


Parents often play an instrumental role in connecting their adult children to rehab, in part because those children often lack both the motivation and ability to initiate treatment on their own due to the disordered thinking of addiction. As such, you must likely take the lead when it comes to finding a rehab center. However, rehab is a broad category, one that encompasses programs of vastly different treatment approaches and quality. Thomas McLellan, a research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who lost his son to addiction, understands this well.

McLellan knew what the research tells us about addiction treatment—that it must be evidence-based, rooted in a medical understanding of addiction, delivered by highly trained clinicians, personalized to the needs of each individual. When seeking care for his own son, however, that kind of care was in short supply. According to NBC News, “He struggled to find the science reflected in the real world, where ‘treatment’ still meant 28-days of moralizing and referral to a grim circle of metal chairs.” Spurred by the absence of high-quality treatment, he founded the Treatment Research Institute, “a nonprofit aimed at developing science-based solutions to addiction, and plowing them into the marketplace.” Unfortunately, the marketplace is slow to respond; even today, it can be difficult to find a treatment program that is truly grounded in scientific evidence.

Science-based rehab, however, is the best option for getting your child off drugs. This means that the treatment program must work from an understanding of addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disorder that requires medical intervention, not empty platitudes. It means that treatment is tailored to your child’s needs and supports the well-being of the whole person. It means that the program is staffed by addiction specialists with the training and experience to address addiction within a scientific framework while pairing technical expertise with deep compassion. Because addiction is a disease of the family, it also means that the program must provide opportunities for meaningful family involvement via dedicated family programming and family therapy.

Seeking out this kind of program will be essential to ensuring that your child receives the care they need to making real and lasting changes and that your family as a whole receives the support you need to grow together. Carefully investigate programs. Talk to the admissions office. Visit if you can. Make sure you give you and your child every opportunity for recovery.

Be Involved in Treatment (in the Right Way)


Family involvement has been shown again and again to be a critical part of the recovery process and significantly improve treatment outcomes for people struggling with addiction. “Addiction therapy is supported heavily by positive and frequent family involvement,” says Steven Gifford, a counselor specializing in addiction. “The support that a family provides to a patient recovering from addiction is essential to that patient’s success, and residential centers will often have not only visitation throughout the week or on weekends, but will also provide educational programs for family members.” Take advantage of these opportunities; they are critical pieces of the recovery puzzle and will help you better recognize what your adult child is going through so that you can gain a clearer understanding of their struggles and the possibilities of healing. It will also allow you to provide meaningful support and show your child that you are there for them through this difficult time, which can be a tremendous gift.

But while the family programming gives you opportunities for involvement, they are also designed to structure that involvement in particular ways. This is because recovering from addiction is both a deeply individual and highly collective process that requires that each person evaluates their own role in the addiction. The complex and delicate nature of such self-reflection means that clinicians should carefully guide you through that can be a difficult journey. This does not mean that addiction is your fault; no one is responsible for another person’s drug use. It does mean, however, that family dynamics can play a role in the perpetuation of addiction, particularly in cases of codependency, and that breaking through harmful dynamics is critical for recovery. That requires a willingness to be honest with yourself and with your child, to admit mistakes, to forgive, to be open to change and an understanding that it’s not about blame, it’s about healing.

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Allow Your Child to Recover


This might sound strange. Of course you want your child to recover. That’s why you’re here. However, the process of that recovery can be difficult for parents for a number of complicated reasons. Rehab requires that your child takes responsibility for their own well-being; no one else can do that for them, including you. That can be a difficult thing to hear, particularly if you have taken on a caretaking or enabling role during active addiction. Giving up a sense of control over your child can be frightening; it’s very common and normal to want to grab on and not let go because you are scared of what will happen if you are not there to catch them. However, your child must have the opportunity to learn and practice new skills independently. Trust in the process and allow them the ability to grow.

If you have been involved in a codependent dynamic, relinquishing the perception of control can be particularly challenging, as you have come to draw your own sense of identity and worth from your caretaking role. Realizing this about yourself can be deeply painful and you may feel overwhelming confusion and shame; after all, you love your child, you want them to get better, so why are you feeling this way? The reasons behind co-dependency are complex and point to wounds of your own that you must attend to in order to allow a healthier sense of self and more positive relationships to take root. You must also remember that you are not alone; what you are experiencing is common and shared by millions of others around the world and there are ways to move forward in a way that heals both you and your child.

Another area of struggle for some parents experience lies in the inevitable changes the treatment process produces. Many believe—often unconsciously—that treatment will restore their adult child to an imagined “before”—that addiction is an aberration within an otherwise consistent life narrative to which your family will return after rehab. However, rehab should open up possibilities for your child to discover who they are without drugs and that may be very different than who you remember them to be before drugs. It should provide opportunities for dreaming new dreams and discovering new ways of being, which may mean making significant changes in personality, behavior, and even the way they want to structure their relationship with you. In fact, recovery itself can drastically alter family dynamics in ways that disrupt the long-standing patterns that feel familiar to you. All of these changes can be alienating, even if you recognize them as good. The metamorphosis your child—and your family—undergoes may disrupt your fantasy of what recovery will be like and that can be unexpectedly hard to accept. However, it is vital that you not try to disrupt this process of growth; allow your child to become who they want to be and step into their new role as a sober person.

Take Time Away and Seek Your Own Supports


Seeing your child struggle with addiction can be devastating and creates extraordinary and overwhelming pain, anger, confusion, fear, and self-loathing. These feelings do not simply disappear when your child enters rehab. In fact, they often bubble to the surface during this time because you finally get a break from living crisis to crisis; the perpetual emergency of active addiction can be very effective in obscuring your vast range of emotions.

Use your child’s time in rehab to turn the focus on yourself and seek the support of a therapist and support groups who will give you the space and guidance necessary to explore and process your emotions in a safe way. Some parents are ashamed about the feelings they have about their child’s addiction and many have become accustomed to suppressing them while focusing on attending to the crises of addiction or out of a desire to appear strong for their child. However, the thoughts and emotions you are experiencing are normal and expressing them can not only be cathartic, but give you a greater insight into your own experiences and the changes you need to make in order to heal. You can find strength in giving voice to your struggles and connecting with others who understand those struggles as well as how to cope with them in healthy ways.

Of course, therapy and support groups also give you an important venue for processing your feelings about the treatment process and the changes inherent to it. This includes not just the changes your child is experiencing, but also the changes you are undergoing. Recovery can drastically alter the way you understand yourself, the way you relate to your family, and the opportunities you have for how to be in the world. For many, a child entering rehab is the first time in recent memory that they have the ability to go on a date with their spouse or take an art class or simply be without overwhelming worry about where their child is tonight. These changes can be both exhilarating and frightening. It can be a time of possibility and of unexpected mourning. Having meaningful supports is critical to ensuring that recovery is a positive experience and that you are able to develop a healthy sense of self beyond your adult child’s addiction. Couples therapy can also be beneficial for this purpose.

Healing Together


Just as addiction is a disease of the family, recovery is a family project. When you have a child in rehab, this does not mean that you must heal while constantly at each other’s side and simultaneously; you must learn how to recover independently and at your own pace while finding healthy points of connection and opportunities of meaningful support. Connecting with a treatment program that can provide a framework for both individual and collective healing both during and after treatment will allow you to move forward with love, grace, and a deeper sense of purpose.

As Gifford says, “The family dynamic in drug and alcohol addiction is incredibly powerful. Positive family involvement can help lead […] your family toward a journey of recovery and self-discovery.” And that is ultimately the goal: metamorphosing into a new, more balanced, and more joyful future, together and apart.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area program and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.