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Why parents relapse into co-dependency, and how to avoid that sinkhole

This is a guest post from Ricki Townsend, board-registered interventionist and family counselor

Relapse is not inevitable, but it may well be a part of an individual’s recovery process. And the fear of relapse is especially excruciating to parents who have “launched” their children and then find themselves back in the trenches of problem-solving and cleaning up the messes of an addicted or alcoholic young adult who is acting like an irresponsible child all over again.

So, what can a parent do to avoid falling into the trap of worry, enabling and co-dependency, which they thought they left behind when their child (of any age) found recovery? Well, the bad news is that worry, enabling and co-dependency don’t go away with the snap of a finger when a child (or spouse, for that matter) enters treatment. These behaviors are ingrained in parents, who have often spent years trying to get their kids to stop using drugs or alcohol.

Just as the substance abuser needs to learn a whole new behavioral repertoire in recovery, so do his or her parents. While parents can’t keep their kids from relapsing, they can learn to control their enabling and co-dependency. This will help parents stop operating under the misconception that, “If my child is happy and safe, then I will be happy and safe.” Being yoked to a child is unhealthy and damaging to parents and children alike. Children need to find their own path to a successful, sober life, and parents need to get out of their way. This is especially difficult to do if the person in treatment is a young adult, but it essential to recovery for all.

As parents, sometimes we relapse even when our beloved children don’t. These are some red flags of impending parental relapse to look for:
• Paying more attention to our substance abuser than to ourselves, even to the point that our own health is at risk.
• Dedicating all time and energy to the substance abuser at the expense of other children or a spouse.
• Refusing to face the fact that our child has a problem with drugs or alcohol.
• Keeping our children’s financial or legal messes a secret from our spouse or partner.
• Experiencing constant high anxiety and waiting for the other shoe to fall.

At the end of the day, avoiding relapse requires everyone in the family to change. A family counselor can help parents learn new behaviors to replace the anxiety and fear that have come to drive unhealthy behaviors. Learning how to identify and manage co-dependency is an important step in helping parents deal constructively with a beloved child’s relapse, should it occur.

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