Being the parent of an adult child with a drug addiction often evokes feelings of anxiety, guilt, shame, and helplessness. But secrecy makes it difficult for relatives to help an adult with substance misuse problems.

The research is detailed in a new study that examined parents' contact with the social services and other authorities.

Among the 32 parents interviewed, many found it difficult to know when it was time to seek help for their children. They experienced doubts about whether it was teenage defiance, normal youth problems, or drug problems.

This may mean, for example, that 70-year-old parents see no other way out than to have their 40-year-old child with complex problems and great care needs living in their home.

Torkel Richert

“The stigma around drugs means that many parents wait and think that they will solve it within the family or hope that the problem disappears with time. Some focus on how well things are going for their other children, to emphasise that they are not a problem family just because one of the children happens to have drug problems,” says Torkel Richert, associate professor of social work and one of the researchers behind the study.

Once the parents contact the authorities, they quickly discover that the adult child must seek help themself. Often their children do not want help; this makes the parents feel the problem is not taken seriously. A feeling of powerlessness arises when, due to confidentiality, they are not entitled to information while at the same time as they see the child's situation worsen.

Richert believes that the social services have a difficult role. They are between an adult individual and their parent who see that the child has serious problems and may be desperate, at the same time as they have to adhere to legislation regarding confidentiality and other laws.

Some of the parents say that they understand the secrecy but suggest that the authorities work harder to encourage the child to lift that secrecy, so that the family can be involved in the solutions.

“It is positive if the social services become better at seeing the relatives’ perspective in substance abuse treatment and as far as possible cooperates with parents and other relatives. It has been done in many places already,” says Richert.

Another issue is the great lack of good aftercare and follow-up post-intervention, such as treatment or accommodation, something that may require parents to step in.

“This may mean, for example, that 70-year-old parents see no other way out than to have their 40-year-old child with complex problems and great care needs living in their home,” says Richeert.

Being listened to and taken seriously is highlighted in the study as the most important support a parent of children with drug addiction can receive.

Text: Hanna Svederborn and Adrian Grist