The Dangers of Helicopter Parenting During Rehab

Parents understandably want to be their children’s biggest advocates. When a child’s recovery from drug or alcohol addiction hangs in the balance, that’s never truer. During rehab especially, that natural parental impulse to do anything to help can kick into overdrive. A well-meaning effort to support a child’s recovery, often amplified by a sense of guilt or responsibility for that child’s substance abuse, can feed a strong “over-parenting” reflex to save a child.

“Helicopter parenting” is the term clinical psychologists have attached to this phenomenon. It’s a fitting way to describe unhealthy parental hovering over a child’s every move: like pilots at the controls of a Black Hawk military aircraft, some parents at the first signs of a threat launch a full-scale air assault or swoop in and deploy a quick getaway for their child. And parents of children in rehab are especially vulnerable to this form of parenting, because they know their child’s risks of relapse pose harmful and potentially life-threatening consequences.

But what parents of children in rehab also need to know is that an “interminable ‘swoosh-swoosh-swoosh’” over their child’s every move can pose even greater dangers to that child’s recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. Knowing what these pitfalls to lasting sobriety are is key to boosting a child’s chances of success in rehab and beyond.

Helicopter Parenting and “Failure-to-Launch” Children
Helicopter parenting in rehab can result in the following dangers, all of which can account for a child’s failure to launch toward lasting freedom from drugs or alcohol:

  1. Unhealthy dependency that hamstrings self-development
    Children who have been deprived of opportunities to think, feel, experiment, or make mistakes find it hard to form a healthy, cohesive sense of self.

    The same is true during rehab. A successful rehab experience is not just about kicking a bad habit. It’s about greater self-discovery and self-formation. In rehab, clients are learning to connect better with themselves, including their own unique passion and purpose.

    Parents can hamstring this process by communicating (either directly or indirectly) that what their child is thinking or feeling doesn’t matter — or at least doesn’t matter as much as what Mom and Dad are thinking or feeling. On the playground, this tendency to over-parent can look like rushing in to scoop up a child after they have skinned their knee. The rescued child doesn’t even have a chance to register what they’re feeling in that moment. Their anxious and well-meaning parent has imbibed the feeling for them, as Dr. Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and New York Times best-selling author, observes: “Well-intentioned parents [are] metabolizing their [children’s] anxiety for them … so they don’t know how to deal with it,” she told The Atlantic.

    In rehab, like on the playground, a child needs to be able to experience and metabolize feelings like fear and pain in a journey toward greater self-understanding and self-acceptance (and a healthier, clearer sense of self). One of the best things a parent can do for their child’s recovery, therefore, is to give their child that independent space and time for self-exploration.

  2. Higher rates of anxiety and depression, and, in turn, greater risks of relapse 
    Children whose parents constantly tell them how to live their life suffer from higher rates of anxiety and depression; and anxiety and depression are well-known triggers for addiction. One study of parental involvement in middle school and high school children’s homework, for example, found a strong link between high rates of parental involvement and higher rates of anxiety and depression in children. And it’s not unreasonable to suspect that high parental involvement the older one’s child is only strengthens this causative link.

    In rehab also, parents who try to do their child’s “homework” for them — compulsively checking in on a child to see if they are following through with their therapy, support group and other rehab responsibilities, for instance — are actually contributing to a sense of learned helplessness in their child. Helplessness is only a short step before hopelessness, and a state of helplessness and hopelessness can breed greater anxiety and depression, making a child more vulnerable to the very emotional stressors that contributed to their addiction in the first place. The result is a greater risk of relapse.

  3. Lack of personal accountability and responsibility
    Attempting to rescue a child from the negative consequences of an addiction is another red flag that indicates a parent may be impeding a child’s recovery process. That’s because recovery requires learning to take responsibility for one’s actions. Taking responsibility demands learning to accept and respond to the ways in which one’s choices during active addiction have hurt others, including one’s self. A person new to rehab may have ended up there only because of a drunk driving sentence, for example. That reality and its consequences need to sink in as a necessary precursor to owning one’s recovery.

    The same might be said of the adult child who needs to be on time to a court-ordered drug test but who forgets to set their alarm clock and sleeps in too late. It would be tempting for a concerned parent to wake up the child, nag them to get dressed and frantically drive them to the appointment. A better course of action would probably be to let that child sleep in and face the consequences of their choice.

    In other words, parents who try to spare a child from suffering hard consequences only perpetuate that child’s unhealthy escape and denial coping mechanisms, when in fact a child in rehab stands to benefit most from facing painful realities and working through them with the help of the right people. Only in this way can children develop the healthy coping skills that are necessary to greater emotional resilience and, in turn, long-term recovery.

  4. Poor self-motivation to recover
    Parents may think they’re increasing their child’s motivation to recover when they shower them with gifts and financial provisions during rehab or, alternatively, threaten punishment if their child does not enter substance abuse treatment. Such extrinsic rewards and punishments do little to increase a child’s intrinsic self-motivation, however: they may in fact only dampen it.

    The reality is that substance abuse treatment is most effective for those who are self-motivated about their recovery and who are there because they want to be. A child who has been pressured into entering rehab, whatever form that arm twisting may take, may not be ready to change their behavior and may not actively take part in treatment.

Robert YagodaAs Executive Director of Beach House Center for Recovery, Robert Yagoda brings more than 10 years of combined clinical and administrative experience in facility-delivered, drug and dual diagnosis treatment Robert is a licensed mental health counselor and certified addictions professional. What motivates him most is seeing clients make groundbreaking strides in recovery, knowing he was part of their growth and success.