Parental Instinct: Identifying and Stopping Opioid Abuse in Adult Children

As a parent, the urge to protect your children from danger never goes away, even in adulthood. Learn to spot the signs of opioid abuse and how to discuss your concerns with your adult child.

When it comes to a potential addiction, it can be tough to know if you truly have reason to worry or if your nurturing instincts are in overdrive. If you’re worried about a possible opioid addiction, however, your suspicions have a significant chance of being correct: it’s estimated that over 2 million Americans struggle with an opioid-related substance use disorder.

When considering if your child is displaying signs of opioid abuse, it’s important that you don’t make any assumptions without sufficient evidence. Although it can be difficult at times, try not to panic before you have all the facts. The road to recovery is by no means easy, but with your support, your child can overcome his or her addiction.

Identifying The Signs And Symptoms Of Opioid Abuse

It may be difficult for you to spot the signs of drug abuse depending on your proximity to your child. You may have to rely on what he or she tells you over the phone during your weekly chats or take a closer look at photos they post on social media. Remember, though, that these methods may not be completely telling; if you’re not able to make a face-to-face assessment in the near future, you may wish to consult with your child’s spouse or roommate in absolute confidence. You need not even mention that you think there may be an opioid abuse problem, but instead let them know you’re worried about your child and wonder if they’ve noticed anything of concern.

The first indication you should consider is whether or not your child has recently suffered an injury, had surgery, or treated a chronic condition using a prescription opioid. Often, a problem starts with a completely valid prescription and escalates into addiction. Examples of prescription opioids include morphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone. They may make mention of a strong painkiller but not specify a name, so think back to whether or not they sounded particularly euphoric while using it. Again, this won’t be an exact indication of abuse, but it’s a good place to start.

Next, keep an eye out for physical signs of opioid abuse:

  • Drowsiness
  • Constricted, or “pinpoint” pupils (even in low light)
  • Drooping eyes
  • Flushed face and neck
  • Sudden scratching, especially around the arms, legs, and stomach
  • Slurred speech
  • Intense calmness or lethargy

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Unfortunately, not only are these signs often difficult to spot (especially from a distance), they can be logically attributed to stress or other health conditions. If you think your child may be exhibiting some of these signs, keep an eye out for any subsequent behavioral changes. Consider whether or not your child has mentioned or displayed any of the following behavioral signs of opioid abuse:

  • Problems at work or school
  • Unexplained money issues — they may have even asked for a loan recently
  • Spending less time with friends or in social activities
  • Lack of motivation to complete responsibilities or once-loved hobbies
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Spending increased time with new friends, especially if they’re hesitant to introduce you

Be objective but logical. Try to think of other reasons these signs could be occurring and whether they truly make sense as possibilities. Much of it may come down to one major question: does your loved one seem to be especially secretive lately? If he or she seems completely unwilling to discuss why they need a loan, why they suddenly can’t make it to a family gathering, or why their boss is displeased with their work, there may be reason for concern.

Opioid Withdrawal Signs And Symptoms

You’ll also want to be on the lookout for signs of opioid withdrawal. Keep in mind that they tend to closely resemble the symptoms of a cold or the flu, so a singular occurrence doesn’t necessarily point to abuse. Instead, look for these symptoms as part of a regular pattern or occurrence, especially in conjunction with other signs.

  • Runny nose
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent yawning
  • Sweating
  • Dilated pupils
  • Watery eyes
  • Vomiting
  • Joint pain
  • Shivering
  • Tremors

Now it’s time to make room for the possibility of something particularly terrifying to imagine your child coping with: heroin abuse.

Signs Of Heroin Abuse

Heroin gives users the same euphoric effects as pills, but is much cheaper and can be easier to obtain without others knowing. In fact, about 75% of heroin users started out abusing prescription opioids.

Most signs of heroin abuse are consistent with that of painkillers. However, you’ll also want to keep an eye out for:

  • Reckless behavior
  • A lapse in personal care (not showering, messy hair or general appearance)
  • Needle track marks on arms and/or legs
  • Skin infections
  • Hostility
  • Constant sniffing (tends to occur in those who snort heroin)

Heroin use — and a need to buy it covertly — could be a major factor if you’ve noticed significant social changes in your child. They may be increasingly difficult to reach by phone or have unseen visitors drop by their home at seemingly random times. Their spouse may even report them running suspicious errands or making frequent trips to “the store” for something trivial.

Understanding Addiction

There are all kinds of reasons you might have trouble accepting an opioid abuse problem in your child: some parents blame themselves, others insist their child was simply “raised better than that.” The truth is, you’ll probably experience a roller coaster of emotions while trying to cope with the idea, and that’s OK. It’s important to understand, though, that it isn’t your fault, and it also isn’t something your child is completely in control of. Addiction is a disease, and understanding how it works is crucial to helping your child conquer it.

Genetics make up about 50% of a person’s risk for a substance use disorder, but that doesn’t mean that it’s your fault your child became addicted to opioids. And while a child’s environment growing up can certainly play a role, there are plenty of addicts who come from wholesome family homes where drug use was prohibited. There are many factors that contribute to a person’s drug addiction, and in your situation, the biggest contributor may be the highly addictive nature of opioids themselves.

Side Effects Of Opioid Use

When an opioid enters the body, it increases the amount of dopamine in the brain’s reward center and causes the user to feel intense pleasure throughout their system. This is why people under the influence often seem extremely happy or calm — their bodies are flush with dopamine and their high gives them feelings of euphoria. The body becomes dependent, causing severe withdrawal symptoms when it’s deprived of the drug. Eventually the opioid also branches out on its brain influence, affecting sections that involve judgment and motivation. This can drive someone to do whatever they have to in order to get or stay high.

It’s important to note that there is a significant psychological aspect to addiction that needs to be addressed with the guidance of a professional; detoxing alone is not enough to beat a drug addiction, and in fact the relapse rate for detox alone can be above 90%.

How To Talk To Your Adult Child

If you don’t believe your child is in immediate danger, it may help to do some research before approaching him or her with your concerns. You may want a better understanding of the withdrawal process so you’re prepared, or you may simply want to speak to others who have been in your situation by visiting addiction message boards. You can even attend a local Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting to get some insight into what it’s like to fight a substance use disorder. Even if you still feel confused by the time you speak to your loved one, your genuine efforts to understand can go a long way.

Try to find a time that you’ll be able to speak to your child alone. Face-to-face would be ideal, but if distance makes that impossible, opt instead to schedule an exact day and time to have a phone or video call. Let them know that you love them, and that you’re worried about them. Present your evidence of an issue, but don’t make any accusations. You might say that you’ve noticed they seem to be exhausted and under the weather lately, or ask if there’s a particular reason they had a falling out with a friend. Let them know you’re asking out of concern, and want to know if there’s something bigger going on that they might need help with.

In a completely honest world, your child would immediately give in and let you know that they’re battling an addiction. Unfortunately, many addicts are in denial of their problem or may simply be unwilling to discuss it. Just as you feel a responsibility to them, they likely feel one to you, and the idea of letting down a parent can be overwhelming. It’s quite possible that he or she won’t be willing to tell you what’s going on the first time you ask, so be prepared for it to take several conversations. If they become overly defensive and tell you to mind your own business, drop the issue and simply remind them that you love them and will be available anytime they need to talk.

If your child remains in denial, however, the time may come when you need to take a few steps back — especially if they come to you with financial woes. Many parents have a tough time with this idea of “turning their back,” but addiction experts say that being a crutch could actually do more harm than good. If they have a spouse and children to consider, be sure to help them find a safe situation if things are looking grim, but resist giving your child money and inadvertently funding their addiction. If they say they don’t have enough money even for food and you just can’t stand idly by, run to the store and grab them some essentials instead of giving them cash — or if you’re not close by, have them delivered. But take the opportunity to remind them that if they truly want things to get better, they’ll need to seek professional help for their addiction.

Keep in mind that eventually, you may have to cut ties with your child completely until he or she agrees to enter rehabilitation. The fact is, if they know you’ll give them endless chances, they’ll never have true motivation to change their ways. It’s not good for them — or for you — to enable their addiction, even passively. It’s difficult for parents to accept, but your adult child is just that: an adult. That means you are no longer responsible for their actions. If they want to get clean, they have to make the decision for themselves.

Offering Support And Treatment For Your Adult Child

If your child does finally open up to you about his or her opioid abuse, make it a point to keep your mind open and truly listen to what they have to say. It won’t be easy for them to admit there’s a problem, so avoid the parental instinct of lecturing or scolding. Instead, focus on your parental instinct to help, and offer to aid them in their quest for sobriety. Offer to research treatment centers or babysit your grand kids while their parents talk about the next steps. But don’t let a simple conversation be the end of it — sometimes addicts will bring up rehab in an effort to buy some more time, so hold them to their word of getting help. If they still refuse, reassert that you can’t be in their life until they go to treatment.

If your child does agree to enter rehabilitation, be prepared to be a part of family therapy or for him or her to reach out while they’re away. Addressing the root of their problem may bring up old issues that they want to hash out with you, or they may simply want the comforting advice of their parent after a tough day in therapy. Be as supportive as you can, and consider seeking counseling for yourself, as well. You might still be processing a lot of feelings, and having the expertise of a counselor and the objective perspective of a stranger can help make sense of everything.

You may not be able to protect your child from ever succumbing to an opioid addiction or single-handedly pull him or her out of it, but you can offer your support. And in the end, isn’t unwavering love and compassion what being a parent is all about?

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