How to help teen with alcoholic parent
January 21, 2014 6:06 AM   Subscribe

A family friend who is divorced has been an alcoholic for more then several years. She has primary custody of a teenage daughter. We have kept in touch with the alcoholic mom but sporadically due to her behavior. Recently I found out the the daughter was cutting and acting out, I believe due to the stress of living with her mom. Because of this I started texting the daughter just to check in and give her some positive messages (mostly like “hope you have a good day” and “I’m so impressed how you did on that test”). I did ask her if she’d like to go to an alateen meeting which she agreed to but only if I went with her. However we haven’t set a date.

The mom just did something particularly neglectful and I decided to cut off contact with her and let the daughter know. But I also let the daughter know I’d still check in with her and will always be around if she needs help. The dad is somewhat in the picture and I recently learned he is making more of an effort and that the mom had sort of been “gate-keeping” him out. If you were this kid, what would you have wanted from a non-relative adult? The school was notified by the dad of the mom’s behavior and they are also keeping tabs on daughter. I don’t want to overstep my boundaries but I am concerned about the daughter’s choice of friends and her lack of structure (I have known this kid since she was very young). I don’t have daughters but I’m not sure that makes a difference. I’m looking for ways to help but also non-pressuring too. To add- there is extended family (who I'm friends with as well) but they are not local. There are also older siblings but they have left and have no relationship with the mother any longer.
posted by lasamana to Human Relations (14 answers total)
I wanted to add the daughter always responds when I text her. I also notice she goes back and forth in her relationship with her mother from hating her to being worried about her. I'm very careful not to criticize the mom at all.
posted by lasamana at 6:10 AM on January 21, 2014

Are the older siblings stable and willing to be in touch with their sister?
posted by brujita at 6:29 AM on January 21, 2014

I think you'd be well served going to an al-anon meeting yourself and getting some advice and help for handling this difficult situation.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:35 AM on January 21, 2014 [7 favorites]

The older siblings are pretty removed from their sister at this point. They seemed to have gotten on with their lives and while they speak with her, my feeling is that it's rare.
posted by lasamana at 6:41 AM on January 21, 2014

>has been an alcoholic for more then several years

Well, for her whole life probably. That's terrible for the daughter, both the 'incident' and the ongoing alcoholism. If I were the dad, I'd consider going for full custody, but I don't know if he wants that or not. Anyway you are not the parent.

Al-Anon is very good for hearing other people's experiences. Maybe you can find similar stories and advice/support there. You don't have to say anything.

Bug her about the ALATeen meeting. Really make her go. She might need that from you. Maybe make a deal that you will go to at least three, or something like that.

If you want to be a support for her you can be (if she wants you to be), but I guess be aware that it can be a large commitment.
posted by carter at 6:50 AM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

PuppetMcSockerson is spot on. You have no standing in this situation. With the father involved and the school aware, there should be some appropriate oversight going on. If you are aware of any type of neglect or abuse, contact the appropriate child protective service office, but I would suggest that is as far as you should take this at this point, especially since you're estranged from the mother.

It's great that you care about the daughter, but an adult getting involved in a child's life without the permission of the parent can create a very sticky and potentially dangerous dynamic both emotionally and legally.
posted by HuronBob at 6:50 AM on January 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Set a date and go with her. And keep going with her. Even if she says nothing.

Can you get her counseling?

You can't solve this family problem but you can be a source of stability and a non-judging listening ear. Validate her own judgment of the situation, and let her know that it's not normal to live like that, with a selfish absentee parent.

Are you willing to let her crash at your place if things get too rough? She may need a safe haven. She may need an exit plan.

As for her choice of friends, that will only change with building her confidence and self-esteem, and that changes by knowing she is truly supported and loved.

You would be taking a lot on here, so be sure you can follow through with it, or find her someone who can support her. To help her out only to withdraw when shit gets real will only crush her more. So be clear inside yourself as to how much you're willing to do, and then be clear with her on it.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:51 AM on January 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'd have loved a non-judgemental adult who just kept in contact on the regular, who didn't ever seem to try to make me talk about stuff (but would absolutely let me take the lead on talking about it), and who would go to one or more Alateen/Alanon meetings with me. I'd have loved having an adult I knew I could trust and who wouldn't try to leap in and Fix Everything without my input.

I was very adult in some ways and still very much a child in others. It can be a fine and shifting line to walk for an adult trying to navigate that with/for a teenager, and I commend you for trying.
posted by rtha at 7:00 AM on January 21, 2014 [17 favorites]

You are awesome to want to help her out. As someone who once was a teen with an alcoholic parent, I think what I would have appreciated most was some lifeline to normalcy and stability when everything else was so chaotic - someone who was there to talk to about just regular stuff, let me ramble on when I wanted to discuss the latest Dragonlance book my nerdy little heart was into, tell me whatever silly thing their dog had done that day, whatever - just normal stuff. I guess in an ideal world I would also have wanted to know I had a place I could go to, or someone who would come get me, when things were awful and I needed to escape for a while - but if that isn't something you can provide for whatever reason, you can still do her a world of good just by being a caring, reliable, non-judgmental adult.

From my experience, so many well-meaning adults only radiate pity, which gets painful after a while because it reminds you that everyone sees you as this miserable object that maybe they can "fix". By a similar token, too many well-meaning folks interacting with kids of alcoholics only ever seem to want to "make" you be okay by mouthing all these things about how it's not your fault (honestly, it never even occurred to me that my parent's alcoholism COULD be my fault until I'd had enough people go out of their way to tell me I didn't cause it/couldn't control it/couldn't cure it), my parent was just as sick as if he had cancer and didn't mean to do what he did (pretty invalidating when I needed to feel anger), I could tell them anything I wanted (which always made me feel like I was somehow failing them by not offering up my feelings to assure them of what a huge help they were being) ... Eh, anyway, I know it's a tricky line to walk when you genuinely do feel sympathy and want to help, but just be aware that this teen could already have enough people in her life sort of crushing her with pity; the more you can think of her as a person and not a sad victim, I think the better you'll handle this.

As far as Alateen goes, I would vote for setting a date and attending a meeting with her if she's up for it, and maybe encouraging her to commit to, say, 4-5 meetings before deciding if she'll continue - but don't push it. Depending on the makeup of group you find, how shy or not shy she is, where she is mentally and emotionally right now, etc., Alateen could be a lot of help or could just become another stressor for her - I know I ended up resisting Al-Anon as an adult for longer than I should have because of uncomfortable memories of people pressuring me to do Alateen when I really couldn't handle it. Be encouraging on this front but non-judgmental if she decides she'd rather not go.
posted by DingoMutt at 7:25 AM on January 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Just want to add my voice to those who are urging to to think carefully about helping this girl.

I'm assuming she is not an adult, and we know you aren't a parent or a relative. In most people's minds, assuming you are in the US, you don't have the right to step into a role that her father or her relatives should be taking first.

By all means, try to meet with her father to pass on all of your concerns, and make sure the authorities are aware of what you know.

But by stepping in and trying to take an active hand in guiding her toward a solution, you put yourself at risk of reprisal from her parents or family, and at risk of emotional entanglements with the girl. Of course, people would harp on these potential entanglements more if you were opposite genders, but they are still there in your situation as well. Children and teens can very easily develop inappropriate emotions for adults they see as savior figures, and their relationships with their parents and families can take a hit as a result.

I know you want to help, but you could just be making the situation muddier and more dramatic for her. You might make it worse- so I would let others get involved first. It is a great thing that you care about this girl's well being, but there's a reason why so many people feel it's best to be hands-off in situations like this- and it's not about being cold-hearted, being uncaring, or about passing the buck.
posted by Old Man McKay at 7:25 AM on January 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

It's cool that you offered to go to Alateen with her, and I think the people above who are telling you to step back because you're not family are maybe coming from a different cultural place. Groups of all kinds (Big Brother Big Sister, Gompers, YMCA, your local nonprofit) have adult-teen mentoring programs that exist just so that a teenager has a responsible adult available to talk to and be cared about by. Of course you don't replace a parent or choose her friends, but you are absolutely in a great position to add some structure to her life. Making yourself available, if you are up for it, is immensely rewarding. Just txt her, ask if she wants to grab a bite to eat, head to Denny's/Panera/whatever, and hang out. You can reiterate your offer to go to an Alateen meeting and bring along some dates and times. You can offer to make your dinner date a standing appointment on the last Thursday of the month or whatever. Think about the sorts of things that teens usually need help from their parents with, and consider how you can help make those things happen: Christmas or prom dress shopping? Choosing a yearbook picture? A lift to the train station? An opportunity to volunteer together, like at an animal shelter? Make yourself available. Just show up. That's all there is to mentoring.
posted by juniperesque at 7:45 AM on January 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

The mom just did something particularly neglectful and I decided to cut off contact with her and let the daughter know.

OP, I think it is commendable that you want to help her, but there is one part of your plan that I am worried about.

If you are cutting off the parent, sharing info with the daughter about an adult friendship and th mother, and then want to reach out to the daughter, this can potentially explode.

What if the parent takes legal action? Or no longer allows you to communicate with the daughter and now the daughter wants to reach out to you? I think that either you may get into trouble, or you may let this down this person in another way.

If you truly want to play this role, I would reconsider maintaining an acquaintanceship or friendship with the mother at minimum. Then you can offer to take the teenager out for lunch, etc, but with the mother's permission and acknowledgement.
posted by Wolfster at 9:45 AM on January 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I can't understand why you've cut off relations with the mother and let the daughter know about the disagreement. It places an unfair burden on the daughter and is just more of the same trouble her mom generates.

You've made this personal, so therefore fraught with Dramaz, and I don't think this can easily be undone. Your further participation might hurt more than help, your "secret" relationship with the daughter might be used as a weapon against her, or a become a source of unease or guilt.

I had a crazy mom I needed protecting from, yet I stand with others in this thread that are worried a line has been crossed and you should take a giant step back.


If you really want to help the daughter, maybe track down some books and resources to help this young woman's transition from high school into college? It seems like focusing on the future and life beyond her dysfunctional mom might make a difference. I know from experience making this particular transition is a hard one.

Be careful. I truly think your participation adds more confusion than assistance for this young woman.
posted by jbenben at 9:49 AM on January 21, 2014

lasamana: "The mom just did something particularly neglectful and I decided to cut off contact with her and let the daughter know."

I agree with the concern above about this part of the plan. Be in contact with the mom or not, do what you need to do...but announcing this decision to the girl is adding to her emotional burden. And it can get taken wrong by the girl in all kinds of ways, either in her initial reaction or once she thinks it over. For instance: Defensive of her mom even if she kinda hates her right now, or assumption that you'll always side with her against her mom, or she may trust you less in case you decide to cut her off as well.

Meet the girl where she is, as her own person. Not as her mother's daughter.

Don't lie, of course -- if she says "tell my mom blahblahblah," you can say something like "I'm not talking to your mom right now" or "I haven't been in contact with her because I'm still too mad at her about [incident]."
posted by desuetude at 12:42 PM on January 21, 2014

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