Parenting Adult Children while in Treatment Court

The negative impact of parental substance use on children’s well-being is well documented within the literature. Family Treatment Courts (FTCs) specifically aim to provide parents involved with the child welfare system with access to clinical treatment and recovery support services in an effort to enhance family functioning and help families stay together and thrive. However, a large percentage of participants in all types of treatment court programs have children (or serve in the role of parent/guardian). As a result, these participants could benefit from enhancing their knowledge and skills within the area of parenting.
Participants’ perceptions of what it means to be a parent in treatment court and the role that identity may play in recovery is under-researched and poorly understood. Children can be effective supports, providing motivation and purpose in living. However, they can also serve as stressors in triggering substance use, mental health symptoms, and self-defeating behaviors. In the coming months, Beyond the Field will explore what is known about how treatment court participants perceive their identity as parents and resources available to all types of treatment courts to address the needs of participants serving in the parent/guardian role.
Our first entry discusses issues related to parenting adult children and encourages your program to collect data about your participants’ children. We have provided an “adult and minor child data collection form” that can be modified to suit your program’s needs. These data can be useful for getting to know your participants and identifying potential areas of need for which appropriate treatment and recovery support service referrals can be made.
Parenting Adult Children: Special Issues
While the challenges of parenting young children among treatment court participants has received some attention, especially by FTCs, there is very little research on parenting adult children. While there are some “self-help” sorts of books that offer common sense advice to help parents navigate the shifts that occur when children become adults, there is scant data and theory to guide those involved in treatment courts or recovery more generally.
One does not cease to be a parent when a child turns 18, and nothing magical happens on that milestone birthday to make that former minor child accountable and responsible for their own choices. Yet, in the eyes of the law and society, that child now IS legally responsible for their own behavior and choices, and that can be a difficult concept to absorb. Parents of adult children may struggle to find a balance between supporting their autonomy and providing emotional support. These challenges may become more evident if residing together. There are a variety of explanations for the increasing numbers of adult children who live with a parent, which include economics, the need for childcare, and increases in adult children needing care for mental and physical illnesses (Kirby & Hoang, 2018).
Adding to this complex terrain, is the reality that once children reach adulthood, they are no longer restricted from having contact with parents whose parental rights were terminated. Thus, adult children may elect to reconnect with their parents from whose care they were removed as minors. As a result, it is incumbent upon treatment court programs to work with participants to gather demographic information about each child, as well as information regarding their current relationship status regardless of the child’s age. Moreover, these data can (and should) be used to inform the development of treatment and supervision plans.
Here are some special issues to consider for people in your treatment court who are parents of adult children.
What the treatment court team can do:
  1. Consider that the parent role is often invisible to society and treatment court programs once minor children transition into adulthood and/or if there has been a termination of parental rights. Ask participants about ALL of their children, of ALL ages, regardless of custody status. Show interest, compassion, and care especially if there is a history of loss.
  2. Assess whether the relationship with an adult child could support recovery and offer resources to enhance those relationships. Yes, treatment providers may take the lead on this, but judges, case managers, court coordinators, and other team members can consider how incentives may promote relationship quality (e.g., “movie tickets to spend special time with your adult daughter.”) Express interest by learning and using the names of their adult children when communicating with participants.
  3. Assess any risks the relationships could pose to the participant’s recovery. For example, an adult child may be actively using substances that could trigger the participant’s return to use. The adult child may express negative emotions to the participant or have behavioral problems that create stress and can exacerbate trauma, depression, anxiety, or mental health symptoms. In these cases, the program should offer additional support and targeted skills training to enhance boundaries and preserve treatment gains.
All members of the treatment court team should be aware of these themes that can impact treatment court participants with adult children.
  • Grief and guilt related to missed time or other “failures” as a parent earlier in life. Help participants practice self-compassion & learn to forgive themselves.
  • The need for problem-solving skills that are tailored to these relationships. For example, an adult child who is actively using substances and wants to live with the treatment court parent.
  • The importance of modeling and teaching assertive communication skills related to boundary setting & conflict management. Using the example above, it would be helpful for the treatment court team to support the participant in setting and enforcing health boundaries with their adult child regarding housing.
  • The benefits of modeling and teaching active listening skills in an effort to help participants express empathy toward adult children. For example, instead of lashing out in response to an adult child who is angry because the participant will not loan them her car, the participant might be prompted to say “I see you are really mad about this. You feel like I am letting you down, and it’s frustrating to hear ‘no’.” This exact response might be something the participant has heard from a case manager who will not excuse an absence.
  • The power of promoting expressions of (genuinely) positive feelings to adult children. Even expressing positive feelings like “I am really impressed by how you handled that tough situation” can make people in recovery feel vulnerable. But research indicates that this kind of sharing builds trust and rapport.
  • Highlighting emotion regulation skills such as centering, role playing, and planning for alternatives to substance use. For example, when an adult child offers the participant alcohol or another drug, she could take three slow breaths and say to herself “I’ve practiced this. I can say ‘No. Please don’t offer. I’m going for a quick walk.’”
Hopefully what is clear is that all treatment court types serve individuals that are embedded in families and that a high percentage of participants have children. Therefore, all treatment courts are family treatment courts, and teams should recognize that parenting adult children IS parenting. Erik Erikson, renowned psychologist studying adult development, stated that people in middle- and older-adulthood face a conflict between generativity or supporting contributing to the next generation, and stagnation, or regret and a lack of purpose (1982). Treatment court teams can take action to support generativity in participants who have adult children, as this aspect of identity could play a critical role in helping shape and support recovery once they have separated from your program.
An Adult & Minor Child Data Form was created to gather descriptive information regarding children of parents involved with the treatment court program. If the participant has more than 4 children, please copy/paste a box for the corresponding number of children.
Written by Sally MacKain, Ph.D., LP, NDCRC Director of Clinical Treatment, and Kristen DeVall, Ph.D., NDCRC Co-Director


Erikson, E.H. (1982). The Life Cycle Completed. New York. W.W. Norton and Company.
Kirby, J.N. & Hoang, N.T. (2018). Parenting adult children: A neglected area of parenting studies. In M. R. Sanders, A. Morawska (Eds.), Handbook of Parenting and Child Development Across the Lifespan, Springer Publishing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Recent Comments