When do the parent-child roles reverse? How much is too much when it comes to helping my parent?



I remember feeling this way when my dad struggled with alcohol use. Although my mom has gotten better with her alcohol problem, I still feel sometimes this tug-of-war between wanting to intervene, but not wanting to become my mom’s “parent”. I especially worry about this happening to my younger siblings at home who live with her currently.


Looking back, I can see pretty clearly when the roles began to reverse between me and my mom. I had a sleepover for my 13th birthday, and I remember being mortified when my friends and I came upstairs to see what all the loud music was, only to find my mom drunk and dancing around the living room by herself. (This might have been amazing and so much fun, only my mom was a very serious person and NEVER danced.)

A few years later I moved in with my dad because I felt my mom’s home was not a healthy environment for me. My mom and I would plan to meet for lunches on weekends, but she usually felt too sick to come, or she’d show up drunk with her boyfriend. I was always left feeling like the adult in the situation, wishing my mom could get her act together. (Clearly not yet understanding what I do now about addiction.)

Shortly after I began taking on this overly-responsible role with my mom, I had more and more access to alcohol in social situations (high school parties, etc) and I began misusing it and acting out recklessly. A lot of blurry nights and shame followed.

When you’re older, you naturally start to see your parent as a person - a human being - as well as your parent. You don’t hold them so tightly to the idealistic expectations or “hero” status you might have as a kid. So you can connect beyond your set roles. Maybe. It’s tricky, isn’t it? Because as a grown-up child, you still occasionally want “your mommy” - or that idea of a person who will guide you and console you and protect you. And I would imagine as a parent, you still want your child to look up to you.

Ugh. It’s hard.

But I think the simplest answer to “How much is too much when it comes to helping my parent?” is: Whatever is too much for you, and them, is too much.

It will be different for every mom, dad, son and daughter. Feel it out as you go, and do everything you can to put love and respect first, always.


This is a toughy @ashleykm3, and I’m not sure have much to contribute beyond empathy. I feel like I’ve been in the same tug-of-war for the past few years, tugging back and forth between feeling like the child and then the parent. I’m not sure ‘how much is too much,’ exactly - I guess that’s for each of us to decide - and I’m still learning.

Would love to hear insight from @carolzevallos @Marigold or @cdr here?!


This is absolutely such a delicate balance. I think it’s true that most of us experience a desire/obligation (or some combination) to take care of our parents more as they get older— no matter if our parents struggle with addiction, mental/physical health issues, or just aging in general.

I have definitely struggled with how much I can and should help my mom during active addiction, and even now that she is in recovery. For me a lot of it has gone back to setting clearer boundaries for our relationship. I must determine what I am capable of doing and what I am willing to do, whether that means financial, emotional, or other types of support. It doesn’t mean that I am rigid and inflexible (which, in my experience, prevents growth), but that I have an idea about what role I play in her life and she in my, and that I must give careful consideration in a case before deciding to deviate from those intentions that I have set for myself.

I belong to a twelve-step group for the loved ones of addicts (Nar-Anon) and have found that there is a huge spectrum of different types of relationships we all have with our parents, siblings, children, friends who deal with addiction. For some people, cutting all ties is the answer, and others (like me) still maintain a close, continued relationship. I figured out that some things I was doing “for” my mom only caused me anger or pain in my life, and so I tried to stop doing those specific things, but there are other things that I still continue to do and ways that I support her that feel good and healthy for me and for our relationship. (I also talk with my therapist about this issue a lot.)

Lastly, I’ll share a passage from the Nar-Anon booklet on helping, which has really been beneficial to me in understanding how I can set the terms of my relationship with my mom:

"Our role as helper is not to DO things for the person you are helping, but to BE things, not to try to train and change the addicts actions, but to train and change your reactions. We can change our negatives to positives:

  1. fear to faith;
  2. contempt for what the addict does to respect for the potential within the addict;
  3. rejection to release with love;
  4. not try to make them fit a standard or image or expect him to measure up to or down from that standard, but to give them an opportunity to develop the best within them, regardless of what that best may be;
  5. dominance to encouragement;
  6. panic to serenity;
  7. false-hope, self-centered to real hope, God-centered;
  8. the rebellion of despair to the energy of personal revolution;
  9. driving to guidance; and
  10. self-justification to self-understanding

As we change in such ways as these, we change the world about us and all the people in our world for the better."