My kid borrowed money while battling drug addiction. How do I talk to him about getting paid back?

How to talk money with your kid when addiction is part of the equation

Beth takes on a tricky new money question—and offers expert advice on how to resolve it and how to talk it over in constructive ways.


The situation

“My 24-year-old son is in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. He’s been sober now for almost two years. In addition to the damage to his health and relationships, our finances took a severe hit. (Cosigned credit cards that went unpaid, rent we covered, etc.) The important news is that he’s better. He’s been sober for two years, and he’s actually making good money at a new job. The bad news is that we’re left with his debts to pay off, and he hasn’t started addressing this. How do I talk to him without starting a fight and dredging up a bunch of drama from the past?” —name withheld  

The solution

Talking about money with family and friends is always a matter of timing. Lecturing your half-awake teen about college savings as she pours a bowl of Pumpkin Puffins is not ideal, for example. With more sensitive financial conversations, however, it might seem like it’s never the right time. That’s because money worries, important as they are, can come in a distant second to other more pressing concerns—in this case, the health and well-being of a child in recovery.

“As a parent, you should reinforce that there is nothing more important than your kid’s sobriety.”

But when will it be the right time? And what exactly do you say when it is? To sort out the personal aspects of this intensely personal finance question, I reached out to two experts at the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, a nonprofit that helps families struggling with substance-abuse problems. (You might know it by its previous name, Partnership for a Drug-Free America.) Dr. Fred Muench is a psychologist and the group’s president and CEO. Pat Aussem specializes in parent-child communication and serves as a consultant with the Partnership’s Parent Support Network. So we’re in very good hands here.

Dr. Muench got right to the point: “As a parent, you should reinforce that there is nothing more important than your kid’s sobriety.” When a recovering addict is still actively going to outpatient counseling sessions or 12-step meetings—still looking for work and ways to rebuild his independence— asking him to pay back old debts could be too much for him to handle. As Dr. Muench pointed out, “Without sobriety there is no repayment, so realize repayment may come 15 years down the line.”

Eventually, confronting issues just like this one are key to a person’s recovery. As Aussem put it, “In addition to rebuilding one’s life, recovery includes being accountable for one’s actions.” In other words, when you have clear and honest discussions about financial responsibility, you’re actually helping your kid get better.

Is it time to have that talk in this particular case? Probably. “When this happens is an individual decision; however, generally once someone is grounded in his or her recovery, it’s reasonable to bring up personal issues,” said Aussem. “Given that he has a job, it’s a fair conversation.”

Your kid is ready to talk—but are you?

Before you forge ahead with the big money talk, though, take a step back and examine your motives. It’s easy to build up resentment when helping a family member through a hard time. Whether you admit it or not, even if you intend to approach this conversation with a clear head, you might still be smarting from old wounds. Don’t let hurt feelings cloud the conversation. Don’t confuse reimbursement with payback. Ask yourself if you really need your child’s financial help—or if you’re just trying to make a point. If it’s the latter, Aussem suggests that these parents first join a support group or seek counseling “to process their own emotions before dealing with this issue with their son.”

Writing the script

When you feel ready to have the money conversation with your child, it’s not a good idea to improvise. “Some people script and role-play their requests,” Aussem told me, “to make sure that they stick to the issues, stay calm, and anticipate how to handle any objections.” Coming up with planned talking points might sound forced, but it will help you stay focused and have the discussion you want to have.

It’s understandable that this parent feels worried about saying the wrong thing—or saying it the wrong way. But the fact is that people in recovery want what everyone wants from a conversation: “Like all of us, they tend to respond to respectful, positive language,” Aussem told me. But don’t worry—“positive” doesn’t mean your every word has to be a rainbow arching over a smiling unicorn. To structure what you plan to say to your kid, the Partnership offers 7 Elements of Positive Communication:

1. Be brief
Make one request at a time. This is not your chance to remind your son he’s three credits shy of a BA, or to bring up that time he left his pet Burmese python in your garage because he couldn’t afford to feed it.

2. Be specific
When discussing money, that means using real numbers, which can be scary. Instead of vague statements like, “We spent a bundle helping you out and want the money back,” Aussem suggests saying something concrete, like, “We’d like you to pay back $100 per month.”

3. Be positive
Say what you want, and not what you don’t want. “We want you to start making the minimum payment on this Visa bill each month” is far more effective than “We don’t want to keep paying your Visa bill so our credit doesn’t implode,” even if both statements address the same issue. As Aussem said, look to the future, not the past: “Since you can’t undo their actions, it’s helpful to think about how they might move forward.”

4. Label your feelings
I mentioned this time-honored parenting technique in a recent column about how to talk to a boomerang kid who won’t move out of your house. It’s just as useful in this situation: Naming our feelings, both negative and positive, helps us be in control of them. That can go a long way in tough conversations like these. Try saying something like, “I can imagine that you feel angry looking back at all the stuff you charged on your credit card when you weren’t thinking clearly.”

5. Offer an understanding statement
Show that you empathize by saying so. “I understand how frustrating it must be for you these days, working so hard and feeling like you’re constantly playing catchup with your finances.”

6. Take partial responsibility
Of course you aren’t to blame for everything that’s happened, but by bankrolling your kid and not being upfront about what you expected in return, you do share some responsibility. Admitting this can make your conversation feel less like a trial and more like a dialogue.

7. Offer to help
As in any negotiation, both sides should bring something to the table. Be prepared to offer up ways you can help your kid succeed. Maybe it’s as simple as providing a weekly reminder via text. Perhaps you’ll volunteer to call the credit card company to discuss payment options. Make the case to your kid that you need help in this situation, too. “Rather than asking for repayment, asking for help can reduce the tension,” Dr. Muench added, “especially when it comes to bills.”

It’s a lot to take on, I know. But preparing before you sit down to talk will make your conversation more productive, less contentious, and—yes—a positive experience for all of you.

My two cents on lending to family

If you’ve been with me for a few years now, you already know my take on this subject: Lending big sums of money to family members is generally unwise. Of course, that sort of advice isn’t easy to take when your child is suffering, and the alternative—eviction, no health insurance, no car to get to work—will make matters worse. If you do lend money to your kid, be prepared for that loan to magically transform into a gift that will probably never be repaid, and chalk it up as a loss.

Hopefully, though, talking it through with your kid ends with an agreement about how to move forward and pay off his debt. Here are a few simple and supersmart ways to make that plan and stick to it:

1. Get it in writing
Draw up a budget detailing who will handle which bills and when each payment will be made. Whatever you do, keep your expectations low. “Explore ways he can make a financial contribution to help with some of the debt,” Dr. Muench said, emphasis on some. “Even a small gesture would be helpful.”

2. Try negotiating with lenders
You’d be surprised what a phone call to your student loan servicer, dentist, or even credit card company can yield. You may be able to lower the payments or even cut down the full amount owed.

3. Automate
Agree on specific amounts to be drawn from your kid’s paychecks and set up automated online bill pay through your bank. This has two benefits: Your kid won’t miss a payment and endanger your credit scores, and after a few pay cycles, he might not even miss what’s being taken from his paychecks.

For more useful communication strategies, the Parent’s 20-Minute Guide, developed by the Center for Motivation and Change, is available through the Partnership website.

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