“Addiction is the dirty little secret of many families. Parents and adults walk a delicate line talking to kids about addiction.”
~ Natalie Blais, parenting strategist
Parenting isn’t easy under the best of circumstances. It becomes much harder when you are struggling with an addictive disorder such as alcoholism, the misuse of prescription medications, or an addiction to illicit drugs. And even when you finally make the positive choice to enter a recovery program, how do you talk to your kids about the situation?
The Impact of Addiction on Children
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 25% of American children live in a household where at least one parent has a drinking or drug problem. Substance abuse is involved in up to 61% of cases where Child Protective Services out-of-home placements.
Problematic alcohol and drug use affects more than the substance abuser. Everyone close to the addict often suffers just as much – or maybe even MORE. It’s not an exaggeration to say that they have been victimized by someone else’s addiction.
This is particularly true in the case of young children who have an addicted parent. Children do not possess the necessary emotional maturity and life experience to allow them to separate from their parents’ illness. These children grow up with a warped perception of what normal life and healthy relationships should look like. The dysfunction they witness can follow them for the rest of their lives.
For instance, Adult Children of Alcoholics (COAs) are more than twice as likely to marry an alcoholic.
Parental substance abuse also puts children at greater risk for:
- Poor academic performance
- Behavioral or emotional problems
- Self-esteem issues
- Verbal, physical, or sexual abuse
- Earlier initiation of experimentation with substances
- Addiction following experimentation
Children’s Needs Aren’t Met
Substance-abusing parents are frequently delinquent in meeting many of their parental obligations. While fixated on the next fix or the next drink, it’s impossible for them to offer the nurturing, comforting, teaching, guidance, support, and stability that their children need.
Many addicted parents even have a hard time providing basic necessities on a consistent basis—food, shelter, utilities, education, health care, clothes, etc.
Children as Surrogate Parents
Older siblings may become the only “parents” the younger children have. And because they must care for their younger sisters and brothers, older children are forced to grow up much too quickly. Missing out on a real childhood stunts can stunt their emotional growth.
Children as Caretakers of Adults
In unhealthy parent-child relationships involving substance abuse, minor children become the caretakers of their ill parents. Examples of this might include:
- Cleaning up the home after a parent’s drunken binge
- Missing school to nurse a hungover parent
- Taking a part-time job to buy food
- “Rescuing” anxious, depressed, or suicidal parents
- Canceling or altogether avoiding activities with friends
- Laying out their parent’s alcohol or “medicine”
- Providing an inappropriate level of emotional support
- Feeling guilt over their parent’s substance use
A Lack of Clear Boundaries
Children NEED discipline and structure in order to feel safe and develop properly –clearly-defined rules and expectations. They also need to understand the natural consequences that result when they break those rules or act inappropriately.
Unfortunately, structure and discipline are typically lacking in homes impacted by problematic substance use. Testing the limits of “right” and “wrong”, the children of substance abusers “act out” to get the attention they aren’t receiving.
Unhealthy Coping Lessons
When children see their parents coping with negative emotions like anger, sadness, loneliness, stress, or painful memories by using drugs or drinking, it teaches them unhealthy ways of dealing with life. Consequently, when they themselves face problems, they may react by:
- Taking their anger out on other people
- Harming themselves
- Vandalizing property
- Turning to drugs or alcohol – COAs have a QUADRUPLED risk of alcohol abuse.
Talking to Your Children about Parental Addiction
Because an addiction is a disease that is fueled by deception and dishonesty, the best thing you can do that all your children is to tell them the truth. And although you should tailor the information in an age-appropriate manner, you also need to be aware that your child ALREADY knows more than you think.
Because of social media and the Internet, children are aware of addiction. If you try to deceive them, or if you minimize or cover up the addiction, they will see right through you. This is an opportunity to build trust and understanding.
Explaining Addiction to Young Children (10 and under)
Children at this age are especially vulnerable, because they don’t yet fully grasp what substance abuse is. They only know what they have seen, even if they don’t know how they should feel about it.
Talk to them in a relatable manner, such as, “Do you know how Mommy sometimes acts sleepy or silly?” From there, ask them how seeing that makes them feel.
Young children can understand the idea of wanting something, even when they know that it’s not good for them—too much candy, staying up late, etc. Explain that addiction is like that—it is an illness that makes someone want and do things that are bad for them.
Most importantly, explain how you are taking steps to get the proper help—specialized counseling, medication, 12-Step meetings, etc.
Explaining Addiction to Tweens and Younger Teenagers (11 to 14)
Answer questions about addiction if your younger adolescent is interested, but don’t use this as an opportunity to launch into a huge lecture about the “evils of substance abuse”, or they will just tune you out. Once again, the biggest message you are trying to get across is that the worrisome substance use and behaviors are due to the illness – the disease of addiction.
Explaining Addiction to Older Teenagers (15 and up)
This is the age that requires the most forthright honesty. Not only will children this age be able to spot any dishonesty, they will also be able to tell if you talking down to them. With older teens, it may be necessary to draw them out to discuss their feelings.
If the substance abuse has gone on for years, older teenagers will probably have been significantly affected. As a result, they may harbor fears and resentments that still need to be addressed. Don’t take their anger personally. After all, they have heard you promise to quit before.
Just reassure them that you are working hard to get better—for yourself and for them.
What to Share with Your Children
While it is crucial to tell your children the truth, it is not necessary to go into specific detail about every addicted behavior or mistake.
Sometime, your children will believe that the turmoil and dysfunction caused by addiction is somehow THEIR fault. They feel that if they had behaved better, or done their homework more often, or cleaned their room that everything would be okay. You must reassure them that they are not to blame in any way.
Keep the focus on the idea that addiction is an illness, and therefore, it can be treated.
If at all possible, have another trusted family member present to help explain everything. For example, when both parents are present and relaying the same message, it will greatly reassure your children that they are getting reliable information.
The Special Challenges of Parenting during Recovery
Relearning how to parent during recovery can be challenging, especially early on. During the early stages, you will be focusing most of your attention on going to therapy, attending support meetings, and working through the Steps and exercises assigned to you by your primary counselor. That may not leave as much time for your family as you would like.
Conversely, now that you are substance-free, you may not know how to relate to your children. It may have been years since you interacted with them without the influence of drugs or alcohol. In fact, you may even be tempted to avoid your children out of fear, shame, or guilt.
Guilt is a burdensome emotion. You probably feel guilty about some of the selfish things you said and did while you were actively addicted. But it may surprise you to know that many parents also struggle with recovery guilt.
This is the new guilt you feel during recovery, because once again, you are focusing on yourself—your counseling and meeting schedule, your prayer and meditation time, your changing lifestyle. This will sometimes mean postponing or missing family activities.
But here’s the thing—all of these recovery-focused obligations are NOT infringements on your family time. On the contrary, they are the necessary investments you must make if you truly want to be a healthy parent for your children.
Recovery IS selfish, in the best possible meaning of the word. You must focus on your own health FIRST, because you cannot be there for your children or your family if you are not there for yourself.
Tips for Parents in Recovery
Because parenting during recovery isn’t easy, here are some practical suggestions that may help:
- Claim ownership of your addiction—Admit that you have a problem that you can’t control, so you are seeking professional help.
- Apologize to your children—Be specific, such as “I’m sorry I missed so many of your soccer games,” or, “I apologize if I embarrassed you in front of your friends.” By acknowledging your mistakes, you validate your children’s feelings and you demonstrate your commitment to change.
- Keep your promises—Rigorous honesty is part of recovery. If you say that you are going to do something, follow through and do it. Show your children that you can be trusted again.
- Spend time with your children—You can’t erase bad memories, but you CAN make new, better ones. Let them see the you that is sober and healthy.
- Be patient—Your addiction did not happen overnight, and neither will your recovery. It will take time and effort on your part before your children can trust in your sincerity.
- Take care of yourself—Addiction wreaks havoc on your physical, mental, and social health. To truly recover, you must take care of yourself:
Moving Forward as a Parent in Recovery
Here’s the good news—parents with addictive disorders DO recover. Putting in the time and hard work is worth it, because when your children see your real commitment, you can go on to be the positive parent you were always meant to be.