My greatest regret in life was being present in my children’s lives while I was actively using drugs and alcohol. No child deserves to live in a home where a parent is under the influence, and although my kids have seen the changes in my life, nothing vanishes the past. Children are born white canvas’ and every experience changes them. The psychological damage caused by substance abuse in a child’s life does not simply go away. The scars remain with them the rest of their lives.
A person abusing substances will never leave his home even though he is destroying everything within it. Understanding this is critical for anyone dealing with a substance-abusing family member. Children deserve protection and exposing them to life with an active alcoholic/addict is abuse. If you fail at being a parent… nothing else you do will really ever matter.
“Dad’s an addict.” “Mom’s going to rehab.” These are not easy conversations to have with a child, even one that has long been aware that there’s a problem.
As children learn to fend for themselves to survive, unpredictability and chaos become the norm in addicted homes. Lack of consistent discipline can produce deficits in self-control and personal responsibility, or conversely, over-control or hyper-vigilance. Children may even feel that their parent’s drug problem — and the subsequent breakup of the family or removal of the child from the home that sometimes ensues — is their fault.
Their emotions run a confusing gamut. At once resentful of and loyal to their addicted parent, children are reluctant to open up and share long-held family secrets, even if they desperately want the support. They may have a strong self-preservation instinct, but at the same time, they’re not sure if they deserve to take care of their own needs when their parent is spiraling out of control. The conflicting feelings continue as children get a glimmer of hope when their parent promises to quit even though they’ve repeatedly been disappointed.
In this impossible situation, what can parents, caretakers or other adults say to their children? How do they explain the wreckage of addiction to someone who, at a young age, has already been overexposed to some of the darkest potentialities of life?
Time the Conversation. A conversation about a parent’s addiction is best had when there are no distractions, and the situation is relatively calm. If possible, bring it up when there is a plan in place to get help for the addicted parent. Explain that there’s a problem, and you’re taking steps to improve the situation. Talk about what will change (e.g., Mom or Dad will go to rehab, or one parent may move out if separating or divorcing). Repeat the conversation as often as needed so that the child feels comfortable having an ongoing dialogue.
Keep It Age-Appropriate. The language you use and the level of detail you provide depend on the age and maturity of the child. Break the issues down as simply and directly as possible, and finish with a message of hope.
Get Educated. Educate yourself about the disease of addiction so you are in a position to answer any questions the child may have. If you don’t know the answer, work on finding one together.
Acknowledge the Impact. Rather than skirt around the impact a parent’s addiction has had, validate the child’s experience. Apologize for the pain inflicted on the child and asked open-ended questions about how they’ve been feeling.
Put Things Into Perspective. Children from addicted homes tend to idealize other families without realizing they have struggles of their own. Help them understand that they are not alone; in fact, millions of children are in the same situation. They are normal kids thrust into an unhealthy home environment who are doing their best to cope with an extremely stressful situation.
Teach the Seven Cs. According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, children need to know the “Seven Cs of Addiction”:
I didn’t Cause it.
I can’t Cure it.
I can’t Control it.
I can Care for myself
By Communicating my feelings,
Making healthy Choices, and
By Celebrating myself.
Find Additional Sources of Support. Just as the addicted parent needs treatment and support to get well, children need to know there are resources available to help them process their emotions. If they don’t feel comfortable talking with a parent or relative, they can reach out to a teacher, counselor, child or family therapist, religious leader or support group such as Alateen.
The toughest topics are often the most important to broach with children. For each day that a child lives with an addict, the damage is being done. And while not every child will fall prey to addiction or other emotional or behavioral disorders, they need honest discussion and support to beat the odds.
You can’t save an addict or alcoholic unwilling to accept help. You can only save yourself… and you are obligated to save the child in your care….