No one imagines having to tell their kids that Dad is an addict or Mom is going to rehab. It’s a difficult conversation to have but one that cannot be ignored. More than 28 million Americans are children of alcoholics, but few of these households discuss the dangers of addiction. Even when the children are fully aware that a problem exists, the parents will still go through great lengths to ignore or minimize the problem. The consequences can be devastating.
The children of addicts grow up facing a lifetime of issues that their peers don’t have to deal with. Even when only one parent is an addict, children are still exposed to the threats of addiction. Kids tend to have more emotional, physical and academic problems than other kids, and they are four times more likely to become addicts in the future. They are also more likely to suffer from abuse and neglect, witness domestic violence and marry an addict as an adult.
Children learn how to exist in the world through their parents, and when their home life is filled with uncertainty and chaos, they learn unhealthy ways of coping. A lack of discipline forces young children to fend for themselves, creating an environment where they feel personal responsibility over everything, including their parent’s drug problem and the consequences that follow. This is why the children of addicts often believe that it’s their fault when their parents break up or they have to be removed from the home.
The question of whether or not you should talk to the kids about addiction in your family is yes. Below are tips for having a successful discussion and opening up the channels for effective, meaningful dialogue. If you have any questions, be sure to discuss your situation with a professional counselor or mediator.
Pick a Place and Time
In the car on the way to school is not the best time to bring up a parent's addiction. Choose a place and time with no distractions, and be prepared to take all the time you need to answer questions and reassure your children. Sometimes, the best time to have the conversation is when there are already steps in place to improve the situation, such as before sending Dad to rehab. This assures children that you’re doing something about the problem.
Keep it Age Appropriate
Telling a teenager about their parent’s addiction will be much different than telling a 3 year old. The tone of the conversation and the level of detail included is based on how old your children are and what they are capable of understanding. If you have a range of ages in your household, keep the conversation lighter and encourage the older child to come to you with additional questions. Always add a message of hope at the end.
Although you may find it best to omit the details of the parent’s addiction, you shouldn’t lie about the problem. In fact, being honest allows you to start another important conversation: the risk of addiction for the children and what can be done about it. Explain that addiction is a disease that is caused by many factors including genetics, the environment and past experiences. Tell your children that addiction, while frightening, can be successfully managed.
Educate Yourself on the Facts
Before entering a conversation about addiction, it’s important to be aware of the facts. This way, you can answer questions accurately and thoughtfully engage in conversation. Knowing the facts can also help remove your own stigma and negativity surrounding addiction. You want your kids to separate fact from fiction and acknowledge that addiction is a brain disease rather than a moral flaw.
Understand the Impact
If it’s your spouse that is dealing with addiction, you may feel that everything is coming down on you. You may think that you are protecting the kids and that they know very little, but this is hardly the way it works. Understand the impact that addiction has on the family unit, and don’t downplay the way your children may be feeling, even if you go through great lengths to protect them. Talking to a counselor can help you sort through your own emotions.
Children of addicts tend to think that they are to blame for the problems at home. These feelings aren’t helped when one or both parents say or do things when they’re under the influence. Explain how addiction changes the brain and takes control of the person. Your children are not to blame for the problems that exist at home and the things their parent says when intoxicated.
Offer Ongoing Support
One conversation is not enough. Make time for dialogue often by asking open-ended questions and welcoming responses without criticism or judgement. Remind your children that they are not alone and that millions of other children are in the same position. They may not be able to control their parent or the situation they were born into, but they do have control over how they handle it.
Now is a good time to join a support group and take advantage of the many resources that are offered to the families of addicts. Becoming a parent does not erase addiction. Nar-Anon.org is a 12-step program for the families and friends of addicts. You may also find information at learn2cope.org, addictionsandrecovery.org and projectknow.com. This is just the beginning. Many programs, online forums and local self-help groups are available for families in your position. Help is never far away.