Talking to Your Kids About Addiction, Recovery, and Your Past

parents holding hands with their kid in a park

It’s tough to be vulnerable, especially with the people that you are supposed to protect. Many parents in recovery struggle to talk to their children about addiction; whether it be explaining why they have to leave for treatment, or discussing uncomfortable parts of their past that occurred while they were drinking and using. As a parent, you may also worry about how your addiction and recovery could affect your children, both now and in the long run.

Children who grow up in the presence of parental substance abuse are often confused, scared, and uncertain about the things they see happening around them. Some parents feel like it’s better to keep their children in the dark to protect them from the pain and ugliness that comes with addiction. This approach can leave children feeling insecure and distrustful of their caregivers. Avoiding difficult conversations with your children on topics like addiction may lead them to develop destructive beliefs, such as that household chaos is their fault or that they can fix it. Children may also experience overwhelming feelings of shame surrounding their family’s secrets or perceived brokenness.

Although talking to your kids about addiction may be uncomfortable, it can have tremendous short-term and long-term benefits. Choosing to ignore the issue or pretend that it doesn’t exist is likely to lead only to negative consequences, and won’t protect your child from the pain and turmoil that arise from addiction. You may be surprised by how much your child already knows about addiction in your household. Your addiction has already impacted your children; talking openly about addiction can help them find healthier ways to cope and process the trauma they are experiencing.

Educate Yourself and Invest in Your Relationship

Before you have a conversation with your child about their parent’s addiction, be sure to educate yourself. It’s important to make sure that the information you’re sharing is both accurate and age-appropriate. For instance, children under the age of 10 often still view the world from a self-centered perspective. They may tend to blame themselves or believe that their parents are behaving a certain way because of something they did. They might think, “Maybe if I did better in school (or didn’t misbehave, or didn’t spend as much time with my friends), my parent wouldn’t need to drink so much.” These kinds of beliefs can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as codependency. Make sure to reassure your children that your addiction is not their fault and that they didn’t cause it, even inadvertently. Remind them that there is nothing that they could have done differently to prevent their parent’s substance use disorder. Finding a local or virtual Alateen for your child to participate in will help them build a supportive network of understanding peers and mentors.

Children whose parents have an alcohol or substance use disorder are at higher risk for developing their own issues with drugs and alcohol later on in their life. Having open and honest conversations about addiction at this stage can help strengthen your relationship with your children and pave the way towards a better relationship in the future. Having a stronger relationship will give you the chance to help prevent your children from developing substance issues, as well as allow you to set a precedent of honesty and safety for them to come to you if they begin to experiment with drugs and alcohol.

4 Messages Your Child Needs to Hear

The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA) lists four important messages that children of parents who suffer from addiction need to hear. Be sure to tell your children:

  1. Addiction is a disease
  2. It’s okay to talk about addiction
  3. It’s not your fault
  4. You are not alone

The NACoA also suggests that parents and caregivers encourage children to remember the “7 Cs of Addiction”:

  1. I didn’t cause it
  2. I can’t control it
  3. I can’t cure it
  4. I can care for myself
  5. By communicating my feelings,
  6. Making healthy choices, and
  7. By celebrating myself

It’s Normal for This to Be Difficult

It’s completely understandable to feel uneasy about having the conversation of addiction and recovery with your child. Talking about these difficult issues can make you feel vulnerable and bring up feelings of shame and guilt, which can even cause you to wonder if you are doing the right thing, or whether you are going to lose the respect of your children. You may feel uncomfortable thinking about facing your child after you’ve exposed them to the truth about your addiction, or you could be dreading the questions they might ask you about your past. Challenging though it is, all of these feelings are normal parts of the healing process that the entire family must go through to reach acceptance and stability.

Choosing to speak openly about addiction with your children can be scary. You may feel that they aren’t ready to hear about tough topics like substance abuse and rehab, and you might worry about losing their respect or damaging your bond of trust. These are all normal concerns for a parent in recovery. While addiction can feel difficult to discuss, the more we talk honestly about our issues, the more we can break the stigmas that surround them. The initial conversation you have with your child about your past or present addiction will set the tone and precedent for a future relationship built on honesty and mutual support. To make sure that your efforts towards recovery benefit your family along with yourself, reach out to Achieve Concierge. We’re here to provide expert assistance during this challenging time. You don’t have to figure this out on your own. Call us at (619) 393-5871 to learn more.

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