Get it right when you talk to your kids.
By Claudia Black
Three 9-year-old boys are standing in a long line at Disneyland, waiting to get on one of their favorite rides. One boy asks another, “When is your dad getting out of the hospital?” Before he has a chance to answer, the other boy says, “I didn’t know your dad was in the hospital. What happened to him?” The third boy responds, “Oh, he is sick. He has a disease; it’s called alcoholism.”
Whether an alcohol, drug or behavioral addiction, younger children more readily accept that their parent has a disease; it makes sense to them. This boy’s response was spontaneous, without embarrassment and totally accepting of the fact that his father is genuinely sick.
Talking to kids about addiction can be difficult, but experts agree it is important for children to understand why a parent may have acted one way in the past and seem different now. And creating an open dialogue helps kids make smart, healthy choices in their own lives. The talk should be handled differently depending on the age of the children.
Children Under 10
A good rule of thumb: When talking to young children, keep explanations to three or four sentences. Let them come back to you if they have more questions. Most kids accept that addiction is an illness with both physical and psychological ramifications. They comprehend that this isn’t just a disease that affects someone physically like other diseases. They see changes in personality, and they grasp the inability to stop something once it is started. Of course those aren’t the words children would use, but they understand the being stuck aspect of addiction or the allergy analogy.
Parents should use more general terms when talking to younger children about their addiction. One option is to tell them you are allergic to alcohol and explain that when you drank it, you did things you wish you didn’t do. So now you choose not to drink. If children are more aware of the drug use, use a more straightforward approach. Tell them that you made poor choices and used drugs and then couldn’t stop on your own without help. Again, if they have lived with it or have seen you many times when you were under the influence, it is best to acknowledge the addiction more directly.
Age isn’t always an indicator of how much children understand. I have worked with kids as young as four years old who can describe a parent’s personality changes, even their loss of control. They have their own language for what they have seen. Some poignant explanations of personality change and loss of control I have heard are: “Sometimes my mom is very loving toward me and really likes me, and then maybe later in the day she acts like a stranger to me.” “When my dad says he is going to the bar for one or two drinks, he just can’t do that anymore. It is sort of like eating potato chips, I eat the whole bag.” As adults, we often underestimate how much children witness and understand.
Children Over 10
As children raised in a household affected by addiction grow up, they are not so readily willing to accept a simple explanation or analogy as the answer for why or how you, their parent, behaved the way you did. If children have not had some education about addiction, they may think calling it a disease is a cop-out. They may think you are trying to make excuses for your behavior or avoid assuming responsibility for your earlier actions. If you are met with resistance, your job is not to convince them that you are right. Your job is simply to share information.
You’ll find children may be more receptive if you:
- Are descriptive about the addiction. Tell your children the areas of your life in which you believe you were out of control. Explain to them how alcohol or drug use negatively impacted your health, spending or your job.
- Take ownership for the choices you made along the way and for the fact that you were ignorant about what you were doing. Explain that you didn’t realize you could not stop, and acknowledge that you were rationalizing and denying. Talk about how your addiction controlled your life by speaking of your preoccupation and denial. Give your children concrete examples of the extent of your denial and rationalizations.
- Acknowledge how horrific the consequences were becoming. Tell them this is not what you envisioned when you started your addictive behaviors and that you had no idea how it was hurting the family—in spite of what were obvious signs or even clear vocalizations.
- Explain that you needed help to stop something that had become bigger than you. Describe your change in tolerance and/or escalated use to achieve the desired effect. Make the point that you continued your behavior in spite of adverse consequences, again demonstrating that your addiction had power over and against your good judgment and morality.
- Be more available to them now that you are in recovery. You do not need to cover every point in any one conversation. This is not necessarily the only conversation you will have; hopefully it will be one of many. What is paramount is that children hear that they did not cause your addiction, and they can’t control it.
Being a Present Parent
In recovery, there is a lot of wreckage in the past that needs to be addressed, and there is a lot of moving forward that will happen as well. What your children want most is to know you love them. They want you to be there for them and with them. That can be hard to recognize if your children are angry or distant.
And being fully present for them can be hard to do given the priority you must place on learning how to live clean and sober. Creating new relationships or mending old relationships doesn’t happen overnight. The most important thing you can do for your children is to stay clean and sober. While you are doing that, there are many steps you can take to be the parent your kids need and the parent you want to be.
If you find it difficult to start a conversation with your kids, look for an external in. This approach can be less threatening and feel more natural to you both. Perhaps you and your children are watching a movie and you identify with one of the characters. While the kids are talking about the movie, you can mention where you recognized yourself.
For example, you may say, “When that teenage girl thought no one knew what she was doing, the part when she was stealing her mother’s things, that was a lot like me when I was drinking and using. I thought I was being so sneaky, but by the time I quit nearly everyone knew I had a problem. I just kept rationalizing just like she did in the movie.”