Parenting and Recovery: How to Talk to Children and Teens about Addiction and Recovery

You’ve made it through the first step. You’ve admitted you are powerless over your addiction and that your life has become unmanageable. Perhaps you’ve made it several steps beyond.

No matter where you are in your recovery, it is likely that part of what got you here was the shattering realization that your addiction was harmful to your children. You knew they deserved a better parent than the one you are when lost in the addictive cycle. It is also likely-whether or not they’ve ever seen you in the throes of your particular substance or process use-that your children recognized when you were far away, unhappy, disengaged, miserable, preoccupied, unpredictable, or any variation of moods which made you seem frightening or strange, and that simply made them sad. Your children experienced your addiction, and they will benefit from your recovery.

Healing through Honesty

The fundamental problem of addiction is that it separates us from ourselves and from our reality; it disconnects us from the emotional truths we are too hurt, too fearful, too immature, or too uncomfortable to confront. And this dissociative, escapist quality of addiction is likely the very reason we became entrapped by habitual behaviors in the first place.

Recovery can only happen when we lay down those old tendencies to hide from the discomfort of our present circumstances and from the pain and confusion of our past. The greater majority of people who experience addiction report problematic childhoods-absentee parents, discomfort around identity, stories of neglect, and many times, stories of abuse. We have to be willing to look closely at the picture of our past and the way our stories have informed who we are today-and we have to be willing to examine who we are in each present moment, even and especially when it is uncomfortable.

Raw honesty is required in order that we begin to heal and to become the people of integrity and flexibility we need to become in order to stay sober. We must prepare to be bare bones honest with ourselves (i.e., prepared “to make a fearless and searching moral inventory”) and before our higher power if we hope to stay clean. And we must also become emotionally and intellectually honest with the people who are close to us-even and especially our children. Only honesty will begin to create connection, and only true emotional connection will allow the kind of intimacy that can heal what our addiction has wrought.

Accountability by Example

First, it’s important to get your head all the way out of the sand. No more rationalizing, no more intellectualizing. Your child or children experienced the pain of your addiction in one way or another, even if they cannot or would not articulate it to you. As fellow humans, and as the people you love most in the world, they deserve your willingness to face facts.

Next, recognize that if you are able to admit mistakes and to apologize for failures, your children will recognize that, simply by virtue of being human, they are fallible too. Being fallible is part of the bag; it’s okay. What’s not okay is expecting others to simply deal with it. We have to be accountable for our mistakes. If the person they love and trust most can admit fault, then they will learn to do so too. And they will expect the same of their future leaders. It’s integrity you will be teaching.

This isn’t ninth step stuff, here, but it could be. It’s simply a matter of taking accountability whenever you’ve slipped up-whether it was raising your voice before dinner, forgetting to sign that permission slip on time, or checking out for most of their early childhood.

Being Honest and Age-Appropriate

Admittedly, addicts make for guilt-addled parents-that is, when we’re not using ourselves into oblivion. There’s such a thing as healthy guilt, although it can be hard to draw the line. When guilt leads you to change, to become constructive and motivated, and when this increases your self-esteem, it’s probably healthy. But if guilt makes you feel ashamed or if it leads to negative self-talk (e.g., “I’ll never be a good parent”) and a downward spiral self-esteem and lack of motivation, then ditch it. It’s no good to you or your child. It’s melodramatic and, dare I say, narcissistic.

IMPORTANT: Check in with your sense of self-worth and with what kind of guilt you might be experiencing before you speak to your child about your addiction. Crying, becoming emotional, telling your child that you are a miserable parent, or in any way over-emoting and (inadvertently) leaning on them because you feel ashamed will only harm them. They may want to soothe you. You may feel soothed. This is harmful to them. It is not their role to parent you (hi, codependency?); it is your job to ensure that they know they are safe now, and you are in control today. You are going to take care of them; you love them very much; you want them to know that you are sorry that you weren’t the best mom or dad you could have been before, but you are working to get better for yourself and for them.

If your child is a teenager, he or she may feel angry. Allow them to feel angry. They may not trust your apology or your recovery process just yet. Do not take this personally. Read again: DO NOT TAKE THIS PERSONALLY. Remind them gently that it’s okay to feel angry and hurt; you feel anger and hurt with yourself sometimes too, but you can only work from here forward. Tell them you are sorry for what happened before. Tell them that although you cannot change it, you love them very much, and you are working hard to heal for you and for them.

If your child or teen asks you questions about addiction, answer them honestly. Do not say, “You’ll understand when you get older.” If you feel the subject is too complicated for them to understand, try to explain it in a way they can understand. It is critical now that you establish trust. If they cannot count on you to answer their questions honestly, then whom will they go to for the truth? How will they believe anything you tell them? Help them to believe in you by answering their questions, by not avoiding or shirking or skating around hard truths. Accept their hurt and their anger without judgment or reactivity. Be the parent they needed before. Simply hold them with your words and your arms. Be gentle with them and be gentle with yourself.

You can.

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