By Paige Abbott, M.Sc., R.Psych. and Dr. Raju Hajela, Addictionist
If you or your partner struggle with the disease of addiction, the questions of how, when, and if to talk to your children about this are likely prominent in your mind. For many, these questions become so overwhelming and they feel so uncertain that no action is taken and a lack of communication between parents and children ensues.
Unfortunately, this silence is the worst outcome in terms of individual, couple, and family health because there is a lack of openness and honesty, which can perpetuate addictive thinking and behaviour. In this article we will explore why it is important for parents to talk about addiction with their children and how to go about this.
Claudia Black, author of Deceived: Facing Sexual Betrayal, Lies, and Secrets talks about the rationale for disclosure of sexual addiction to children. Of course, this applies to addiction as addiction and is not limited to those with sexual addiction. The reasons to talk openly with children are:
1) Validation: Although parents may think they are being protective of their children by not sharing information, children are intuitive and are likely picking up on changes in the home and their parent(s). Older children may even know or suspect their parent’s addictive behaviours. Disclosure validates their feelings and can diminish worry, anxiety, fear, and shame.
2) Education: Children are exposed to many substances and processes that can become part of addiction. Talking openly and honestly about risks and vulnerabilities from a personal perspective can be more valuable than general information about drugs and alcohol.
3) Safety: If you or your partner’s use is potentially impacting the safety of your children, then it is even more important to have open discussions about addiction. It may also be valuable for the family to develop a safety plan that all members are aware of.
4) Breaking the generational cycle: There is a biological predisposition with the disease of addiction and if you or your partner has this disease, there is a high likelihood that your children are at risk for developing it themselves. Parents convince themselves that sheltering their children from addiction and recovery will benefit their health and wellbeing when the reality is quite the opposite. If children are uninformed about their biological risk for addiction and their parent’s personal journey with addiction and recovery, the more vulnerable they become.
Making the decision to talk to your children about addiction and recovery is certainly not an easy one. However, once you have decided with your partner to talk to your kids, here are some points to keep in mind:
- Keep the discussion age-appropriate. Younger children will have difficulty understanding concepts such as ‘addiction’ and ‘recovery’ but may be able to appreciate that mommy or daddy’s health condition impacts their thinking and behaviour and has been impacting the family dynamic.
- Talk about emotions. Ask the children about their thoughts, feelings, and reactions to what has been happening in the home and with their parents. Engage in a meaningful, supportive dialogue and ask questions!
- Talk about recovery and the steps you (and your partner, if applicable) are taking to move forward with health and wellness (e.g., 12 step meetings, group therapy, individual therapy, etc.).
- Do not get into specifics. Children do not need to be informed of where addiction has taken their parent. Rather, talk about the impact addiction has had on the parent and family and how they can shift the focus to wellness moving forward.
- Invite future dialogue. Encourage your children to talk with you regularly, openly, and honestly about their experiences, emotions, and thoughts related to their parent’s addiction, as well as any concerns they may have about their own risks and vulnerabilities.
- Be on the same page as your partner. If you are in a relationship, it is recommended that both parents/caregivers be on board with the discussion about addiction and share their own emotions and experiences with children.
If you feel unprepared to deal with this on your own, have a facilitator present. Sometimes it can ease the anxiety and worries for the whole family to have a discussion about addiction with a healthcare provider present. Make sure that this is someone you trust and who is knowledgeable about all aspects of addiction and mental health issues.