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Gone But Not Forgotten: How to Talk to Children About a Parent’s Admission to Rehab

One of the worst things about addiction, perhaps, is that when you have a dependency, you don’t suffer alone. No, when you get sick with an addiction disorder, your whole family gets sick too. And no matter how much you want to protect your loved ones, there’s just no insulating them from the effects of substance use disorder (SUD).

You might think, for instance, that you’ve succeeded in giving your child an idyllic life, that you’ve managed to preserve their innocence, no matter how brutal your fight against addiction has been. In some ways, that could be true. There’s no more powerful force on earth than the power of a parent’s love, after all.

But even the most seemingly impenetrable of shields is not forever infallible, and no matter how you have tried to hide it, if you’re experiencing addiction, you can be sure your child knows something is wrong. Children are awesomely intuitive, and they can detect when something is up with Mommy or Daddy with the speed and accuracy of a bloodhound.

So, when a parent decides to enter residential treatment, you can be pretty certain that their child isn’t going to be entirely surprised. Some children may, in fact, receive the news with a measure of calm, perhaps even relief. However, whether a child responds with stoicism and resolve or panic and rage, one thing is certain–they have endured their own pain on the path to getting to this moment, even if they have hidden it well (1, 2).

The process of shepherding them through this experience will probably not be easy. It requires attention to and healing from the often unspoken wounds of the past as a central element of moving forward, as individuals and as a family, into a healthier, happier, dependency-free life for all.

This article is intended both for parents who are preparing to enter residential care and for caregivers who are tending children whose parents have already entered in-patient care. It provides suggestions to help you help your children navigate this difficult and frightening terrain and make it safely to firmer ground.

Denial Doesn’t Work

Whether you are a parent trying to figure out how to say goodbye to your child before you begin your journey of recovery or you are a guardian trying to determine how best to explain a parent’s sudden absence, you’re probably greatly tempted to try to put as rosy a glow on the situation as possible.

Unfortunately, you’re doing the child no favors by denying that there’s a problem. They already know something is wrong, so trying to sweep it under the rug is just going to make them feel invalidated and mistrustful (3, 4, 5). Further, by perpetuating and validating the cycle of silence and denial that has almost inevitably characterized their parent’s history of addiction in the first place, you’re also reinforcing an unhealthy and potentially life-threatening paradigm that tends to carry into the adult lives of children of substance-abusing parents: that they will bury their pain, repress their experiences, and, in so doing, increase their risk for mental illness and substance use disorder themselves (6).

On the other hand, by addressing the situation frankly, openly, and without shame or judgment, you’re modeling the attributes that the child will need in order to cultivate their own powers of resiliency in the face of adversity (7, 8). By combining openness with acceptance, you are also taking some of the sting out of a painful situation. You are teaching the child that the monster they likely have been fearing for years has far less of a bite than they had imagined.

You are also teaching them that monsters grow in the dark but shrink in the daylight–that there is tremendous power in being real, in being honest, in standing and fighting the things you fear rather than endlessly running and hiding from them. In other words, you are teaching them self-acceptance, self-esteem, and self-efficacy (9, 10).

Nature Abhors a Vacuum

The importance of frequent, honest conversations about a parent’s entry into residential treatment isn’t just about reaping the benefits, as significant as they are, of such conversations; it’s also about avoiding the harms of silence, which are equally profound. The simple reality, as we’ve already seen, is that children are often far savvier and far more aware than adults may like to think.

Unless you fill in the blanks with and for them, they’re going to do it themselves. The narratives kids create concerning a traumatic event, such as a parent’s illness and hospitalization, will almost always be the worst possible scenario, a scenario in which the child himself or herself is to blame. Children, especially those under the age of ten, have an incredible capacity to figure out why something is “their fault,” no matter how outlandish the reasoning may be.

So without engaging in open, loving, and ongoing conversations about their parent’s addiction and their absence while in treatment, the child can be expected to attribute the silence to some form of shame, anger, or punishment directed at them. They may come to believe, for instance, that Mommy or Daddy wouldn’t have gone away if they had just behaved better. They may think that they caused the addiction or could have cured it. They may think that their parents drink or do drugs because the child has made them unhappy.

And then, there are often other fears associated with a parent’s addiction, such as the fear that Mommy or Daddy will never come home, that they may die or become incapacitated. The child may also fear that others they love will also become ill with addiction or another disease or that they, too, may someday fall ill.

By welcoming any and all questions and addressing them in an age-appropriate manner, you can help allay the child’s fears and increase their likelihood of coping healthfully. For instance, younger children do not need to hear the explicit details of a parent’s rock bottom. Explaining, instead, that Mommy or Daddy is sick and has gone somewhere to get better, just as they go to the doctor when they aren’t feeling well, may suffice.

If the child is older, or if the child has heard rumors regarding a parent’s behavior while under the influence, then acknowledging the events without going into detail will help protect the trust you have established with the child without stigmatizing their parent. You may, for example, explain that Mommy or Daddy made some bad choices while they were sick, but that they are getting help to feel better and learning to make better decisions.

In addition, to help address the fear and guilt that so often plagues children of substance-abusing parents, you might introduce them to the 7 C’s, which was developed by the National Association of Children of Alcoholics to help children develop essential coping skills in the face of a parent’s addiction. The 7 C’s framework includes the following mantras: I didn’t cause it. I can’t control it. I can’t cure it. But I can take care of myself by communicating my feelings, making healthy choices, and celebrating me. This framework is designed to promote healing and self-care while minimizing feelings of guilt, shame, and blame.

How Bayshore Can Help

At Bayshore, we treat families as well as individuals. Our caring team of addiction recovery experts is uniquely qualified to help parents and their children build strong, healthy relationships and bright, drug-free tomorrows. We offer individual, group, and family counseling as well as robust after-care services to ensure that our clients and their loved ones achieve the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being they deserve. Contact us today to discuss how our Bayshore family can support the health and healing of your family.

At Bayshore Retreat we have extensive knowledge in treating substance abuse and co-occurring mental health issues. We understand that Mental Health Disorders can be the root cause of substance abuse. We use the latest scientific research and holistic approach for drug and alcohol addiction treatment.

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