Difficult conversations are part and parcel of your recovery when you’re experiencing substance use disorder (SUD). Sooner or later, you’re going to need to get real with your family, your spouse, your friends, your healthcare team, and perhaps even your employer and colleagues.
Of all the challenging talks you can expect as you’re building your new, sober life, perhaps none is more challenging or more important than the conversations you will have with your children. This article explores the reasons why you need to open up – and maintain – an honest and age-appropriate dialogue with your children about your SUD and provides strategies for keeping the lines of communication flowing.
Why Communication Matters
Anyone whose life has been touched by addiction knows all too well that it’s a disease that thrives in the shadows. Indeed, secrecy may well be the single greatest threat to your recovery. However, your health and sobriety are not the only things you put at risk when you fail to be transparent about your disorder.
Secrets don’t just make you sick, they also threaten to infect those around you, including your children. The simple truth is that children are far savvier, far more observant than we often give them credit for. This is especially true when it comes to the most important people, the most critical role models, in their lives: their parents. When something is off with Mom or Dad, chances are, your child is going to be among the first to notice.
And that’s a problem because kids, especially tweens and younger, are rockstars at figuring out how to blame themselves when something goes wrong in their world. Perhaps that influences the fact that children and teens with a history of parental substance misuse are more likely to experience a range of mental health disorders, from sleep disturbances to depression and anxiety than the general population (1, 2, 3. 10).
Indeed, in their research on the origins of the development of drug addiction in the children of parents with SUD, Kendler, et al. (2018) studied a wide array of relationship configurations, including adopted children raised by substance-using non-biological parents, children reared by substance-dependent biological parents, and biological children of a parent with SUD who were raised by a non-using parent or caregiver (3). The researchers found that rearing was as significant a risk factor as genetics in the development of drug dependency. They also found that genetic and rearing risks were additive, meaning that a child with both factors has a significantly higher risk of dependency than those who have only one of these risk factors (3).
Ultimately, this means that, whether your child lives with you or not and regardless of whether you are biologically related, your child will have a higher risk for mental illness or substance use disorder. Thus, you do them no good whatsoever in trying to sweep reality under the rug.
In fact, as is so often the case in dependency recovery, health and healing are largely a function of your willingness to confront, acknowledge, and address your challenges rather than attempting to deny them (4, 5).
The good news is that your child’s fate is in no way sealed just because they have a parent with SUD. When you take a proactive stance, when you find the courage to open up to your child, when you learn to communicate, to listen as well as speak, with your child, then you are inevitably equipping them with the tools they need to help them construct happier, healthier lives for themselves.
Research has shown that age-appropriate and ongoing parent-child communication is one of the most important tools for supporting the mental, physical, and social wellbeing of the child, preventing the emergence of SUD in at-risk children, promoting recovery in children with SUD, and cultivating healthy family relationships (6, 7, 8, 9, 11).
Opening the Lines of Communication
The thought of discussing your disorder with your child may fill you with terror or, worse, with shame. But that kind of mindset is unhealthy and unproductive both for you and for your child. Rather than approaching the topic from the all-too pervasive blaming and shaming perspective that has for centuries perpetuated and rationalized the stigmatization of dependency, it’s imperative to open the dialogue with your child from the framework both of power and of compassion (12, 13).
- Introducing the disease model of addiction: Opening up a dialogue with your child concerning parental SUD should begin with discussing addiction not as a matter of choice, desire, or willpower but as a medical condition akin to any other disease. Adolescents, of course, are likely to have an easier time understanding the disease model of addiction than younger children will, however. This means that when you are explaining to young children and tweens that Mommy or Daddy has an illness called addiction, you will also need to take care to reassure your child that they are not at risk of “catching” the disease.
Your child will also need to understand that Mommy or Daddy is getting care for their condition and doing all they can to get well. Help them to understand that this disorder is different from other, “scarier” conditions that they may already have heard of, such as cancer. Be prepared to answer questions and allay your child’s fears that you may become very sick or die from this disease. For very young children, you might compare your child’s trips to the pediatrician when they have a sore throat or tummy ache to your time spent in in-patient or outpatient care.
- Provide a safe space for your child to express themselves: One of the most important things you can do when discussing your SUD with your child is to allow them to ask questions and communicate their fears. Give them the space to express themselves freely, without judgment, reproach, or defensiveness. The more comfortable you can make your child feel in discussing the disorder, the more likely they are to continue to come to you with their questions or concerns.
- Establish rules and expectations while modeling healthy behaviors: Maintaining a transparent dialogue with your tween and teen, while also establishing clear expectations and boundaries regarding your child’s use of substances, has been shown to significantly reduce their risk of substance misuse in both the short and long-term, particularly when communication and rule setting are combined with parental abstinence (7, 8, 9, 14).
It’s also important to remember that your child or teen may feel obligated to “protect” Mom or Dad from the potential consequences of their illness. As such, they may feel obligated to lie to friends or even family members to “cover-up” for their parent. This is a burden that children, no matter their age, should never be made to bear, a burden that often contributes substantially to the depression and anxiety that children of parents with SUD so often feel. This is why it is imperative to reinforce to your child that you will never be angry, hurt, or disappointed in them for telling the truth. Such reassurance will likely lead to important conversations about how your child might manage potentially thorny situations with peers and relatives in a manner that feels most natural and comfortable for them.
- Modeling self-care: With this in mind, it’s also important to remember that parents are a child’s first and most important teachers. When your child experiences you openly discussing your condition while also practicing self-care and working your program, both the glamor of drugs and alcohol and the fear of transparency in regard to their own behaviors (and temptations) will evaporate from your child’s life. Kids will learn that drugs and alcohol are not the fascinating taboo that children often believe them to be. At the same time, they will also recognize that dependency does not have to destroy one’s life, reputation, or future. It is possible to fight the disease of addiction, and to win, one day at a time.
- Know your child and be age-appropriate: There’s no one who loves your child more and understands them better than you do. That means that you must take care to tailor your communication approach to the unique needs of your child. To be sure, honesty and openness are critical, but so too is age-appropriateness. Disclose what your child needs to know in a manner that is suited to their level of cognitive and emotional development.
- Use the 7 C’s: The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA) has established a highly effective framework for discussing addiction with children of parents with SUD. The so-called 7 C’s framework is designed to mitigate feelings of guilt, shame, and blame while practicing healing and self-care. Briefly, 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.
Routinely discussing the 7 C’s with your child can help you cultivate an on-going dialogue with your child in a manner that is healthy and constructive. You may even gift them with a laminated card that they can discreetly carry with them to serve as a comfort, support, and perspective when challenges arise.
How Bayshore Can Help
At Bayshore, we are committed to helping our clients and their loved ones live their best life. In pursuit of this goal, our caring team of addiction specialists strives to support the entire family in the recovery process. This includes offering family counseling for adults, children, and teens. Contact us today to discuss how Bayshore can help you and your children enjoy the happy, healthy life you deserve!