How to talk to children about recovery

As part of Recovery Month this September, the Department of Counselling Services will, each week submit a special feature that focuses on an aspect of substance abuse recovery. This week’s article looks at your recovery and your children.

For many parents working to overcome drug and alcohol misuse, the hardest part of recovery can be reclaiming the relationship with their children; learning to parent without using alcohol or drugs can be extremely stressful.

Children of all ages suffer when a parent misuses alcohol or drugs. Typically, children experience confusion, fear, worry, sadness, and anger but children usually express their feelings differently to adults.

Even if a parent was always at home, children can experience a psychological or emotional absence when the parent was using alcohol or drugs. Children may have been neglected or abused, or allowed to be neglected or abused by someone else. For example, children might not have learnt basic things like how to brush their teeth properly, how to groom themselves, table manners, and how to make and keep friends. Older children might have learnt to take the role of caregiver to their younger siblings and, at times, the parent.

Children may distrust authority figures because they have learnt from experience to expect disappointment from parents. Others have an excessive need to be in control in order to balance out the chaos in their lives. Or they may constantly need approval, to reassure themselves that they have value. Some become aggressive. The very secretive nature of parental substance misuse can give children little experience with making friends, so later these children and teens may have difficulty with maintaining close and fulfilling relationships.

These behaviours may persist even after the parent stops using drugs and alcohol and it is useful to understand how the child learnt the behaviour initially; children learn to survive as best they can while living with a parent using alcohol and drugs.

Even the most troubling behaviour usually has its roots, historically, in the child trying to get basic needs met under difficult circumstances. For example, a parent in recovery starting to set healthy boundaries for a child regarding bedtime can be a difficult transition for the child who in the past has always put themselves to bed.

Many parents in recovery worry about how to explain things that happened in the past when the parent was using alcohol or drugs. At the same time, most parents in recovery also worry about their children (especially older children and teens) developing drug and alcohol problems of their own.

It can be tempting to think that it is not necessary to tell a child (especially a young child) the truth about a parent using drugs and alcohol, but it is far better to tell them, in words they can understand given their age and development stage. Children often know that something is wrong, and they usually blame themselves for whatever they imagine that ‘something’ is.

Teach your child about addiction, recovery, and relapse. One of the most important things that can be shared is the nature of the parents drug and alcohol use: why drug and alcohol use started, how the move from experimentation to frequent use was made and then into dependency and addiction. How drugs played a part in making decisions that normally wouldn’t have been made.

Children can benefit by learning about recovery and relapse, too: knowing that people do recover from drug and alcohol addiction but sometimes parents who have been clean-even for a long time-can relapse. Children may have already heard many broken promises in the past, so it is best not to make promises of never relapsing again.

Children of substance mis-users often believe that their parent’s problems are their fault, and that they should be able to do something to change the parent. A child can be given a huge gift by helping to lift this guilt off of their shoulders: the child did not cause your alcohol or drug problem; the child cannot control the parent’s alcohol or drug use and the child cannot cure the drug or alcohol problem.

Other topics can include that the parent never stopped loving the child even when the drugs or alcohol were making using more of a priority than the child’s needs; that the child deserves and is worthy of love and that the child is intrinsically good. It can also help to explain that many children have parents with drug or alcohol problems, and they grow up to be strong, healthy, and happy adults

It is usually very difficult for parents in recovery to talk with their children about their own addiction, recovery, and relapse. It can bring up feelings of shame and guilt and parents often worry that they will lose their child’s respect. The Counselling Centre offers support surrounding gaining abstinence from alcohol and drugs, as well as offering support for family members and children too.

The Department of Counselling Services provides residential and outpatient treatment for drug and alcohol misuse. Staff members also offer individual, family and specialized group therapy, as well as prevention and educational workshops to promote healthy lifestyles.

For further information call 949-8789.

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