There’s no question that addiction causes serious disruption in any family. Perhaps those hurt most of all by a parent’s addiction are kids. Children of addicts are at greater risk for emotional problems and addiction than other children, and are more likely to act out and take risks, do poorly or fail at school, have difficulties forming and maintaining relationships and develop depression and anxiety. Growing up with a parent’s addiction can mean a childhood spent dealing with:

  • Severe mood swings that can leave children unsure how Mom or Dad will be feeling or react on any given day.
  • A lack of structure and routine because the parent(s) is not dependable enough to establish and uphold household rules. Such uncertainty creates a deep sense of insecurity for children.
  • Added responsibility for keeping the house clean, preparing their own meals and caring for younger siblings.
  • Emotional unavailability; the addicted parent’s primary relationship is with his/her drug of choice.

Making a decision to be both sober and the best parent you can be every day is the best gift that you can give your child. Living a happy, useful, sober life and cultivating coping skills for dealing with problems without picking up a drink or drug are essential lessons you’ll be able to pass on to your kids now that you’re in recovery.

Which is not to say that learning, or re-learning, how to parent is easy while in recovery, especially during the early stages when you’ll need to focus the majority of your attention on attending meetings and therapy and simply finding your way to new life that’s healthier and free of using. In addition, your first instinct may be to avoid your children out of guilt, shame, fear or simply because you don’t know what to say to them. It won’t be easy, but rebuilding trust and repairing this essential relationship is possible. Here are a few steps to help you get started:

Practice self-care. Like the airline flight attendants remind passengers on every flight, to be the best possible parent moms and dads need to first tend to their own needs. Parents in recovery often feel a great deal of guilt and shame, particularly if their children have been exposed to their addictive behavior, and they tend to overcompensate by setting aside their own needs. In order to preserve your sobriety and help your kids, it’s critical for you to prioritize eating right, exercise, managing stress, getting a good night’s sleep and having some sober family fun.

Take ownership of your addiction. Explain to your children that you didn’t realize you couldn’t stop using or how bad the consequences had become, that you needed help to stop because your addiction had become bigger than you. Even if you hid your addiction, kids still need an explanation because they will have sensed something was wrong due to your emotional unavailability, and they may even blame themselves. For children under the age of 9, explain your addiction and change of personality as part of a disease, recommends Janet Fluker, director of The Family Recovery Center at MARR, in Doraville, Georgia.

Tell your kids you’re sorry. And be specific when you do so. For example, for a younger child you may say, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tuck you in at night.” And you might tell a child who’s 9 or older, “I’m sorry I embarrassed you in front of your friends.” When having these conversations with an older child it’s best to start the talk a little formally, by saying, “I want to have an important conversation with you.” With a younger child it should just happen naturally, advises Fluker.

Be patient. Kids may hide their feelings, but it’s important to realize that they feel the pain associated with your addiction deeply. This can come out in unruly or aggressive behavior, back talk, becoming an introvert or extrovert, slipping grades or problems at school or in other ways. Be patient and understand that the entire family needs time to adjust and make changes now that you’re in recovery, just as you need time and their support in order to heal. Validate their pain and hurt and let them know that all you expect from them at this time is to listen.

Make actions matter. You need to back up what you say and what you promise so your children know that you mean what you’ve told them. If you’ve promised to change in a specific way, to spend more time with them, to be kinder and not shout or to listen and not criticize, make it a point to live up to any and all commitments you make. Remember that they may have heard a lot of broken promises in the past; now you need to be the parent they want and deserve.

Emphasize that it’s not their fault. Children need to know that whatever happened had nothing to do with anything they did or didn’t do. In other words, make sure they know that you didn’t drink, gamble or do drugs (or whatever the behavior might have been) because they argued with one another, failed a test or neglected to clean their room. This cannot be overstated: Make sure to tell your kids frequently that your addiction and all your behavior surrounding it are not due to anything they said or did. Take complete responsibility.

Spend time with your children. Allow them to draw their own conclusions that you’re healthy and in a good place to have a relationship with them; that will go further than anything you can ever tell them. Whether it’s playing ball or building with blocks, do activities that your child enjoys — get on their level and support their interests.

Show them your unconditional love. Children are wonderful sponges when it comes to parental love. They’ll respond to your heartfelt expressions and displays of unconditional love, even if it doesn’t happen right away. Remember that kids often internalize guilt, feeling that they somehow were responsible for the bad things that happened, including things that you did. They need to know you love them, so show them at every opportunity.

Find help for them (and you). Consider family therapy (often called multidimensional family therapy, or MDFT) so you can work toward improving your relationship in a structured setting under the guidance of a trained professional. In these sessions, every member of the family has a voice, with the goal of improving relationships, communication and the family’s home life. In addition, you may need to arrange for individual counseling for your child — especially if he/she is overly anxious or withdrawn; sleeping too much or not enough (a sign of depression); lashing out at classmates or teachers; or exhibiting signs of a drug or alcohol problem. For teens, support groups like Alateen may also be beneficial.

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