By Patti Richards
I know rehab is the only way to get my life back. But who wants a mom that’s in treatment? But then, who wants a mom who’s addicted? No one, that’s who. When all the other moms are volunteering at school and their kids ask my kid, “Where’s your mom?,” what is she supposed to say? How do I tell her where I’m going and why? Are there any answers for someone like me?
Recognizing you have a problem with addiction and reaching out for help are the first steps on the road to recovery. If you have taken those steps, be proud. It takes courage to admit you need treatment. And you’ll need that courage in the days ahead as you explain to your children that you’re getting help. Fear of that conversation could derail your determination to get well. But you and your kids deserve the sobriety that only treatment can offer. Telling them where you are going and why is a gift that only you can give. Having the right tools can help you get the conversation started.
Addiction’s Impact on Children
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 8 million children in the United States ages 17 and under live in households where at least one parent deals with a substance use disorder.1 That means the impact of addiction on children is widespread and growing. The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress describes the home environment of children living with an addicted parent as follows:
“Family life is characterized by chaos and unpredictability. Behavior can range from loving to withdrawn to crazy. Structure and rules may be either nonexistent or inconsistent. Children, who may not understand that their parent’s behavior and mood is determined by the amount of alcohol or other drugs in their bloodstream, can feel confused and insecure. They love their parents and worry about them, and yet feel angry and hurt that their parents do not love them enough to stop using.”2
Children living with addicted parents often blame themselves and believe if they were better kids, their parents wouldn’t need to drink or use drugs. They take on the parental roles of caregiver, housekeeper and confidant to the non-addicted parent.2
These children are regularly frightened because they have experienced abuse, witnessed violence or are afraid the addicted parent will die while under the influence. This brings on symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, such as sleep problems, anxiety, bed wetting, flashbacks and depression.2 The nature of their day-to-day lives finds the children of addiction generally behind in school, as well as physically and emotionally.
Taking responsibility for your addiction by getting treatment is not only the first step on your road to recovery, it’s the first day of a new life for your children.
Having the Conversation
When it comes to having the conversation with your children about your treatment, timing is everything. Dr. David M. Sack, CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, recommends talking to your children about rehab when things are calm and there are no distractions. If at all possible, time the conversation for when plans are already in place for treatment.3
Talk about the things that will stay the same, the things that will change, and how those changes will be dealt with on a daily basis. Repeat the conversation as often as possible so the child isn’t surprised and feels comfortable with an open dialogue.3
Dr. Sack also recommends telling the truth about the situation while keeping things age appropriate. Using language your children can understand will help them better grasp the situation. Validate your children’s fears and the pain that your addiction has caused them. Help to release their shame and reinforce the fact that the addiction in not their fault.3
Teach your children the seven C’s from the National Association for Children of Alcoholics to help them cope with the addiction and have their caregivers reinforce these on a regular basis. The Seven C’s of Addiction are:
- I didn’t cause
- I can’t cure
- I can’t control
- I can care for myself
- By communicating my feelings,
- Making healthy choices, and
- By celebrating4
Staying Close While in Treatment
One of the best ways to stay close to your children while in treatment is choosing a facility that allows periodic phone calls or Skype chats. If the treatment program is a long-term situation, in-person visits may also be allowed. Use any time you have with your children, whether by phone, letter or in person, to let them know how much you love them and how hard you are working to get better so you can come home.
Ask them about what they are doing and show interest in the details so you can stay up to speed with their daily lives as much as possible. This will help you reconnect when your treatment program is over and you are back in their lives on a regular basis. But remember, children of addicted parents have their own trauma to deal with, so don’t push. With time and the right therapy and emotional support, your children can also find healing from what they have experienced as the child of an addicted individual.3
Finding Help for Addiction
If you have children and struggle with addiction, we are here for you. Call our helpline 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about the best treatment options for you.
1 Lipari, Rachel N., and Struther L. VanHorn. “Children Living with Parents Who Have a Substance Use Disorder.” SAMHSA – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 24 Apr. 2017.
2 “Effects of Parental Substance Abuse on Children and Families.” American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, 14 Aug. 2018.
3 Sack, M.D. David. “How to Talk to a Child About a Parent’s Addiction.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com. Accessed Aug. 15, 2018.
4 T, Buddy. “How to Talk to Children About Family Substance Abuse.” Verywell Mind, Verywellmind, 23 May 2018.