Battling an addiction is always tough. But in homes with young children, addiction recovery can be especially challenging. If you’ve already started your recovery process by seeking treatment through behavioral health services and going to meetings, that’s wonderful. But children living in homes where there is a substance abuse problem—and a subsequent recovery—need to have the situation explained to them.
Life at home may be chaotic for children when there is a substance abuse problem. They may see you behaving strangely, acting stressed and arguing with your spouse or other loved ones. If the problem isn’t explained to them, children may draw their own conclusions. This can lead to responding in unhealthy ways. They may take on an unusual amount of family responsibility, become isolated or aggressive, or try to be perfect at everything they do.
Children living in homes where there is an addiction are likely to experience confusing feelings such as worry, anger, sadness, fear, blame, resentment and shame. They need to know that they’re allowed to be scared and to have these feelings. As you begin your recovery process, it is wise to seek out a child psychiatrist for your children to help them sort out their feelings with a safe third party.
In addition, you’ll need to discuss your addiction recovery process with your children yourself. This can be scary, especially if they are very young. Give them only the amount of information appropriate for their age group, but be honest. Not only will it help them, it will help you in your recovery.
Toddlers and preschool-aged children should have the issue explained in very simple, short sentences. Keep the information concrete and don’t get too technical. School-aged children and tweens can handle a bit more information. Answer their questions honestly. Teenagers will be able to handle most, if not all, of the information. They will have already learned about alcohol and drug abuse in school. They may worry more than other age groups about what their peers will think, and they may be more likely to try substances themselves. Encourage them to be honest with their feelings. Share information freely.
For all children, use an age-appropriate version of these steps:
1. Let the children know that you have an alcohol or drug problem. Explain that it affects your mood and your behavior, and that you are getting help to fix it.
2. Let it be clear that it is not your children’s fault, and that nothing they did caused your problem.
3. Listen to your kids and answer their questions. Instead of trying to overload them with details, stick to the basics and then just listen.
4. Build a support system. In addition to a therapist, your children should always have a “safe” adult they can talk to about their feelings. This may be your healthy spouse, or you could ask for the help of a trusted family friend.
5. Let go of guilt. Let go of the notion that you have let your family down. Having empathy for yourself and knowing this is a process will help your recovery.