I’ve known many parents who struggle with addiction who have tried to keep their kids out of the loop. The logic may seem sound to you: young children in particular can’t understand addiction, and parents need to retain some level of authority over their kids. Explaining your addiction to your kids is a frightening idea, as they may start seeing you as flawed.
However, whether you like it or not, your kids know about your addiction. Even if they have never seen you use alcohol or drugs, they can sense that there is something wrong. Your behavior while on substances is more alarming to them than the knowledge that you are actually using substances.
In other words, you can’t afford not to speak to your kids about your addiction. Here’s what you need to know in order to communicate your illness effectively.
Families need help
Before talking to your kids about your addiction, it might be worthwhile considering whether your family needs more than that. Addiction impacts families in significant ways. People who struggle with addiction develop codependent relationships, raise parentified children, and introduce a certain level of dysfunction into the home.
Family therapy may be necessary for your family to recover. In addition to private therapy with an expert, 12 Step Programs offer groups such as AlAnon and NarcAnon which specifically cater to the families of recovering addicts. In this safe space, the family can speak about their experiences, feelings, and resentments with people who understand them, and without feeling like they have to tiptoe around the recovering addict’s emotions.
Introducing the subject
Simply telling your kids that you or your partner are addicted to substances is not going to go down well. Even if they are in their teens, they will not have enough context to understand addiction. Most adults who have not experienced addiction first-hand do not understand it.
Introduce the subject by asking them about what might be bothering them at home. Relate their personal experience to your addiction. Explain that your behavior has not been acceptable, and that it has been caused by addiction.
Addiction is an illness and you no longer have control. You need to share this with your children, so that they know you are not a bad person and that you would have never otherwise hurt them.
However, beyond this truth, using excuses will at best make them feel neglected, and at worst make them feel like they are the cause of the problem.
When discussing your addiction, you do not want to give your kids the impression that you are not really sorry. Yes, you have a disease, but you need to take responsibility as well, otherwise you are giving them the message that you are not hurting for how your actions have hurt them.
If you go further and start giving them specific reasons for why you used drugs or alcohol, you can give them the impression that it is actually their fault. By explaining that you have been stressed and working hard in order to make ends meet, take care of them, or trying to stay happy for them, they hear that, without them, you would never have had the problem.
Take full responsibility for your actions. You can explain that addiction is an illness, and that you never wanted to harm them. But leave the excuses out. Your initial conversations should revolve around their wellbeing, not your own.
It is okay if they feel anger and resentment towards you for now. It will take time to repair the relationship, but with patience it will happen.
Euphemisms are useful when talking about your sex life with your grandparents. But when you are speaking to your kids about addiction, euphemisms only make it harder for them to discuss it openly.
It’s not only about the words, although knowing the terminology will help them in the long run. It is about not associating shame with these conversations. If you speak around the topic, they get the impression that this is something they shouldn’t talk about, something which is very shaming, even if you tell them they should talk about it with you.
Be open, even if you feel like children shouldn’t have to know the details of your addiction. They already do on some level, and need the sense that they have been given permission to process.
Nurture and soothe
Your focus when speaking about your addiction with your kids should be on their wellbeing. With this in mind, you need to spend some time nurturing and soothing them.
Nurturing includes affirming that they have not done anything wrong. That this situation has been unfair to them and that you love them.
Soothing includes telling them that everything is going to be alright. You are going to get better and life at home is going to go back to normal and, in fact, be better than ever. This is another way of taking responsibility for your actions, as only you can commit to making this happen.
An objective listener
Finally, it is important that your kids know they have someone else to talk to. Someone who they can confide in who is not one of their parents. No matter how careful you have been to approach the subject with openness and sensitivity, they may still be scared of hurting your feelings.
They may also be aware that you are in recovery, and even though you have told them that none of this is their fault, they may feel a responsibility towards you (especially if you have a codependent relationship). They may therefore keep things from you because they are scared they will set back your recovery.
Your addiction is not an easy subject to broach with your kids. However, they already know about it on some level. By being honest, giving them space to share, and giving them the resources to speak about it, you are taking the first steps towards healing your family.