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Many parents in recovery agonize over what to tell their children about why they are not living together, or about how to explain things that happened in the past when the parent was using drugs or alcohol. At the same time, most parents in recovery also worry about their children (especially older children and teens) developing drug problems of their own.
It can be tempting to think that you don't need to tell a child (especially a young child) the truth about why you are not living together. But it is far better to tell them, in words they can understand given their age and development stage. They know that something is wrong, and they usually blame themselves for whatever they imagine that "something" is. And on top of that, children of substance abusers are at higher risk for developing their own drug problems later in life. You can strengthen your current relationship with your children and their caregivers, set the stage for better future relationships with them, and help prevent your children from developing drug problems of their own by telling the truth.
One of the most important things you need to share with your children is the nature of addiction. Why you started using drugs, and how you moved from experimentation to more frequent use, and into dependency and addiction. How drugs made you do things you would not normally do—like things you may have done in the past, like hurting them or leaving them alone for days, or embarrassing them in front of their friends. You can explain that drugs make people who are dependent on them put getting and using drugs (or alcohol) ahead of everything else, even their children. This was not your choice, but the drug's effects on your body and mind.
And your children can benefit by learning about recovery and relapse, too. They should know that people do recover from drug and alcohol addiction, but that it is really hard work and parents in recovery often need professional help. They need to know that sometimes parents who have been clean—even for a long time—will relapse. This does not mean that you have failed, or that you will never be clean again. But it does mean that your treatment plan must be adjusted. Your children may have already heard many broken promises from you in the past, so it is best not to make promises of never relapsing again. But you can reassure them that you are working on your recovery and that you will keep working on it every day from now on. Recovery and sobriety is life-long work that requires an awful lot of energy.
Children of substance abusers often believe that their parent's problems are their fault, and that they should be able to do something to change the parent. You can give your child a huge gift by helping to lift this guilt off of their shoulders. It is extremely important and valuable for you to share with your child the three C's:
Your child did not cause your alcohol or drug problem. You became addicted because you made bad choices about using drugs and alcohol and then you got hooked and couldn't stop.
Your child cannot control your alcohol or drug problem—by behaving perfectly, getting straight A's in school, throwing out your liquor or drugs, or acting out to draw your attention away from using drugs or alcohol.
Your child cannot cure your drug or alcohol problem. Your child is not an addiction professional and you do not expect your child to solve your problems. You are responsible for your recovery from drug or alcohol abuse.
The most important thing throughout this discussion with your child is that they understand that your drug or alcohol problem is not their fault. Other key concepts for you to share with your child include:
You never stopped loving your child even when the drugs or alcohol were making you put using ahead of your child's needs
Your child deserves love and is good.
Many children have parents with drug or alcohol problems, and they grow up to be strong, healthy, and happy adults
Children of substance abusers are at especially high risk for their own substance abuse. Their bodies respond differently to alcohol and other drugs than the bodies of their friends, so they need to be especially careful about avoiding drugs or alcohol in the first place.
It is usually very difficult for parents in recovery to talk with their children about their own addiction, recovery, and relapse. It brings up feelings of shame and guilt and parents often worry that they will lose their child's respect. You may be afraid that once you start to talk about it, you will have to face your child's questions and feelings, such as disappointment and anger, about your past actions. And you will. But the good news is, this is all part of the family's healing process. Being honest about your addiction and letting your child know it is okay to talk about it is one of the best ways to earn back your child's trust and respect, which have already been damaged by your drug or alcohol use.
It's necessary and healthy to have these conversations and over time you will feel more and more comfortable talking about it.
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