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How to Talk to Your Kids About Your Addiction

Addiction is something millions of mothers deal with, yet few know how to address with their children. Whether it’s alcohol, heroin, or something in between, you need to open the lines of communication with your kids and stop keeping them in the dark.

4 Tips For Discussing Your Addiction With Your Kids

When a parent faces a hardship, there’s a tendency to protect the children involved. It’s within our nature to safeguard our kids from the pain and suffering of the real world for as long as we can. But when something like addiction hits close to home, hiding it from your kids is probably the worst thing you can do.

Approximately 4 million women are addicted to drugs or alcohol in the United States alone. Addiction crosses all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, putting millions of women and their families at risk. And though you’ll need to be careful to keep conversations age-appropriate, having open discussions with your children about your struggles with addiction will be enormously helpful for your family.

Here are a few suggestions to help you start a meaningful dialogue:

  • Don’t Sugarcoat the Situation

When you make the decision to tell your children about your addiction, you’ll have the temptation to sugarcoat the situation and only tell them a few of the details. But if you follow through on this, you’re actually doing them a disservice.

Children know that something isn’t right and they’ll often blame themselves for whatever it is they perceive as being wrong. So by hiding the facts, you’re actually increasing the chance that they feel responsible. Furthermore, children of substance abusers are more likely to develop substance abuse in their own lives, which is all the more reason to be honest.

It’s also important to be honest about the severity of the situation. Let them know that addiction isn’t always a choice. Help them understand that you’re burdened by a mental illness that can only be addressed through proper treatment and time.

  • Provide Reassurance in the Form of Support

Children need to hear reassurance. Since you can’t be a reliable source of support during your bout with addiction, you’ll need to set up some systems and relationships for your children to depend on during your recovery.

Close friends, grandparents, older siblings, and trustworthy neighbors are all excellent sources of support. Choose people that your children are comfortable with and who you know will provide good care in your absence.

  • Shut Down Shame

“One of the most important things for children to understand is that addiction is not their fault. They didn’t cause their parent to abuse drugs or alcohol and they cannot cure or control it,” explains Dr. David Sack, board certified addiction psychiatrist who specializes in behavioral health. “This can be hard for children to understand, especially if the addicted parent blamed their drug abuse on a child’s behavior (e.g., ‘I wouldn’t need to drink if you’d do your chores.’).” 

Without creating excuses for yourself, you should explain to children that addiction causes you to say things you don’t really mean. To help them release shame, teach them the Seven C’s of Addiction:

  • I didn’t cause it.
  • I can’t cure it.
  • I can’t control it.
  • I can care for myself
  • By communicating my feelings,
  • Making healthy choices, and
  • By celebrating myself.

If you’ve put yourself in a position where you’re unable to authentically communicate these ideas, have a trusted friend or family member walk your kids through these facts.

  • Don’t Make Promises

As much as you may want to take away the pain from your children and give them hope and optimism in the future, you should never make any promises in regards to your addiction. Whether you’ve been clean for a day or a year, promises always come with the risk of disappointment. Explain that you’re doing your best, but don’t say something you can’t guarantee. In doing so, you could further deteriorate the trust between you and your children.

Never Stop Parenting

There isn’t a playbook for how to deal with addiction. Throwing children into the mix complicates an already muddled situation even more. But no matter the situation or how bad you’ve messed up, you can never stop parenting. There is no greater role in life, and a foundation of honesty is always necessary.