Straight Talk: Discussing Addiction with Children
Claudia Black, Ph.D.
Three nine-year-old boys are standing in a long line at Disneyland, waiting to get on one of their favorite rides. In conversation, one boy asks of the other, “When is your dad getting out of the hospital?” At this point several people in the line turn in curiosity to listen. Before the boy whose father is in the hospital has a chance to answer, the other boy says, “I didn’t know your dad was in the hospital, what happened to him?” The third boy responds, “Oh, he is sick. He has a disease, it’s called al-co-hol-ism.”
What I have learned over the years is that younger children more readily accept that their addicted parent has a disease, it makes sense to them. This boy’s response was reflected spontaneously, without embarrassment, totally accepting that his father genuinely has a disease. Why else would someone act like this? Children, prior to the age of nine or ten don’t need a lot of explanation. They accept that addiction is a disease with both physical and psychological ramifications. Of course those aren’t the words used, but they understand the “being stuck” aspect of addiction, or the allergy analogy. They comprehend that this isn’t just a disease that affects someone physically like most diseases. They see the change in personality and they grasp the inability to stop something once it is started.
A Good Rule of Thumb: When talking to young children, keep explanations to three or four sentences. Let them come back to you with questions.
Many years ago I wrote a book for children affected by parental substance abuse titled My Dad Loves Me, My Dad Has a Disease. The title came from the impact of a conversation I had with Alexis, an eight-year-old girl, whose father was alcoholic and in treatment. I was having an individual session with her and I asked her if she knew why her father was in the hospital. She looked at me as if I was stupid and quickly said, “Of course, he has a disease.”
This young girl was able to accept there was no other reason for her father’s behavior. He certainly wouldn’t choose to act like he does. Something had happened to him and he needed help to get well. She had been told that drinking made him sick, that it does that to some people, that it can change his personality so that he behaves in ways that are confusing, scary, and hurtful to him and others. She readily accepted that. Still looking at me as if she wondered what assistance I could be to her since I didn’t seem to know her father had a disease, she added, “But he still loves me.” Alexis fully believed this because in her case her father had provided positive parenting in her very early years and she got the message that he loved her.
It is possible to talk to a child of any age as long as age appropriate language and relevance are considered. With young children this conversation is more likely to be more brief and much more general. Parents often tell them that they are allergic to alcohol and when they drank they did things they wish they didn’t do. So now you choose not to drink. If children are aware of the drug use, you tell them that you made some poor choices and used drugs and then couldn’t stop on your own, or without help. If they have lived with it, or saw you many times when you were under the influence it is best to acknowledge it.
As true for chemical dependency these same principles can be applied to behavioral addictions. For example:
Like a latter-stage drug addict or alcoholic, compulsive gamblers live from fix to fix, throwing life away for another roll of the dice and deluding themselves that luck will soon smile on them. Their subjective cravings can be as intense as those of drug abusers. They show tolerance through increased betting and they experience highs rivaling that of a drug. Up to a half of all pathological gamblers show withdrawal symptoms that mimic a mild form of drug withdrawal, including churning stomach, sleep disturbance, sweating, irritability and craving. And like drug addicts, they are at risk of sudden relapse even after many years of abstinence. With the exception of sex addiction, the ability to generalize these guidelines is relevant to other addictive disorders. (For more direction in discussion of sex addiction, the author suggests you go to her website www.claudiablack.com and look in the Special Interest section.)
I have worked with children as young as four and five years of age who can describe personality changes, even loss of control though they don’t use that language. Some poignant explanations of personality change and loss of control I have heard from young children have been, “Sometimes my mom is very loving toward me and really likes me, and then maybe later in the day she acts like a stranger to me.” “When my dad says he is going to the bar for one or two drinks, he just can’t do that anymore. It is sort of like eating potato chips, I eat the whole bag.” As adults we often underestimate how much children have witnessed and understood.
Other parents find that if their children did not witness the active addiction and only know their parents in recovery that it is best to be less specific about the addiction until the children are older and it has more relevance to the child’s life.
I have always been vague with my kids about just what I took, how much or how frequently I drank—but they know I drank a lot and chose to stop when we had our first son. I see them as boys who could idealize the partying way of life, and if it was good enough for their dad and he ultimately stopped, then they could rationalize it is okay for them and that they could stop.
Father of 2 sons
As children raised with addiction become older they are not so readily willing to accept the disease model as the answer for why or how you, their parent, behaved the way you did. If children have not had some formal education about addiction, they may very well think calling it a disease is a cop out. They may think you are trying to make excuses for your behavior, and blame it on something other than yourself. If you are met with that resistance, your job is not to convince them; your job is to simply share information.
When mothers are addicted, children of all ages are more apt to minimize and deny her addiction even more so than a father’s. Both a woman’s ability to hide her addiction and the stigma of being an addicted woman makes it easier for children to discount their mother’s addictive disorder.
In conversation be willing to be descriptive about the addiction. You’ll find children may listen more if you do the following things:
- Tell your children the areas of your life in which you believe you were out of control, such as alcohol or drug use, spending and debting, or work.
- Take ownership for your choices along the way and how you were ignorant about what you were doing.
- Explain that you didn’t realize you could not stop and pretty soon you were rationalizing, denying, etc.
- Give your children examples of the extent of your denial and rationalizing.Refer to how your addiction controlled your life by speaking of your preoccupation and denial.
- Describe your change in tolerance and/or escalation to achieve the desired effect. Make the point that you continued your behavior in spite of adverse consequences—again demonstrating that your addiction had power over and against your good judgment and morality.
- Tell them this is not what you envisioned when you started your addictive behaviors and that you had no idea how it was hurting the family, in spite of what were obvious signs.
- Relate that you needed help to stop something that had become bigger than you.
- Be more available to them, now that you are in recovery.
You do not need to cover every point in any one conversation. This is not necessarily the only conversation you will have; hopefully it may be a part of many conversations. What is paramount in these conversations is that children hear that they did not cause the addiction, and they can’t they control it.
You don’t have to convince your children of anything or convert them to your way of thinking, just share yourself with them.
The different choices in what and how much parents share with their children needs to be influenced by the age of the child, how much of the active addiction the child witnessed, and the parents’ relationship with the child
You will need to find your style and entrances into conversations of what is most meaningful with your children. While it is important to talk about addiction, be careful to avoid being too wordy, detailed, or intellectual in talking to children of any age. They don’t need, nor will they listen to a lecture, yet the information is invaluable if presented in a realistic and sincere manner.
While you can’t make up for the past in a few conversations, and you can’t completely protect your children from the enormous reach of addiction, you can move closer to becoming the parent your children need you to be and the parent you want to be.
Straight Talk is available at www.claudiablack.com