The short-term damage wrought by addiction is obvious and easy to see. In families, though, children may also suffer long-term effects from their parent’s addiction, even if the parent doesn’t exhibit classic abuse or neglect. Children of addicts have an increased likelihood to fall into addiction themselves; they also display increased rates of emotional problems, risk-seeking behavior, and disciplinary issues at school.
These under-the-radar risks fall into three major categories:
• Emotional Uncertainty: The emotional highs and lows of an addicted parent can teach children there’s no causal relationship between their behavior and their parent’s mood.
• Chaotic Household: Parents in addiction often fail to establish the family habits and routines that give children a sense of security.
• Domestic Responsibility: In the absence of parental involvement, older children are likely to take on responsibilities the parent is avoiding: cooking, cleaning, raising siblings.
For parents in recovery, it’s crucial to recognize the effects that carrying these burdens may have had on children. The decision to live sober is the start to reclaiming your family; failing to think clearly about the best way to step back into parenting can lead to stresses that make recovery more difficult to manage. The following are some areas to consider:
Don’t Try To Be A Perfect Parent
At least, don’t try it right away. In the first steps of recovery, keep the focus actually on recovery. Talk to your therapist; make your meetings; start building a healthy life for yourself. It’s vital that you understand this point. Trying to go straight from addiction to attending every PTF meeting and baseball game is a formula guaranteed to create stress, which is likely to trigger relapse. Be a parent, certainly—but don’t try to go from rock bottom to June Cleaver in one fell swoop.
Shake Off The Guilt
On the other hand, some recovering addicts have difficulty parenting at all. These parents allow feelings of guilt and shame to convince them they’ve somehow forfeited their right to parent their children. Never be afraid to admit to your past while setting boundaries for your children. Admit mistakes, but be clear that you are still in charge of the household, and you love your children enough to provide meaningful parameters for their behavior.
Own Your Addiction Out Loud
Children routinely shock adults with how much they actually understand of the world around them. You may think it’s unhealthy to discuss your addiction with your kids; however, children have a deep-seated need to understand the world around them. It’s important that they understand an addiction is not a choice, and you needed help to manage yours. Even if you think you successfully hid your addiction from your kids, it’s pretty likely that they had a hunch something was wrong in the house. Either way, there’s only one path to fix a relational mistake: own it, admit it, and apologize for it. It’s important that children understand your addiction wasn’t a consequence of their behavior; you can’t be sure they know this unless you actually say it, out loud and often.
Give It A Little Time
Sometimes, children don’t yet have the tools to manage their frustrations or worries, which means their emotions may be expressed in a variety of ways. They may aggressively talk back (to you or a teacher), shut themselves off, quit caring about grades, or make drastic changes to their circle of friends. Just like you need the time and support to manage your recovery, they need the time and support to work through their feelings on the topic. Healing is going to take a while, and it’s going to look different for every individual and every family.
Honor Your Word (And Limit Your Words)
A lot of promises get made in addiction. Many of them get broken. In the recovery stage, it’s important that any promise you make to your children actually gets followed through. This part of your life is about rebuilding trust. It’s tempting to make lots of promises that everything will be better immediately; resist this impulse. Keep the promises manageable. Don’t promise not to shout unless you can keep your voice down; don’t promise to make it to every game unless you know you can pull it off.
Time And Love Go Together
Children know they’re loved when you spend time with them. And it doesn’t have to be anything major. You don’t have to sell them on your recovery by scheduling magical vacations to make up for the time lost to addiction. Throw the football with your teenager. Work a puzzle with your toddler. Your children will believe you’re healthy when the family feels normal to them again. As you spend time, make sure they know you love them unconditionally; no matter how they respond to your addiction and recovery, your love for them is unchanging. It’s important that you say this to them, out loud and often.
Talk To A Professional
Family therapy can help immensely as you and your children re-learn to interact with each other in a healthy way. Some children may also need individual counseling; there may be things they need to work through verbally that would benefit from an adult the child views as neutral or objective.