Relapse During a Pandemic: How to Relieve Your Child of Potential Guilt

May 5, 2021
Dad having heartfelt discussion with teenage son.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyday life has drastically changed. Remote work has gained momentum as social distancing is a key measure for preventing and slowing the spread of the virus. While this work style comes with some specific benefits, this transition also brings some serious limitations and difficulties as routines and boundaries are disrupted. 

At the same time, social distancing has also impacted how we connect with our friends and loved ones. As a result, many people are opting to connect with others virtually, which, while optimal given the circumstances, is still no replacement for making and fostering in-person connections.

With these changes impacting every aspect of our everyday lives, it’s safe to say the pandemic has challenged everyone. This is especially true for parents struggling with alcohol abuse and the children they care for. Changes in routine and connection can equate to difficulty regulating one's alcohol consumption, leading to relapse risk. 

The pandemic has posed particular challenges for co-parents navigating shared custody. Raising a child is a rewarding experience, but it takes a lot of time and energy to devote to providing a safe and loving environment for a child to flourish. This is especially true now that many parents are working from home and monitoring their children as they attend school virtually. These challenges may result in a parent's relapse and the subsequent feelings of guilt that a child may feel.

A Child’s Perspective of a Parent’s Relapse 

American Addiction Centers notes that children who live in households where alcohol abuse is prominent are at risk of:

  • Performing poorly in school
  • Developing behavioral and emotional issues
  • Developing low self-esteem

These risks are often directly related to the stress and confusion children feel when they witness alcohol abuse in the home. When children observe a parent’s relapse, it is not uncommon for them to internalize the guilt. Not understanding the nature of substance abuse, children are more likely to rationalize it as their own failings or shortcomings. This is especially true if a child experiences a parent's relapse, as the tendency to attribute the parent's prolonged stretches of sobriety to their own good behavior can suddenly give way to feelings of guilt when relapse occurs.

It's important to understand that the risks associated with alcohol abuse in the home can be serious for children. However, this is not to say that such households are inherently doomed, nor is it to say that relapses are unmanageable. It is important to remember that alcohol abuse is not a moral failing and, instead, may be an Alcohol Use Disorder that people struggle with. Communicating this openly with children can clear up much of their confusion and feelings of guilt at the outset and shed light on the situation before they begin to formulate their own conclusions.

Steps to Take if Your Child Feels Responsible

Mother comforting son.

There are several steps you can take to help your child navigate feelings of responsibility. The sooner parents implement changes — the faster children can begin positively adapting. 

Separate the Parent from the Behavior

Children who see their parent struggle with alcohol abuse may not automatically begin to resent or mistrust that parent. Most of the time, children will still feel love and respect for that parent and instead internalize their stress or difficult emotions, making themselves feel guilty for their parents’ struggles. This is especially true for children who are products of child custody and alcohol abuse litigation, as these themes may feel overwhelming or triggering. For this reason, it is essential to encourage children to open up about these emotions while also reinforcing the notion that the parent they love is struggling from a condition outside of their control. Separating the condition from the person can help children understand that their parent's condition is something they should not feel personally responsible for.

Discuss Feelings of Guilt Often


It may still be hard for children to totally grasp the nature of alcohol abuse and thus difficult to separate their own feelings of responsibility from their parent's actions. This is especially true for young children who witness their parent's struggles but don't yet have the conceptual tools to accurately process the situation. Thus, it is important to seek out a discussion with the child about their feelings and how they are processing the situation and doing so regularly. By getting these details, it becomes possible to work through troubling emotions and correct a child’s impulse to blame themselves. 

Foster the Role of the Child

A prominent side effect of children internalizing responsibility for their parent's condition is them taking on the role of being a parent, called "parentification." This phenomenon result from a child feeling as though they need to act as a caregiver to the parent who is struggling. Often this will manifest as the child taking on mature roles in the household, like cooking or cleaning, in a misguided attempt to prevent their parent's relapse. As a result, the child will often mature more quickly than they should, losing out on time needed for their own development. A good way to combat parentification is to encourage young children to play games, be goofy, and act silly — and to do so often. For parents of teens, individuals may want to encourage participating in sports, pursuing virtual leadership roles, or enjoying another hobby. Reinforcing the notion that the child is still just a child is important for reclaiming the time needed for formative experiences in early development.

Recovery Tools Available 

Man submitting Soberlink test via Connect App

Because external stressors often play a significant role in relapse episodes, it is crucial to strengthen external countermeasures to mitigate them. Some positive external influences may include routines and habits that keep the mind and body busy or accountability measures like relying on a support group or network. Alcohol monitoring is another way to stay accountable and consistent during the pandemic. Soberlink's remote alcohol testing device and comprehensive monitoring system offer clients a noninvasive way to manage their sobriety that is also easy to integrate into any co-parenting arrangement. With Soberlink, parents can demonstrate to their children that they’re committed to their sobriety through scheduled tests. 

While there are various tools used to help a parent stay sober, it is important to be transparent with the child about why these steps may be necessary. Helping children understand the reasoning behind implementing something like a remote monitoring system can help reverse perceived guilt and strengthen their overall understanding and emotional wellbeing. 

While parents can take proactive steps to ensure their child's wellbeing, additional tools are available to further aid children during a parent’s recovery journey. Counseling or therapeutic services may be a good resource for families who would benefit from structured and professional sessions that explore the themes of alcohol abuse, guilt, and possible blame. These sessions can also provide families with a means of normalizing discussions that may otherwise feel difficult, embarrassing, or emotionally charged, and therefore prone to being avoided.

Conclusion

Alcohol abuse is on the rise, and millions of families have been affected. With more parents working from home and managing their workload, virtual learning, and sobriety, increased stress increases the risk of relapse. Children may be in homes where they can’t help but feel as if their behavior, or mere existence, is a direct result of their parent’s actions. Promoting open communication about substance abuse and relapse, checking in frequently with a child who may be feeling overwhelmed or responsible, and seeking out further recovery tools or remote testing options can all work to ensure that a child does not internalize feelings of guilt about their parent's substance abuse. Fortunately, advancements in technology provide countless ways to remain a pillar of strength for yourself and your children during the pandemic and beyond.  

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