According to an article in the Journal of Applied Medical Sciences, an estimated six million children live with parents who abuse alcohol or drugs in the United States.1 Five million adults are estimated to have a child who lives at home with them while they are abusing drugs or alcohol. These statistics mean that substance abuse in the United States is a significant problem among parents.
Research shows parents who struggle with addiction aren’t the only ones affected. Children of parents who suffer from substance abuse are at greater risk for a number of complications, including attachment concerns and poor developmental outcomes. Children whose parents struggled with addiction often have to take on different roles, such as that of a parent or more mature role than their years are ready for.
If you’re a parent who is in recovery or battling addiction and ready to improve your relationship with your child as well as maintain your sobriety, this article will explore these relationships and provide information on how to strike the balance between being in recovery and being a parent.
Parenting can be difficult on its own. Add in the need to focus on recovery and getting well, and the task can seem almost overwhelming. For this reason, it’s important to identify some common challenges and learn how to best tackle these challenges. Examples of these include:2
Maintaining realistic expectations for recovery.
Overcoming the stigma of being in recovery and struggling with addiction.
Re-establishing family dynamics.
Re-establishing trust between a parent and children or a parent and other loved ones.
Striking a balance between parenting commitments and recovery needs.
There is no perfect way to handle being a parent in recovery. Some parents choose to incorporate their child into their therapy and recovery while others do not.
Self-care is a buzzword in healthcare, and for good reason. It describes ways a person can make efforts to care for themselves to improve their overall health and well being.
Self-care is about making sure you are mentally and physically healthy enough to fulfill responsibilities, possibly including caring for others.
Talking to your child about addiction is an understandably difficult conversation. An honest, open approach is best. Explain that addiction is a disease – one that is difficult to overcome and can be challenging on a daily basis. 4
It’s important for a child whose parent struggles with addiction to know they aren’t alone, that many children also have parents who struggle with different problems. Let your child know that it’s okay for them to feel angry, sad, frustrated, or a combination of all these.
It may be helpful for your child to join a group with other children with family members in recovery. Encourage them to share what they’re feeling whenever possible. Holding these emotions otherwise can lead to resentment later in life.
Sometimes, the hardest part of addiction is admitting that you have a problem. This is called taking ownership. It requires admitting that addiction is a problem, and that you are responsible for your own actions.
According to an article in the Journal of Addictions Nursing, an estimated 8.6 percent of Americans need treatment for substance abuse disorders, yet only 0.9 percent seek treatment.
The article also studied research available on parents, self-care measures, and recovery. While there isn’t a tremendous amount of research on self-care and addiction, research found that those who take charge of their addiction by focusing on their own well-being and recovery were more likely to experience long-term recovery and improved parenting skills compared to those who did not.
Addiction is an example of how parents are not perfect, despite how a parent may appear in a child’s eyes. There may have been a time when you said something while drinking or using that led a child to believe your substance abuse was your child’s fault. It’s important to emphasize to a child that your actions are your own. Your addiction is not their fault, and nothing they could have done could change the way you’ve acted.
Part of your recovery is taking responsibility for the decisions of your past, and also moving forward. Accepting that your addiction is your own is part of moving forward. While you may have to repeat this idea frequently, it’s very important that your child know they aren’t to blame for your addiction.
Changing your whole life after substance abuse addiction doesn’t happen overnight, even if you hope it does. While you may be ready to turn your whole life around, understand that those around you will be optimistic, but cautiously skeptical about your recovery. As a result, it’s important to be patient with those around you as they adjust to a new you without substances.
The most important part is to be consistent in your behaviors and maintain your sobriety. Over time, others will start to see that you are serious about your sobriety and being a part of your family again.
One of the best ways to show your children you care doesn’t cost money – only your time. Spending time with your children and listening to the things they enjoy is a way to start to re-build trust and a sense of family.
All of these activities can be low-cost and show that you care.
One of the best ways you can show your children that you have changed is to consistently model positive behaviors and maintain your sobriety. While this may sound simple, sometimes resisting the urge to relapse can be the hardest of all. However, your children are always watching.
They are watching your behaviors and looking out for how you act around them and others. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to be present. And you do have to continue to avoid drugs and alcohol to be a good parental role model for them. Your persistence in recovery shows your children how to overcome challenges and how to keep moving forward.
Chances are you were not always around much when you were using. Now that you are in recovery, it’s the perfect time to start building new routines with your little ones.
Start by asking them about what their routines are in the day. Now that you are around more, it isn’t fair or reasonable to expect them to completely change their everyday lives. Instead, you should look for ways you can incorporate yourself back into their routines. You can ask them where you may fit in.
Remember to try not to do too much at once, both for your children and for yourself. You should remember to leave time for your own self-care and recovery. Trying to participate in a few new activities in your child’s daily routines a week can be enough to start to establish a new, sober lifestyle together.
When you have struggled with addiction for so long, you can keep your child from acting like a child. They may have to take on greater responsibilities or even act like your parent, taking care of you after a night out.
When you work on rebuilding your relationship after addiction, this is the time to let your child be a child again. While you can’t get back all the time, you can start engaging in activities that are fun and help a child feel “normal” for a while.
When a person has struggled with addiction in the past, the chance and risks for relapse are always present. There are several factors that could potentially contribute to a person’s relapse.
For so long, a person’s idea of “fun” was going out and partying. Recovery means re-define the idea of fun and enjoyment by discovering activities that can be enjoyed without substances.
The recovery process can be one of ups and downs. A person can experience a variety of emotions, from extreme happiness to depression and sadness. These different emotions may make it difficult for a person to avoid relapse, but it is not impossible.
Sometimes, getting the help for recovery can be expensive. Other times it can be difficult to keep a job while struggling with addiction. This can lead to a very stressful experience that could contribute to relapse.
A person has to believe in themselves and their recovery to successfully beat addiction. If they start to doubt themselves, they may have difficulty continuing their recovery.
Sometimes, a person may have family and friends who also struggle with addiction or are still using substances. This can affect a person’s support. Other times, a person may not have support from friends or family because they deceived them or let them down while they were using. Rebuilding this level of trust can take time.
While you work to overcome these concerns related to relapse, it’s important to help your child find someone they can speak to as well. You can help them find a “safe adult” they can share emotions or feelings with when they are afraid or feel like they can’t talk to you.
Examples include a grandparent, social worker, minister, or school counselor. Helping them find a person they can trust can help them feel like they aren’t alone and can talk about their feelings and problems.
Younger children tend to blame themselves more for their parents’ addictions and problems. Even if no one told them specifically, they tend to think in statements like “If I had just cleaned my room, my mom wouldn’t be so stressed and go use drugs.” While this statement isn’t true, younger children don’t have the same emotional background to identify they aren’t placing the responsibility in the right place.
One suggestion for younger children is to use words like “stuck,” “hook,” or “trapped” to describe addiction, as recommended by The Chicago Tribune. Young children can understand analogies like these when it comes to addiction. Some examples include:
Once it gets in there, it’s very hard to get out and a lot of times you have to try a lot before it comes out.
The fish starts focusing on getting off that hook so much that it can’t really think about anything else.
The bear is so much bigger than the trap, but the trap is strong and it’s very hard for the bear to get out.
What younger children may understand less is calling addiction a “brain disease.” While this is certainly true, this description doesn’t usually help a younger child understand what a person is describing.
Talking about addiction and parenting a teen has unique challenges. A teenager is likely to start being exposed to drugs and alcohol. Knowing a parent has a history of substance abuse can increase their risks for addiction themselves. According to The Washington Post, children of someone with Alcohol Use Disorder(AUD) are four times more likely to develop an AUD than a child who isn’t.5
It’s hard for a teenager to identify how they can respond to temptations for substance abuse. They’ve never really seen their parent respond well to these same temptations before the parent was in recovery.
Teenagers usually report their parents are their greatest influence in refraining from using drugs and alcohol. Even if you’ve made mistakes in the past, being open with your teenager about them can help keep them from repeating your mistakes.
“We’re only as sick as our secrets,” says Donlon Wade, a teen substance abuse counselor. “Sharing the family history can help. Talk about it in non-threatening way and make that connection. Lay out rules. It is not okay to be drinking underage or smoking marijuana or cigarettes. You’re only going to have them for so long, and then they’re gone.”
Rebuilding a sense of family doesn’t often happen on your own timeline. Instead, it is rebuilt with continued sobriety and efforts as a parent. This is a process that will take time to occur. Some of the ways to start the rebuilding process are to:
You can’t undo the past when you were using. You know now that you have a problem, and that it is something to overcome. You have to forgive yourself from your past to move forward. If you can’t do this, it’s hard to rebuild your sense of family.
When you say you’re sorry, and a loved one accepts your apology, this is the end of the conversation. You can’t keep revisiting past mistakes as you try to move forward. You must maintain your sobriety and continue showing your family that you are trying to change and are more available and involved.
If your family does have something to share with you, you can listen to them and try to respond positively. But, if you have a family member that keeps bringing up the past, you have emphasize to them that you’re moving forward and looking back on the past constantly won’t change it.
You may be surprised that even after some time in recovery, your family seems skeptical of your sobriety. For example, some people won’t let a loved one in recovery watch their child alone. While this may be frustrating and hard for you to understand at times, sometimes you have to accept this is part of your loved one’s healing process, and that you can’t speed up their feelings.
It’s really hard to listen to family members criticize or judge you sometimes when you know they have problems of their own. However, it’s important to understand that your family members aren’t asking for feedback about their own faults. They’re trying to re-learn how to have you as a part of their family. This requires tolerance and acceptance on both your parts.
Sometimes, it’s easy to wish everything could go back to the happy, picket-fence times when you were younger with your family. But you have all lived and made decisions since then that affect your lives. While it’s hard, sometimes you have to accept that things just won’t be the same, but that you can move forward.
Finally, it’s important to remember that you deserve to be loved, that you have come a long way in your life and you have love for your family, and you deserve their love in return.
The ultimate message a parent in recovery can send to their child is that there are times when addiction has overtaken your life, but that you’ve never stopped loving them and it was never their fault.
You have to keep engaging in your own sobriety and showing your loved ones that your love for them has not changed. All the while, it’s important to remember that you must love yourself and take care of yourself before you can take care of others.