People in recovery make choices about how much of their past addiction to disclose and to whom. Decisions may be based on how much of the history is already known or guessed, or on the strength and nature of relationships. It is important to discuss the use of drugs and alcohol with children, and sometimes a parent’s own history becomes part of that discussion. At other times, a child already knows or has lived through a parent’s addiction, and a discussion about sobriety is a chance to begin to deal with the consequences and restore damaged relationships.
Although how much to say is a personal decision, and every parent must decide whether there are subjects that would be better to avoid, it is often wise for parents to discuss their addiction history and recovery with their children, for the following reasons:
- You are an important source of information and your opinion about drug and alcohol use matters. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reports that kids who discuss alcohol and drug use with their parents and learn about the dangers are 50 percent less likely to use substances than those who do not discuss the issues. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes that about 80 percent of children believe that their parents should have a say in whether or not they drink alcohol.
People who have walked through addiction and emerged on the other side understand the nature of the disease. It can be helpful to share the scientific understanding of addiction, but also the personal lessons learned. Sharing how and why you began using substances and the growing problems you encountered can help your children relate to and accept the reality of the issue. For people new to recovery, it can also be helpful to share the nature of the recovery process and to explain that it takes time for the brain to heal and for new skills to become habits. It is wise to inform your children that you are committed to the recovery process, but to be aware that progress is rarely a straight line.
- You can provide an important warning. Children of people who have struggled with addiction are more likely to face it themselves. This can be due both to genetic factors and to the powerful effects of modeling. Whether or not they lived through the addiction, they are at higher risk of developing dependence themselves. When kids make their decisions about whether to use drugs or alcohol, it is important for them to be aware that their addiction risk is higher than it is for those without a family history of the disease.
- It is important to model and demonstrate honesty. Addiction is a multifaceted disease with biological, psychological and social components. For many people, a significant contributing factor is the desire to escape negative emotions through drug or alcohol use. Often, people are not fully aware they are doing this, because they have not completely acknowledged and been honest with themselves about their thoughts and feelings. For this reason, learning to face challenges honestly can be an important part of the recovery process.
Although it is important to share age-appropriate information with children, it is also important to be truthful, both for the sake of personal integrity and for the example set for the kids. Children often know when a parent is obscuring the truth, and it impedes and negatively affects the relationship. Honesty can help begin to rebuild relationships hurt by addiction. When you are honest with your children they are more likely to be honest with you. Being honest does not always mean answering every question, but it does mean choosing not to lie. It is sometimes appropriate to answer a question with a response like, “I don’t feel comfortable discussing everything I did while using drugs. I did a lot of things I’m not proud of.”
- It is important to model and demonstrate accountability. Another important skill to master in recovery, both for personal growth and for setting an example for children, is accountability for past mistakes. Addiction is a disease of denial, and facing the truth of the disease and its consequences is a sign that recovery is progressing. Accepting responsibility is the first step in asking for forgiveness, and asking forgiveness is often an important part of restoring relationships. Whether or not your children are fully aware of it, if they were alive when you were going through it, your addiction affected them in negative ways, and acknowledging that can help counterbalance some of those negative effects.
- Open conversation can break bonds of shame. Both those who have experienced addiction and their children may have shame to address. Consciously or unconsciously, children often take responsibility for the actions of their parents. The National Association for Children of Alcoholics advocates teaching children with a mnemonic device called The Seven Cs. The first three are “I didn’t cause it,” “I can’t cure it,” and “I can’t control it.” An important part of explaining addiction and recovery to children is explaining that their actions did not contribute to the parent’s problems and releasing them from any blame or shame they may have taken on. Having open conversations can also help people in recovery to break the power of their own shame, which often flourishes in silence and secrecy.
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