Talking to your kids about a parent’s addiction
I’ve always been a pretty big fan of honesty with my kids, but of course at a level that is age appropriate. You don’t want to bombard them with too much information. You don’t want to worry them too much about adult problems. But you do want them to trust you that when they ask a serious question, a big question, you will give them an honest answer. “I don’t knows” are perfectly okay, as long as you follow that up with some form of looking for the answer. Children shouldn’t expect their parents to be all knowing. In fact, you do them a service when you teach them young that you’re not. Teach them that you don’t have all the answers, but you have the tools to find those answers, and you are willing to help them out.
Talking to our kids about addiction has been tricky. I’m not sure how long our daughters were aware of Sean’s problems, but in 2008 while on a family vacation in Jamaica, after a particularly devastating event, K-girl said to me, “Daddy drinks too much.” She was 7.5 years old when this observation came out of her mouth, making R a few months shy of 5. All I could really do was agree. Alcohol and drugs proved to have too strong of a hold on Sean and this ultimately led to him moving out of our home and us being split up for 3 years.
When Sean moved out, K declared that she knew this was coming. We had to let our girls know that their dad was very sick and that alcohol was like a poison to him. We talked about addictions and what that means. Though Sean was also addicted to drugs, we didn’t talk to our girls much about that, we mostly focused on addiction as a whole, and the alcohol problems. I had to tell my girls that if their dad was acting funny or strange or very sad or if they saw him drinking any kind of alcohol, that they should not go anywhere in a vehicle with him and that they needed to call me. I felt like this was a lot of responsibility to put on my children, but this was their reality. They wanted to see their dad as much as they could still, and there were going to be times that they were with him when I could not be. I talked to them about the dangers of drunk driving, of not getting into a vehicle with someone who has been drinking, and of what the consequences could be.
When Sean started cancelling the days he was supposed to take the girls or the nights he was supposed to come over for dinner, I then had to talk to them a lot about not taking it personally. I had to talk to them about how much an addiction can change a person leaving someone who may physically look the person you know, but inside really isn’t. They understood that their dad really wasn’t their dad. Whereas before, he had had off days when he didn’t act quite like himself, he had gotten to the point where a “normal” day was rare.
On Canada Day of 2010, Sean hit rock bottom. He finally said he wanted help. He wanted to go to rehab. He stayed with us as well as his sisters when he finally made that choice. He could not be left alone; he asked not be left alone, as the temptation was too great. Our kids saw him go through withdrawals. They saw him with the chills, headaches, and throwing up as his body began detoxing. When a child knows that their parent is going through something like this, you can’t very well not say anything. Discussions about what was happening took place and finally Sean entered rehab. I cooked him food and brought it to him (rehab does not feed a recovering addict enough, nor is it good quality food) and the girls and I visited on every visiting day. We often brought a book that I would read to the 3 of them while laying the grass outside, or we would bring Uno and play that while we chatted about our daily lives away from the facility. During this time, Sean and I were still not back together. I was not keen to rush back into anything with him and I felt very strongly that he needed to focus on his recovery. However, I still wanted him to know that regardless of our relationship status, we would always be a family, and I would always offer support to him. This was an experience for our girls to understand that as family members, we support each other if we can, even when it is hard.
Sean did well in rehab and we started hanging out more and more, getting reacquainted. He was more like the “old” him, albeit definitely more scarred. He was the wonderful dad that our kids knew and loved, not simply a hollow shell that just looked like him. Eventually, about a year later, we officially got back together and moved just outside of the city to an acreage. I know it was wishful thinking that he’d never have a slip up. That’s not really how addiction works and the failure rate of our government paid for rehab centres are astonishingly high. I know that Sean hasn’t always been honest with me about all of the slip ups. I know about some for sure and I just suspect others, but the other day he admitted that there have been a number that he hasn’t told me about. Slip ups are both easy and hard to address with our girls. On the one hand, people make mistakes. This is a part of being human. But on the other hand, why can’t he learn from his mistakes? This leads into the addiction discussion again and the hold it can have on a person and how hard recovery can be. Something the 3 of us don’t understand from an addict’s view, only from the view as people who love the addict.
Throughout it all, we’ve had to have the bad choices don’t mean you’re a bad person conversation. But this one is something we’ve been talking about since the girls were very young.
One day, when Sean was talking about not being able to smell anymore, K flat out asked why. I didn’t feel that we could very well say, because your father has snorted far too much cocaine in a very short amount of time thus damaging his olfactory perception. So we told her that we had to think about how we could answer that and that we would have to get back to her. We haven’t come around back to that yet, but it will be time very soon to address that. She is 12 and her family history contains much addiction on both sides. This means that our children need to be hyper-aware of the effects. I hope at the very least, that having a father who is an alcoholic/addict will help them to see that the dangers of addiction are real.
Addiction is often not looked at as a disease by “regular” members of society. They don’t understand it and they don’t want to understand it. There are a lot of judgements that are associated with addiction and a lot of blame placed on the addicts. It’s a tricky situation to navigate as you don’t want addiction to excuse the bad choices and behaviour but it does offer an explanation for it. I’m guilty of saying, “at some point, you need to figure your shit out. You’re an adult and you can’t continue to keep turning to booze every time you have a bad day.” And if it were that easy, I’m sure addicts would do it. I know Sean would. But it’s not.
So, when I talk to my kids, they have seen me run through a number of emotions. It is after all, an emotional topic and I think that they should see that. Knowing what to say about addiction when one parent suffers from it isn’t always easy. I think it would be easier to explain if it wasn’t so close to us. Regardless, I try my best to address it openly and honestly in a way that they can understand and learn from.