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How (& What) to Tell Your Kids About Treatment

When it’s time to talk about a parent’s addiction treatment with children, it’s important to consider that child’s age, exposure to the parent’s issues, and the child’s history of trauma or instability. When it comes to a parent’s addiction, children often have to deal with a range of situations and emotions that affect their health and development. Children are highly observant and can sense when something is off, but without full context, they may often blame themselves for the erratic behavior of the parent or tension in the household.

To process their feelings, children need to have safe people to talk to on a regular basis.

Some children may be shielded from a parent’s addiction by other family members, but turmoil can easily affect them. Other children may have had to “grow up” quickly, acting as a parent and having to meet their own needs or the needs of siblings. When it’s time to talk about a parent’s addiction treatment with children, it’s important to consider that child’s age, exposure to the parent’s issues, and the child’s history of trauma or instability. It’s important to speak the truth, but conversations should always be both situationally and age-appropriate.

The Difficulty of Discussing a Parent’s Addiction

Dr. Stephanie Carnes is an integral part of the Willow House program, but she is also a Meadows Senior Fellow and an expert in helping individuals and their families heal from devastating addictions and co-occurring disorders. She understands the difficulty that families face when it’s time to talk about treatment with children.

“You sometimes have situations where children are going to be told information that’s really not age-appropriate for them because they have to. Let’s say there’s some public embarrassment or ‘Dad’s going to be on the 6 o’clock news,’” says Dr. Carnes. “In a perfect world they shouldn’t have to [hear about it]. That is traumatic for them.”

In the case of sex addiction, Dr. Carnes talks about how children may experience “sex-addiction induced trauma” when they become aware of a parent’s struggle.

Sex-addiction induced trauma includes:

  • Wondering if the parent is safe to be around
  • Wondering if they will become like the parent and struggle with sex addiction
  • Anger at the parent, or adversely, experiencing the need to protect the parent

The parent and other loved ones need to be aware of these fears and expected responses, even speaking directly about them to the child if he or she is old enough. To process their feelings, children need to have safe people to talk to on a regular basis. Ongoing therapy is recommended, and incorporating the whole family in therapy can be helpful when the parent is recovering and able to engage in healing conversations.

What Kids Need to Know

There are several critical things that kids need to know when loved ones speak to them about a parent’s addiction. An article from U.S. News and World Report recommends that children should know these facts, among others:

  1. Their parent is dealing with a disease. Helping kids recognize that addiction is a disease removes the mystery and fault-finding that goes along with the parent’s unpredictable and negative behaviors.
  2. It is not their fault. In some cases, children have been directly and inappropriately blamed for the parent’s issues. It’s deeply important that they know that no fault lies with them. Even if children recognize they are not the true cause of their parent’s struggle, they innately feel that they have not been “enough” for mom or dad, creating a sense of shame and guilt that needs to be dealt with in a safe environment.
  3. They are not alone, and it’s OK for them to feel their feelings. A parent’s difficulties can be very isolating to children, especially if they have been physically or emotionally neglected. They need to understand that there are people around them who can help if they need help. They may also respond in a number of ways, from outbursts of anger to extreme sensitivity. They need to know that this is not unusual, that it’s OK for them to feel how they feel, and that there are healthy ways for them to process their emotions.
  4. Whom specifically they can talk to, including what makes a person “safe” to talk to. Be specific with children about whom they talk to, such as an appointed therapist, an aunt or grandmother, a school guidance counselor, or a family friend. Also, describe what a “safe” person does and doesn’t do so that children can start discerning those qualities in a person. Children of addicted parents often have a tough time creating healthy boundaries and understanding what (or who) is safe.

It’s important to tell the truth and not be secretive, but honest communication should still be age-appropriate.

It may be tough to “get through” to children who have experienced the effects of a parent’s addiction because they are used to instability and poor communication, according to the scholarly work The Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Families and Children. They have had to learn to adapt, but they may also have impaired social functioning or low interpersonal skills. Some have had to resort to self-preservation tactics, leading them to close up emotionally or act out. They may commonly experience focus and attention issues as well.

Regular counseling for the child according to his or her developmental level may help, as well as positive reinforcement, structure, and keeping any commitments made to the child. It’s important to tell the truth and not be secretive, but honest communication should still be age-appropriate. All children want to be loved, valued, cared for, and accepted. They need support and time to heal as much as the parent does.

Family therapy with child

How Willow House Approaches Family Therapy

At Willow House for Women, we know that not just individuals, but their families, need healing from the effects of addiction and co-occurring disorders. We incorporate Family Week into treatment for the women in our program so that families feel invited into the healing journey.

While this part of the program is often powerful and productive, the stories during Family Week are not age-appropriate for most children. For younger children, we recommend ongoing family therapy. However, we invite older children, mainly adolescents, and adult children to participate in Family Week if they choose. This can be enlightening for older children and allow them to understand the depth and complexity of their parent’s struggle, as well as equip them with healthy ways to respond. This experience can also be instrumental in helping older children find their own path to healing.

Love, Sex, and Intimacy Addiction Treatment at Willow House

If you or a loved one is struggling with love, sex, orintimacy issues, please get in touch with our team. At Willow House, we focus on treating the whole person — physically, emotionally, and spiritually — and we treat co-occurring disorders in the same setting for the best chance at long-term recovery. We understand the complexity of addiction and mental health conditions as well as the challenges facing families seeking healing for themselves and their loved one. We would be happy to talk with you more about our program and tell you how to get started on the road to recovery. Contact us today.

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