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As a Mom in Recovery, How Do I Explain My Addiction to My Kids?

Tonya, a licensed therapist who focuses on addiction and recovery within families, agrees. It can be overwhelming to the newly-sober parent who is dealing with guilt and cravings and general feelings of nuttiness, but it’s important not to exclude the kids from the process. “If a kid doesn’t have the correct information about why mom or dad is dealing with this problem of addiction, they will make up their own reasons,” she tells me, “and often those ideas or stories will get played out in adulthood.”

Tonya says that one family member’s recovery impacts the whole family “system” and requires a “whole system change.” Just like my role as a mom, my recovery will not fade away. It must now become a part of our family dynamic.

We have on our wall at home a “Family Mission” — a group plan for life at our household. “Be kind to yourself and others. Pray often. Ask how you can help,” it reminds us. I often wonder if I should add, “DON’T DRINK TODAY” in bold black letters. My daily decision not to drink affects everything in our small family — from scheduling, to how much sleep we all get, to what we eat. Because I often go to meetings in the evening, frozen pizza is a staple on the menu (the boys don’t seem to mind much).

As a recovering alcoholic, I learn basic “tools” in recovery, like “Easy does it,” and “Go to meetings and don’t drink in between.” But my children need to be equipped with tools, too.

So, how do we explain recovery to our children? Do we check out a book from the library? Goodnight Mom doesn’t exist; perhaps it should. Do we fully explain — perhaps using interpretive dance — every sordid detail that led to our decision to quit drinking? Do we just move on and act like nothing happened?

Here are a few suggestions that have been helpful to me, and might just help you and your kids:

1. Listen to your kids and answer their questions.

Christina of Caron, Pennsylvania, a treatment center that offers many family resources, advocates for tackling the issue rather than trying to cover it up. “The children can tell something is going on,” she tells me. “It is a difficult conversation, yes, but we just have to listen to them.”

Instead of trying to overload them with additional details, she suggests sticking to the questions they ask and then: “Just really listen.” This is in keeping with the 12-step motto, “Keep it simple.” Christina compares this conversation to dealing with the dreaded question about where babies come from: Stick with the questions asked and leave the rest.

2. Build a support system for your kids.

Recovery is a paradox in that it is both complicated and extremely simple. As a recovering alcoholic, I learn basic “tools” in recovery, like “Easy does it” and “Go to meetings and don’t drink in between.” But my children need to be equipped with tools, too.

One suggestion is to make sure kids have a “safe person” to talk to about mom or dad. Just as a recovering person needs space from family while attending therapy or meetings, kids of any age may need to ask questions and discuss feelings with an objective outsider. If possible, they should be given an environment where everyone — including family members and friends, neighbors, etc. — is fluent in the language of recovery, provides encouragement and actively listens. Groups like Al-Anon and Alateen are a good place to start; and in my case, finding a family therapist who understands recovery has been enormously helpful.

3. Compare addiction to an illness kids understand.

To help kids understand the recovery process, you can compare your experience to someone coping with a lifelong illness like diabetes. Kids are more likely to understand why a sick parent might experience fatigue or irritability, need extra sleep or even visit the doctor. Though recovery from addiction is not exactly the same, this comparison can provide a basic foundation for a kid to begin to comprehend what’s going on with mom or dad.

4. Let go of guilt.

Many parents in recovery struggle with guilt about letting their kids or family down. Learning to let go of this is crucial in order to move on and become the parent you want to be. “Have some empathy for yourself for why you did what you did,” Meeks says. “It’s a process. Know that every day you take care of yourself, you are a healthier model for your kids.”

5. Keep the conversation open.

Keep recovery as an active part of the conversation and open practice in the home, so it becomes a natural component of the family structure, like Friday movie night or Monday T-ball.

Recently, I was updating our family calendar when Charlie, my 5-year-old, sidled up. I was using my beloved 24-piece Sharpie marker set (my latest addiction) to zealously color-code our summer activities. Charlie, eyeing the coveted Sharpies, asked if he could help.

I now have a purple starship decorating “Mom’s Meeting Night.” I had never considered that my recovery merited its own illustrations, but never has a slightly lopsided, and very courageous, purple rocket seemed more appropriate.

By Dana B, Huffington Post 07/09/14

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the AA Cleveland District Office.