It very well might be the most nerve-wracking conversation you will have. After all, you’re visiting your demons with the one audience that means the most to you: your children. Opening up about your addiction and recovery takes time and a certain amount of preparation. Keep these six principles in mind as you navigate this challenging yet important talk.
1. Establish Boundaries Ahead of Time
Prior to talking with your child, review for yourself what you are willing to share and what needs to be kept private. Prepare yourself for questions about other family members, whether or not you used substances while pregnant, missing funds and other very personal questions. It's okay to say that there are some aspects of your use that you are not comfortable sharing. By establishing boundaries before the conversation begins, you are likely to feel more comfortable and confident entering the conversation.
2. Provide a Balanced View
It is easy to embrace one of two extremes when talking with your child about your substance use and recovery. One extreme is to only share the horrible consequences. This could leave your child feeling very sorry for you or even guilty. It can also backlash with teenagers since they most likely know someone who has used drugs before but turned out “okay.” Teens will then discount your story thinking it is just a fear tactic.
The second extreme is to downplay the problems substances have caused. This approach is most common in conversations with young children. While the idea is to spare the child from pain, the depiction falsely communicates that substance abuse causes only manageable problems.
A balanced approach includes both the negative effects of the substance use and your gains or plans in recovery. It communicates clearly that substances are not to be abused and that there is hope for those who are trapped by it.
3. Be Age Appropriate
You likely know better than anyone else what your child needs and can understand. Remember your concepts of certain terms may be very different from theirs. A child may not know the meaning behind “meetings”, “rehab” or even “drugs.” For example, a young child may not understand the difference between medicine and illicit drugs and consequently develop a fear of all drugs. Ask questions as you go along to ensure your child understands and encourage them to ask questions any time.
Many family conversations can be addressed at once, but if you have children of different ages, it may be important to separate them for this particular occasion. A five-year-old and a fifteen-year-old process information differently—though keep in mind that anything you tell your fifteen-year-old may get back to your five-year-old.
4. Stay Focused on Your Purpose
These conversations can easily turn into a therapy session complete with a crying parent and a child giving words of comfort. Your purpose is to give your child the information needed to make wise decisions about substance use and to understand why certain events are unfolding such as your need to go to a rehab. This is not the time to release your emotions or process your feelings about the past. Instead, this is a time to share facts. If you think you will not be able to have the conversation without becoming emotional, write down what you want to say ahead of time and read it. Even a quick outline may help keep you focused.
5. Be Proactive
Your child should hear about your substance use from you--not your ex-spouse, other children at school or, even worse, the evening news. If you know your substance use is about to become public knowledge, get busy and share what your child needs to know.
6. Be Honest
Children can sense dishonesty. Part of recovery is embracing honesty but it can be very tempting to bend the truth in an effort to spare a child's feelings. However, this is bound to backfire. For example, if a parent going to a 6-month-long program tells their child that they will be gone for “a few days,” the child's sense of trust will be disrupted and anxiety will likely develop as he wonders whether or not the parent will return. It is better to say there are things that cannot be discussed than to attempt to appease the child with less than honest answers.
Talking with your children about your own substance abuse is tough. Ignoring their need to understand or allowing someone else to tell them will make things tougher. Sitting down and having this conversation is an important and necessary part of recovery.