What to tell young children?

Old 12-28-2008, 02:04 PM
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What to tell young children?

I am wondering whether and how parents explain the alcoholic parent to their young children? In particular, I am wondering whether you explain the "subtle, functional" alcoholic, and how you do so.

My AH drinks wine every evening until he falls asleep/passes out. We separated last summer, by which time AH had become very disengaged from my sons (aged 8 and 10) and me. I was a SAH mom until recently, so I lavished attention on my children, thinking (mistakenly) that I could make up for AH's lack of attention. Things were tense between AH and me prior to our separation because he did nothing to help with household responsibilities, never went anywhere with us, and spent nearly all his time by himself, drinking and using his laptop. But he never had drunken rages, stumbled around, slurred his speech, or engaged in any behavior that my children would have noticed as unusual. Even I was slow to pick up on the fact that his wine drinking, which troubled me for years, had progessed to alcoholism. My AH has been diagnosed and referred to rehab, but at this time he is refusing to go.

I have a therapist, my children have a therapist, and I attend a weekly support meeting (not Al-Anon but a similar, therapist-led group). I sometimes find the advice from the therapists and group members confusing and contradictory, especially when it comes to what to tell my children and when. My children's therapist advocated not telling them about their father's alcoholism until they were older unless it was clearly necessary, and then telling them a "minimal amount of information." My support group members recommend that I do tell them, and my therapist felt I would have the judgement to tell them in an appropriate manner at an appropriate time. For months, I abided by my children's therapist's recommendation though I was never comfortable with it and wasn't sure what it meant.

In late October, I told my 10-year-old about his dad after he showed up for custody time, had been drinking (in violation of custody agreement), and was turned away by me. My 10-year-old persisted in asking questions and not accepting what I was telling him, which were basically lies (e.g., "Daddy doesn't feel well."). He was sad to learn about his dad, but it answered a lot of questions and ideas he had been harboring.

I chose to tell my 8-year-old today because of some AH behaviors we've experienced lately (not returning phone calls, not coming over on Christmas, etc.), and I've grown weary of making up lies. The lies are starting to feel like I am covering for my husband and I don't want to do that. But I am not convinced that this is a reason to tell young children that a parent is an alcoholic, and I'm wondering what others think and how they have handled this.

Another difficult area for me is explaining to my children my own anger or indifference toward my AH, which they pick up on from time to time. His refusal to go to rehab will probably result in my going to court to seek full custody of my children. At times I feel very upset and it is difficult to hide these emotions from my children. At this point, I've explained that their dad has a drinking problem, that it is a disease, and that it affects his brain so that he doesn't always make good decisions. I've explained that they should never get into a car with anyone who has had any alcohol to drink. But I think all this is confusing to my children because dad's drinking is under the radar, so to speak.

Finally, I welcome advice on how to handle my own negative emotions about my AH's enabling, heavy-drinking mother, alcoholic brother, and sister (who may have a drug addiction). I've had a 20-year relationship with these people but I can't stand them at this point because they are enabling my AH and telling him he doesn't have a problem, etc. It is often difficult to hide my negative emotions about them from my children. I don't really want my children spending time with them, but since my AH has no friends and his family accept his behavior, he visits on many of his custody weekends. Plus, my children LOVE these relatives, who shower them with expensive gifts.
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Old 12-28-2008, 02:16 PM
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As the child of alcoholic parents, I know I knew from a very young age there was something wrong with myparents. I of course didn't know what but I knew that my parents weren't like other parents and I also knew it was my fault somehow.

I would be truthful in an age appropriate way. Making up little white lies (such as daddy isn't feeling well) doesn't help IMO. Kids may not have the words to say dad is drunk but they know what not feeling well looks and feels like and they know that is not what is going on with dad. Don't assume that dad's drinking is under their radar either. I knew darned well when my parents were drinking (without being able to say that what it was) and I learned very young to stay away from them when they were drunk.

Giving them accurate age appropriate information will empower them, will help them understand on a gut level that this is not their fault, will help them learn their own healthy coping mechanisms.
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Old 12-28-2008, 02:39 PM
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Originally Posted by PCat View Post
The lies are starting to feel like I am covering for my husband and I don't want to do that.
my main goal is to protect my son from his fathers disease...
i have been criticized from some ppl for telling my son the truth about his father, that he is an addict, does drugs, and thats what makes him do all that crazy stuff. But from day one. i refused to make excuses for him or take the blame for this situation.

Hi Tracee,

I didn't want to hijack, but wanted to commend you on your decision with regard to your little boy and his dad. I have the exact same situation, just change all the genders.

I have also refused to make excuses for dd's alcoholic mom, and have told her the truth since day one, she was 5 then and she's 7 now and she gets it.

I believe that when little kids know something is amiss, but all the adults act like nothing's wrong, it is by far more damaging.

The fact that your 5yo boy can hand you the phone when his dad is "talking crazy" tells me we made the right decisions.

Good job.

The above is a quote from another members post and a copy of a private message I sent her on this subject last night.

I believe children can handle the truth, and that we owe them the truth.

Thanks and God bless us all,
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Old 12-28-2008, 04:46 PM
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Thanks for your replies. I've found SR to be a great resource over the past six months, and this was my first post. My gut and parenting instincts tell me it's better to be honest with my children. I worry that no matter how I explain it, I'll damage them forever. If you are willing to share any examples of what you've said to your children or what you would have liked to have been told when you were a child, I would appreciate it.
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Old 01-02-2009, 06:28 PM
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Join Date: Mar 2007
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I'm bumping a thread in F&F of Substance Abusers w/ similarities to your question. It's called What do I tell my 7 year old about AH.

Sorry I didn't notice your thread earlier.
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Old 01-02-2009, 09:25 PM
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Originally Posted by PCat View Post
My gut and parenting instincts tell me it's better to be honest with my children. I worry that no matter how I explain it, I'll damage them forever. If you are willing to share any examples of what you've said to your children or what you would have liked to have been told when you were a child, I would appreciate it.
My first thought is that you really don't need to "tell" them anything. They already know. What you maybe need to do is empathize with their hurt and help them understand it.

My second thought is that you are most likely doing this already. It sounds to me like you have good parenting skills.

Next, I think it's important to note that (contrary to your worry above) YOU are not damaging them forever. Their dad is.

I have 4 boys. Ages 16, 11, almost 8, and 4. I am alcoholic (recovering - 11 months) and bipolar. My bipolar was very severe. My acoholism was blantently obvious but not quite as severe, I don't think. But when I finally got diagnosised with bipolar and went on Lithium (2 years ago) the changes in me had to be spoken about. It was just such a huge thing.

I did bring my 2 oldest kids to my therapist so we could talk one time. But they didn't like that very much. Essentially, I've been as matter-of-fact as I possibly can be. And as honest. Without bringing it up all the time so that they feel bombarded by it.

Like one time, one of their friends was over and I was manic. We actually laugh about it now because they understand why I was acting so strange and their friend is afraid to ever come over to our house again.

I think it's important to be honest with them for so many reasons. Not the least of which is that they have a heriditary predispossion to both bipolar and alcoholism. I want to set the best example possible of how to handle both. I want to act as much as I can how I would want them to handle things if they get either.

I don't go into any detail with my younger kids other than to just make it a point NOT TO HIDE. For instance, my sponsor called and they said who was that? I said, "My sponsor and friend, Candie." My 7 year old said what's a sponsor and I explained it was a friend that helps me stay sober. He knows what the word sober means because I've explained that I have a disease which makes it so I shouldn't drink alcohol ever. Because once I start, I can't stop. And that's really bad for me and also dangerous.

My younger kids seem to accept that explanation completely. They don't seem to want any more information. I think that's important too - to know when to STOP talking about it. And I've said at least 2 times to each kid that if they ever want to talk about it or ask me any questions, they can.

Anyway, that's my experience. I think that you are probably already doing a very good job.

Don't make yourself the bad guy. And, by the way, you don't have to make your AH the bad guy either. Everyone, including you and the kids, have a right to be very disappointed and sad. (And you obviously have an array of complex feelings.) But I think it's really important that the kids disapppointment and anger and sadness be allowed to be directed at their dad without demonizing him. He's an alcoholic. Not a evil super villian. He does things that suck and that make it seem as if he doesn't care. But the truth is, he does care just as deeply as any other parent. But he is locked in his disease. I think it's hard to teach compassion. But this is a really good example of a situation in their lives where their anger and sadness might occassionally and gently be channeled toward compassion.

Good luck. Intentional parenting is very hard, I think. But obviously so well worth it!
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