Protection Is Instinct
You want to protect your kids. Your roof keeps rain off of them. The walls of your home make boundaries against the outside world. Your fence designates the limits of your property. That innate desire to protect your kids informs your family’s diet. It shapes how you teach your kids about relationships – especially with those outside your home. Protection is the whole reason you ask them to hold your hand when crossing the street. Or when you tell them not to touch a hot stove.
Your Protection Has Limits
But life happens. Sometimes you can’t protect them. Not from some things. Raising children might be the hardest thing you’ve ever done! Having a partner who struggles with substance abuse makes it even harder. When your partner’s life is unbalanced, so is yours. Like anybody who loves somebody else, you prop them up when they fall. You become a pillar. You shift the weight of their life onto your shoulders. That’s devotion. But what about when that lack of balance affects your kids? How do you protect them then? You can’t live in denial. You must face the problem head on. You might hate that. But you must do it nonetheless. You have to explain to your kids, in language they can understand, that their mom or dad struggles with substance addiction. But how?
First, practice empathy for your kids. Empathy will help you talk with your kids, instead of just talking at them. To really start this conversation, ask your kid questions. Try something like, “What do you understand about what is happening to Mom/Dad?” Asking an open-ended question like this will motivate your kid to think about their answer. And they’ll be honest – kids are nothing if not honest! Look your kid in the eyes. No matter how much pain you feel – you must put that aside for the moment. You must actively listen to your child’s response. Don’t argue, scold, judge, or critique. Just listen. Once they’ve spoken, then you can begin to dialogue more deeply with them. If they say they don’t know, don’t falter. Keep the conversation going.
Your Partner? Or Your Kids?
You may be angry at your partner. They might’ve done or said something that hurt you. Their decisions might have cost you money. Time. Energy. These internal resources get expended in any relationship. But they really get tested if you love someone struggling with substance abuse. But your feelings about your partner are for your partner. Any anger, any unresolved tension, any conflict. Take those things up with your partner. Focus on what’s right in front of you: your children. Feel their emotions. See the world how they see it. Control your anger. Don’t use this time to insult or belittle your partner. Your family needs unity. Not division. Remember: your children most likely blame themselves for your partner’s choices. If you’re distracted with upbraiding your partner, you will be unable to help your children. No matter what your partner has done. No matter how much you might think they deserve your anger – your children don’t need to hear about it.
Remember The Truth
Your children might feel guilty for your partner’s choices. They might think they are the cause of your partner’s drug abuse or addiction. You must remind them of the truth. Your partner is a human being. Your partner loves your children. Your partner’s choices are theirs, and theirs alone. They are where they are because of things they decided to do. Or because of things they decided not to do. Their life is theirs to deal with. Of course, your children love your partner. Of course, they want your partner to get better. But kids must really believe that they didn’t make your partner do anything. Nor can they make your partner change. They have no control over what your partner does or how s/he acts. They can love and support your partner. But it’s not their job to fix them.
OK, So What Do I Actually Tell My Kids?
Trust is critical at this time. Tell your children the truth about what’s going on. For younger kids (under 10), tell them your partner is sick. They have a disease that’s called “addiction.” They put things in their body that aren’t good for them. They make choices that hurt people’s feelings. They say things that are mean. They sometimes act in ways that confuse the people that love them. For teens and tweens, keep it short and simple. Tell them what’s happening. Fact-by-fact, piece by piece. “Mom/Dad is addicted to _______. That’s why s/he’s been doing _________ or acting ___________.” With older kids, you have more room to be honest about your feelings regarding your partner’s addiction. Remember not to speculate or analyze your partner. Don’t gossip. But do, by all means, tell your child how you feel. “I feel _______ because of the situation.” Own your feelings. Put them on you, not on your partner. But be open, vulnerable, and transparent.
How Do I Explain My Partner’s Treatment?
If your partner is seeking treatment, tell your kids about it. There’s no need to be technical. Use everyday language your kids understand. If it’s intensive outpatient (IOP), explain to your kids how it works. “Mom/Dad will be going to see a doctor on these days and these times.” If your partner needs more serious or long-term treatment, then tell your kids how it works. “Mom/Dad is very sick and will have to go to the hospital to get better.” Tell your kids to expect changes. Tell them it will be hard. If they need to cry, then they should. If they need to talk, make yourself available. You may even consider individual therapy for your kids. Or family therapy if need be. Tell your kids that it’s ok to be angry at your partner. It’s ok to be sad. Those emotions are normal and healthy. There are appropriate ways to express them, but the emotions themselves are ok to feel.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, call Recovery In Tune now at 1 (844) 7-IN-TUNE.