On Father’s Day, kids take the time to show their appreciation for all of the things their fathers do for them every day of the year. But for the child of an alcoholic or drug abuser, the day may be fraught with confusion and mixed emotions. Addiction is a serious, complex issue, and this can leave many parents feeling as though it’s impossible to adequately explain the problem to children. However, if you approach the topic with tact, honesty and openness, you can help your child understand why their dad is in rehab for Father’s Day or why he isn’t manning the barbecue with a beer in hand like last year.
Seven Cs of Explaining Addiction to Children
The simplest model for how to explain addiction to your child is known as the Seven Cs:
- I didn’t cause it.
- I can’t cure it.
- I can’t control it.
- I can take better care of myself,
- By communicating my feelings,
- Making healthy choices,
- And celebrating myself.
The reason these messages are important is because self-blame in particular is common in the children of addicts. It could be that Dad has tried to lay the blame for the problem (whether overtly or by the more subtle “you make me stressed, stress makes me drink” remarks) on the child. Kids take this kind of thing to heart, so it’s vital to stress that it is not their fault. Moreover, children of addicted parents often take on more responsibility than most kids, and as a result may feel as though they are responsible for rectifying the issue. This is less likely to be explicitly or implicitly expected of the child, but it’s a consequence of the child feeling like he or she is to blame for the problem.
The last four steps are designed to emphasize that addiction is not normal behavior, and the child doesn’t need to feel as though he or she is condemned to repeat the mistakes of his or her parent. These steps are concerned with establishing good personal habits, both physical and emotional, for the affected child. Encourage openness and honesty from the child with regard to emotions, and ensure that he or she understands the risks associated with addictions. End with the message of hope: if you deal with your emotions in a healthy fashion and you are happy with who you are, you won’t need to rely on substances when you grow up, and you won’t have the same problems.
Practicing Age-Appropriate Honesty
It’s tempting to sugarcoat the message for a child, and while this is needed to a certain degree, it’s important to be honest about the problem and to be informed so you can field any questions he or she may have. Make sure the message is age-appropriate, simplifying the problem or breaking it down into more understandable terms, but don’t lie or mislead the child.
The most important message is that addiction is a disease, brought on by a complex interplay of genetic, environmental and psychological factors, and therefore the child isn’t responsible for the problem, just like he or she wouldn’t be responsible if the illness were diabetes instead of addiction. In the same vein, while it’s good for the child to help around the house or put his all into schoolwork,he can’t fix his dad’s problem by doing so. Dad needs treatment, and that’s why this Father’s Day will be a little different. Make it clear that the problem is common: more than 28 million Americans are the children of alcoholics. Let your child know that many kids are going through the same problems; he or she isn’t alone.
Updating the Conversation Regularly
When your child understands the nature of addiction, it’s important not to ignore the situation after the initial explanation. You need to be there for your child emotionally, so she knows that she can communicate her feelings to you without fear, judgment or reproach, and you need to keep her up to date on what’s happening in Daddy’s life. If your child has gotten a little older since the first talk, update the conversation you had with new information or insight that he will be able to understand better now, and if he’s struggling with anything, be there to offer help.
Remember that you don’t have to shoulder the burden on your own; there are groups such as Al-Anon and Alateen that are dedicated to helping the families of addicts. Most importantly, be sure your child knows that even though this Father’s Day might be a little different, Daddy loves his kids as much as ever, and that with hard work and dedication, you’ll get through this together.