Ask the Experts: Addiction in the Family Worries Mom

My ex-husband is an alcoholic. My kids have a good relationship with their dad and see him regularly. Their dad refuses to admit he is an alcoholic or seek help...

This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on May 30, 2018 by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine

Question:  My ex-husband is an alcoholic. My kids have a good relationship with their dad and see him regularly. Their dad refuses to admit he is an alcoholic or seek help (part of why our marriage ended).  Alcoholism runs in his family and I know it’s important to have conversation with my kids about that before they get to an age where they might be tempted to drink.  How early do I start those conversations and how do I do it without undermining their dad or having them think differently about him?

Answer:  I have to congratulate you on your careful question and your concern to not undermine the children’s father in light of his drinking, which contributed to end of the marriage. You are right, it is very important to talk with your children about drinking and the possible genetic history of alcoholism in the family, before they decide to drink. Best case scenario they never even take a first drink.  

Ways to go about talking with your kids about this subject does depend on their ages. The beginnings of the conversation can start with other inherited traits like eye, hair and skin color which are prevalent in the family. It will be helpful for them to know that some traits and genetic leanings are good, and some, not so good. Every family has both. Education about other predisposed conditions in the family, such as diabetes, should be discussed, as well as the possibility of the disease of addiction. With teens, a good activity is a family internet research session together, where you can help with some guided exploring on the subject. 

If questions come up about their father you can explain that addiction is a tricky disease that tells an individual that they don’t have it. You can explain that you and their father disagree about whether he has a problem, but that you feel it is important they be aware of the risks.  

Revisit this conversation often, perhaps if it comes up in a TV show or news clip; turn the conversation back to your family.   Stress repeatedly in a variety of ways that living with addiction is no way for them to live. Addiction hurts lives; it affects an individual’s thinking and health. It can cause job loss and end relationships. Always include that no one sets out to get addicted, but addiction starts out like a fun friend that you allow to live in your home, who ends up robbing you. Encourage them to talk with you about drinking and drug use when they feel challenged or have questions. Set firm boundaries about drug and alcohol use as they move into teenage years, and talk with them often. Remind them that rules mean that you love them enough to care that they turn out healthy and well.

Everyone needs to know that the genetic link with substance abuse disorders is not the only thing to consider. Parents who use substances may make choices that are not in the best interest of their children. Questions to consider are: Does he/she drink or use drugs when around the children? Have they seen him/her drunk? Does he/she drive when using alcohol and drugs, with the children in the car? Are the children put in the position of covering for, cleaning up after, or lying, in order to rescue the addicted parent, or, are older children inappropriately stepping in the role of “parent” when the adult is using? People who are in a relationship with a person with addiction are affected by that person’s use in very serious ways.  Counseling and groups like Al-Anon or Al-ateen are amazingly helpful to family members.

Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website and click on “Referrals.”

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