Deciding to pursue treatment for a substance use disorder is a big decision. It’s an important first step in recovery, and often comes after months—or even years—of struggling with how to ask for help. While seeking addiction treatment is a step towards a better and healthier lifestyle, it can also mean an extended period of time away from your family, friends and loved ones.
This extended time away—weeks, perhaps months—though necessary, can be difficult for people seeking treatment, but it can also be difficult for their families. While partners, siblings, parents, and other adult family members can find ways to cope, one group who can be especially affected by this absence is children.
Adults are often left to explain to children and young adults where their parent/guardian is.
What can you do to help?
It can be hard to know what to say and how to talk to kids about a parent or family member who is seeking treatment. Should you say anything at all? How much should you divulge? Will talking to a child about addiction expose them to too much, too soon? But open, honest conversations with young people is encouraged and can often pre-empt these issues later in life.
“Studies have shown that children of people with addiction are more likely to experience addiction themselves or have mental health issues later in life. By having these conversations now, you can tackle difficult topics, answer questions, and establish an environment where talking about behavioral health is encouraged, not shamed,” explains Sydnee Wells LSW, a behavioral health therapist at Mirmont Treatment Center, part of Main Line Health.
Keep a few things in mind when you talk to your child about a family member who is seeking addiction treatment:
- Allow them permission to show emotion. These emotions will vary based on your child’s age, experience, and personality. Allow room for them to be angry, sad or act out. Understand that, at times, they may show signs of regression or shut down.
- Answer questions honestly. Ask any parent of a toddler and they can tell you: Kids pick up on more than parents realize! You know your child; give them an honest, age appropriate answers that they can understand. Lying can lead to resentment later on in life and break the bond of trust needed for them to be open about their own needs.
- Offer them space. Don’t pressure your child into expressing themselves to you or talking about something if they aren’t ready. Do let them know that you are ready to talk whenever they are, and are always there to listen.
Above all, remember that there’s no “perfect” way to handle a difficult conversation or situation. Speak openly and honestly, allow time and room for your child to process their emotions and know that your presence and support is the most important factor.
Don’t forget to take care of you
You’ve heard it before: You have to put your own oxygen mask on first before you can help someone else with theirs. In other words, if you’re not being cared for, you won’t be able to care for the people you love. When you have a partner, sibling or other loved one who is in treatment, it’s important to keep this in mind.
“We look at life as a daily cup of energy giving it out to everyone else and taking what is left for ourselves. This is not how life is meant to work. Fill your cup so much with self-care and self-love so that whatever is overflowing is what you are able to give to others,” explains Wells.
Every day, look for activities that ‘fill your cup’ and relieve stress. Go to a movie, schedule a dinner with friends, read a book, take a walk—whatever you love to do, find some time to do it. You might also want to seek support from friends, family or local support groups like Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous. Many programs offer helpful information and resources for friends and family. At Mirmont Treatment Center, we are proud to offer a Family Support Services program, intended to educate patients’ family and friends about the disease of addiction and how to provide support throughout recovery. For more information, contact Mirmont at 484.227.1400.