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Straight Talk from Claudia Black: What Recovering Parents Should Tell Their Kids about Drugs and Alcohol

Straight Talk from Claudia Black: What Recovering Parents Should Tell Their Kids about Drugs and Alcohol

by Claudia Black, Nicola Bloedel (Photographer)

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Best-selling recovery author Claudia Black introduces readers to five different families and reveals how each of the parents talked with their kids about recovery, relapse, and the child's own vulnerability to addiction.

Alcohol use, drug use, and addiction are challenging topics for parents to discuss with children. These subjects are even more complex, and more


Best-selling recovery author Claudia Black introduces readers to five different families and reveals how each of the parents talked with their kids about recovery, relapse, and the child's own vulnerability to addiction.

Alcohol use, drug use, and addiction are challenging topics for parents to discuss with children. These subjects are even more complex, and more urgent, for recovering parents to discuss with their children. Best-selling recovery author Claudia Black introduces readers to five different families and reveals how each of the parents talked with their kids about recovery, relapse, and the childs own vulnerability to addiction. Discussion tips and clearly presented facts help parents focus on key issues. Age-appropriate strategies help reduce childrens experimentation with alcohol and other drugs.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Black, an addiction expert known for her work on the adult children of alcoholics (It Will Never Happen to Me), here shifts her focus to recovering parents, in turn addressing the needs of their children. Based on the sensible idea that parents struggling with addiction face unique challenges in fostering antidrug/alcohol attitudes, her latest book acknowledges the genetic component of addiction while stating that the process is not inevitable. Provided are useful tools for assessment (e.g., "the family tree") and remediation grounded in the 12-step program philosophy. Early chapters review current information on brain chemistry, generational vulnerability, and phenomena such as multiple addictions, tolerance levels, relapse, and blackouts. The emphasis then moves to straightforward and realistic advice about self-forgiveness, making amends for past behavior, and new ways of relating to loved ones. Personal stories drawn from five diverse families are used throughout; limited references are provided at the conclusion. This candid and hope-filled book merits strong consideration by large public libraries and specialized collections given the prevalence of some form of addictive behavior in families.-Antoinette Brinkman, M.L.S., Evansville, IN Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Hazelden Publishing
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
Straight Talk about Addiction and Recovery

On December 31, 1986, the day after I got sober, the last thing I wanted to face was what I had done to my kids. Prior to sobriety, as a father, what I had going for me was the law, the Ten Commandments, and the tradition that adult men protect their kids. So when I became sober, the first thing I wanted to do was quickly reassert their respect for me based upon everything I had going for me. This might have worked when they were small and I had drank only a short period, but by the time I got sober nobody could say that I deserved all of the respect that the law and the Ten Commandments provided for.

I realized I was going to have to get to know the kids and vice versa. For me it meant being friends first. The kids really wanted me to be a parent, and I wanted to regain their respect. Today I have been in recovery for several years and have regained that respect, but not by asserting what I had in the first place. Instead I earned respect by "letting go" of the outcome of my relationships after I had done all I could to change, trusting that God would then do his thing. —Wally

It has always been my belief that parents truly love their children and genuinely want what is best for them, yet that message often becomes convoluted, inconsistent, and sometimes nearly nonexistent when addiction begins to pervade the family system. As much as parents want to correct this, the focus of early recovery is often on recovery practices, marriage or partnership, and job or career. This is coupled with parents frequently just not knowing what to say to their children or how best to interact with them. This confusion can be as true for the adult child as it is for the adolescent-age or younger child. In many cases it is easy to ignore the issue of what to say or how to interact with your children if someone else, such as an ex-spouse or grandparents, predominantly raises them, or they are adults living on their own. Children can also impede the process by pretending all is just fine in your relationship with them because you are now clean and sober. And, in fact, for many it is better already. Or they may distance themselves from you with aloofness or anger.

The inability to be intimate, to share yourself with your children, to be there for them is one of the most tragic losses in life. Having worked with thousands of addicted parents, I've seen their eyes shimmer with tears and glow with love when they talk about their children. As I wrote this book I interviewed a host of parents, and I was inspired by the depth of love and vulnerability shared as they talked about how their addiction impacted their children, and the hope that their recovery would provide them the positive influence and connection that they would like to have with their children.

What Do You Say to Your Children?

In recovery there is a lot of wreckage of the past that needs to be addressed, and there is a lot of moving forward that will happen as well. What your children want most is to know you love them. They want you to be there for them and with them. That can be difficult to recognize if your children are angry or distant. It can be difficult to do given the priority needed to learn how to live clean and sober. Creating new relationships or mending old relationships doesn't happen overnight. The most important thing you can do for your children is to stay clean and sober. Yet while you are doing that there are so many little steps you can take with your children to begin to be the parent they need and the parent you want to be. It is my hope that this book will help you in this journey. Thomas, a recovering parent, shared this story with me.

My daughter was grown by the time I got sober. More than anything, I loved her and wanted her to know that. I wanted her to know that the parent she saw all of her growing-up years wasn't the real me—that there was this whole other me, this place of love that I had for her that I had lost control of due to my drinking and drugging lifestyle. The hardest part was being honest. Then I had to be willing to listen and not argue with her about how she saw me. I know what she saw. She saw the addict. She couldn't see my place of love; it was too well hidden. So I listened and I didn't need to argue; I was now in my place of love. But I really wanted her to know that the things I had said or done were not the real me. Yet it could sound like a cop-out. I wasn't trying to cop out. She had her experiences because of how I acted in my disease.

I talked; she listened. She talked; I listened. Together we have healed.

Addiction is a devastating disease. It ravages one's physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual being. The greatest pain is that it impacts those we love the most—our children. In recovery we learn that addiction is a disease, that it is not a matter of willpower or self-control. We surrender to our powerlessness over alcohol and other mind-altering chemicals. We put one step in front of the other, often following the direction of other recovering alcoholics and addicts before us. We rejoice and celebrate recovery. For the first time in a long time, we begin to like ourselves. We begin to let go of our insecurities, our fears, and our angers. We begin to look beyond ourselves, and when we do, many of us are confronted with the reality that this disease is not just ours alone. Addiction belongs to the family. Confronted with that stark realization, how do we empower ourselves to make a difference in our children's lives so that they do not repeat our history?

Most children raised with addiction vow to themselves and often to others, "It will never happen to me. I will not drink like my father, or use drugs like my mother." They believe they have the willpower, the self-control, to do it differently than their parents. After all, they have seen the horrors of addiction, and shouldn't that be enough to ensure that they don't become like their parents? If I were to meet with a group of children under the age of nine, raised with addiction, and ask them if they were going to drink or use drugs when they were older, it is very likely that nearly 100 percent of them would vehemently shake their heads no. If I were to come back six years later when these children are teenagers, half of them would already be drinking, using drugs, or both. The majority of the others would begin to drink or use within the next few years.

These children will begin drinking or using out of peer pressure, to be a part of a social group, to have a sense of belonging. Kids often start to experiment just to see what it is like, and many simply like the feeling. Some will find that alcohol and drugs are a wonderful way to medicate or anesthetize the pain of life. Alcohol and drugs momentarily allow their fears, angers, and disappointments to disappear. For some it produces a temporary sense of courage, confidence, and maybe even power. Aside from the emotional attraction that alcohol or drugs may provide, the genetic influence may be such that these children's brain chemistry is triggered within their early drinking or using episodes, and they quickly demonstrate addictive behavior.

As a recovering parent, or spouse/partner, what can you do to stop the chain of addiction? What do you say to your children about your addiction? What you say and do depends on your own story.

Having briefly introduced you to the lives of five recovering parents in the introduction, let's delve more specifically into their different situations.

James is three years sober in his alcoholism. He and his wife are uncertain how to approach their thirty-year-old son and twenty-four-year-old daughter regarding his and her use of drugs and alcohol. James sees so much of himself in his son's behavior when he was that age. He is concerned with his son's simmering anger, his increasing isolation, his daily drinking. Both of his children witnessed the damage of his alcoholism and supported and aligned with their mother during James's heaviest acting out, but up to this point he has never directly discussed his alcoholism. Now that he is sober, he has simply attempted to be a better parent. But there are things he will want to talk about with his adult children. He is also aware that he has the opportunity to be a better role model to his two young grandchildren than he was to his children in their growing-up years. This makes him wonder what his grandchildren should know about addiction. What information would be helpful to them?

Kendra is eleven years clean and sober from her addiction to alcohol and prescription pain pills. She met her husband, Neil, in recovery. Her daughter, now ten years old, was born after Kendra had been sober for one year, so her daughter was never exposed to active addiction. Kendra's stepson witnessed addiction firsthand, as both of his parents were alcoholics. After they divorced he remained with his alcoholic mother until the age of twelve, when he moved in with Kendra and his father. While both children have different experiences in regard to their exposure to addictive behavior, they each have two biological alcoholic parents. Kendra wonders if she and Neil should talk with and parent the two children differently. She believes much of what she has shared with her daughter about addiction needs to be shared with her stepson. But she and Neil believe they may have very different conversations, as Neil's son has lived with active addiction.

Dina, a practicing member of Al-Anon, lives with her alcoholic husband. They have four children between the ages of six and fourteen. Dina is no longer enabling her husband, as she had for many years, but he is still drinking. He is frequently away from home, but he is surly when he is home and critical of the children. Dina knows she cannot totally protect the children from the hurt of a drunk and often-absent parent, but she is being a much stronger parent and is no longer using them as a buffer between her and her husband and no longer using them as her best friends. While she doesn't want to speak negatively about her husband, she feels her children deserve the truth about their father's alcoholism. She is concerned about whether or not it would be hurtful to tell them he is an alcoholic. She knows her job is to help these children be safe, but she is confused about how to go about that. She also doesn't know how to address the issue of alcohol and drug abuse with her children when their father blatantly abuses alcohol.

Dillon, less than a year sober, has a twenty-three-year-old son and seventeen-year-old daughter. His children lived with their mother until she died four years ago from her alcoholism. He is concerned about his son's drinking and his daughter spending time with kids who have the signs of being drug users. He feels that to start talking to them about their behavior now, just because he is sober, would make him a hypocrite.

Michael is confused about what to say to his eight- and ten-year-old children. He believes they weren't aware of his alcohol and drug addiction and are not aware of his recovery. He always hid his addictive behavior with the excuses of working late hours and sometimes needing to stay overnight at work. His wife was diligent in covering his alibis with the children. He acknowledges that his wife was witness to his out-of-control behavior, as were his co-workers. He was actually put into an impaired physician's program with his license subject to review on an ongoing basis for the first few years of his recovery. While in treatment, the children were simply told that he had to work away from home. Michael has never told them of his addiction or that he regularly attends Twelve Step meetings. His alibis for attending meetings are the same ones he gave for his absences due to his addiction.

Motivation and Expectations

Before you begin a discussion on addiction with your children, it is helpful to clarify your motives and expectations in talking to your children. Here is my rule of thumb:

If your children have lived with addiction, they have the right to understand it. Even if they did not live with addiction, your children deserve to understand addiction for a host of reasons:

  • They may be genetically predisposed toward addiction.
  • Addiction is a significant part of who you (their parent) are, and talking openly about it allows for the potential of intimacy.
  • You can help them to understand your behavior of the past—and your commitment to recovery in the present.
  • You can help the child understand how his or her life has been affected.
  • Finally, because we live in an addictive culture, they will have others in their lives who will abuse alcohol and drugs.

Take time to examine your motives before talking to your children. Is your motivation the hope that your children will not repeat your behavior? Is it to create a more honest relationship between you and them? Is it to lessen guilt? Is it all of the above and/or more?

While a healthy discussion of addiction is not specifically about making amends, the very fact that you are breaking the Don't Talk Rule begins an amends process. Discussion needs to emanate from healthy thinking and the acceptance of one's own disease and of one's self.

After considering your motivation for talking about your addiction, you also need to think about your expectations to make sure they are realistic. Some children are openly angry. Others may want to take care of you or protect you. "It's all right, don't feel guilty. It wasn't that bad." Others may be polite but indifferent to hearing about addiction or recovery. James's son remarked, "My father wants me to hear about the Twelve Steps when he wasn't even around to tell me about the ABCs. He missed his chance." The purpose of discussing addiction is not for immediate acceptance of the information or of you. It would be my hope that your expectation is that you will be heard. That is a healthy expectation—simply that you will be heard. Your children will take the information, digest it, and make sense out of it for themselves. In the early phase of discussions, kids are more likely to value your behavior in recovery over your words. Children want to see you "walk the walk," not just "talk the talk."

The timing and environment for discussion are very important given that relationships are complex and often have a history fraught with mistrust and a lack of communication. Depending on your relationship, you will be able to reach out more blatantly to some children sooner than others. Adolescent resistance may be strong. In this stage of development children are in the process of individuating and separating psychologically from their parents. They are looking to their peers rather than parents for identification and belonging. In fact, it is natural that they push against their parents as a part of distinguishing their own sense of autonomy, having their own identity. It is possible that a teenager or adult-age child may already be caught up in the web of addiction. Sometimes parents recognize this; other times it is not so apparent.

Remember, discussion is not a onetime event but a process in which conversations occur over time. Opportunities will arise naturally and spontaneously for some discussion, while other conversations will need to be more intentional. The personal experiences shared in this book will offer you direction.

In the enthusiasm of recovery, there may be a degree of impatience with the process. A part of addictive thinking is operating from an all-or-nothing perspective, sharing every thought and feeling or sharing nothing and then acting as if there is but one moment or opportunity to correct the past.

An adult child, in very early recovery, spoke with urgency about needing to fly home immediately to see his mother before she died. He wanted to tell her what he was finding out about himself in sobriety. When asked if she was sick, he replied, "No, she's just getting older." His mother was only forty-seven years old. While his motivation to share was born from enthusiasm and love, his recovery was so new he had not thought out what he wanted to say. Keep in mind that sharing your recovery, like discussing your addiction with your children, is also a process in which conversations occur over time. Be realistic about your expectations and proceed with the intention to have what can be some of the most important conversations of your life.

Time to Act

All of that said, it is vital that you take the opportunity to talk with your children about addiction. You have the opportunity to create change within individual family relationships and within the family as a whole. Recovery begins with breaking what is known as the Don't Talk Rule, or the Rule of Silence. There is no better topic for discussion than to bring up what counselors often refer to as the "elephant in the living room" when referring to addiction.

An important part of this sharing process is reminding children that they are growing up in a society where alcohol and drugs are plentiful. They should be told that they are not alone, that one in four children live in families with alcohol abuse or alcoholism.1 Countless others have parents who use or abuse drugs. Although abuse of these substances poses a danger to everyone, it is important for your children to know they may carry an especially high risk, and they are four times more likely to develop severe substance abuse problems.

While it is not possible to always prevent alcoholism and drug abuse, exercising caution can make a difference and influence the choices your children make. You can take advantage of the knowledge that alcoholism and drug dependencies run in families and appear to be genetically influenced. Children of addicts are at a greater risk for developing addictive disorders. The more knowledge children have regarding substance abuse and use, and the more children know about the problems that have occurred in their family, the greater their understanding of their own personal risk. Education helps people to make better choices. Research indicates that kids, elementary age and adolescents, do listen to their parents about the important issues in their lives. Their parents' expectations for their behavior are important to kids if they have a positive connection in their relationship.

Regardless of the age of the child, these ten basics need to be woven into discussions about addiction.

  1. Children need to hear that you love them, that you always have and always will.
  2. Children need to hear you are sorry for your behavior.
  3. Children need to know that they are not at fault and in no way did they cause the need for you to drink, use drugs, or engage in any addictive behavior.
  4. Children need to know that you would like to have more openness and honesty in the relationship, and that you realize this begins with you.
  5. Children need to hear that you will do everything in your power to abstain from the addictive behavior.
  6. Children need to know that you will take responsibility for your behaviors and addiction and are now accountable for living differently and being accountable for your recovery.
  7. Children need to know that addiction is a family disease, and it often runs through family generations.
  8. Children need to know addiction in the family can skip generations.
  9. Children need to know that you would like to break the chain of addiction.
  10. Children need to know you will listen to their experiences and be available if they want to talk.

What to Say to Your Kids
I love you.
I am sorry.
You are not at fault.
I am responsible for my addiction and now my recovery.
I would like this family to break the chain of addiction, and I believe we can.

Picture yourself teaching your child how to ride a bicycle for the first time. Being a good parent, you choose the right place and time, equip the child with a helmet and appropriate shoes and clothing. The bicycle is the right size, has a bell, and is in overall good condition. You explain how to steer, shift gears, and use the brakes. You give safety instructions and caution the child about potential dangers. In the beginning you walk alongside and hold the child upright. Next you run alongside, still helping to maintain balance. Finally, with great trepidation, you release the bike and the child is riding independently.

This is how you explain and educate your children about addiction in the family. You choose the right place and time to begin the process of sharing. You explain addiction and point out the possibility of genetic predisposition and the risks and dangers of becoming addicted. You tell them you are committed to your recovery, and you will practice it a day at a time. You will guide and protect them and eventually you will let go, and they will be on their own to live their lives independently.

I would like to conclude with this reminder from a recovering parent: "My kids have as much a need for my sobriety as I have for their acceptance."

¬2003. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Straight Talk from Claudia Black by Claudia Black. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Hazelden, Center City, Minnesota, 55012-0176.

Meet the Author

Claudia A. Black, M.S.W., Ph.D., is a renowned lecturer, author and trainer internationally recognized for both her pioneering and contemporary work with family systems and addictive disorders. Dr. Black's work encompasses the interest of both the professional and lay audiences; she originated a successful model of change in the 1970's that, today, is used in treatment programs worldwide. She designs and presents workshops and seminars, authors books and interactive journals, produces educational videos and consults to various healthcare programs in the United States and abroad. She is currently the Clinical Consultant of Addictive Disorders for The Meadows and a Senior Fellow for the Meadows Institute in Wickenburg, Arizona. Dr. Black is the recipient of a number of national awards including the Marty Mann Award, the 1991 SECAD Award, and the NCA's Educator of the Year. She is also the past Chairperson of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, presently serving on their Advisory Board and, in celebration of Al-Anon's 50th anniversary, spoke on Capitol Hill to members of Congress, constituents and representatives of various addiction and treatment organization. Black's books generate wide appeal. She is the author of It Will Never Happen To Me (more than two million copies sold and now in its 2nd updated edition,) Changing Course, My Dad Loves Me, My Dad Has A Disease, Repeat After Me II, It's Never Too Late To Have A Happy Childhood, The Anger Guide, Relapse Toolkit and A Hole in the Sidewalk. Claudia has produced eighteen videos including The History of Addiction and The Legacy of Addiction and a number of CDs including A Time for Healing from Abandonment and Shame and Putting the Past Behind. Author Home Page: http://www.claudiablack.com Author email: cblack@nwlink.com

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