Addiction is a disease that affects spouses and children as dramatically as addicts themselves. When people get sober, they often set out to right the wrongs they’ve done to their children. And though children of addicts are at greater risk for emotional problems and addiction than other children, there are steps parents in recovery can take to minimize these risks. Through education and a conscious effort to develop the tools for positive parenting, we can become the parents we want to be rather than the parents we had.
Research is increasingly showing that having a genetic predisposition for addiction does not mean every child of an addict will become an addict themselves. While genetics are certainly a factor, environmental influences play a much more significant role. Even though we can’t change the genes we pass down, there are strong protective factors parents in recovery can capitalize on to lessen the impact of genetics and create a healthy home environment.
1. Tend to Your Own Needs
Parents in recovery often feel a great deal of guilt and shame, particularly if their children have been exposed to their addictive behaviors. Once sober, many overcompensate by setting aside their own needs in an attempt to be “super parents.” In order to preserve their sobriety and keep their families intact, it is critical for parents to take care of themselves and continue working their program of recovery. Parents can rest a bit easier knowing that there is no such thing as a perfect parent.
2. Have Fun as a Family
It takes time for parents in recovery to learn how to have fun without using drugs or alcohol. While getting sober is a major milestone, it doesn’t automatically mean parents know what healthy family relationships look like and how to prevent their children from facing the same obstacles they did. As adults, they may have to learn the critical life skills that other people developed earlier in life.
The importance of having fun as a family sounds simple but can’t be overestimated. Whether they spend the afternoon hiking, playing with a pet, baking together or doing some other family activity, children need to learn that they can have fun without drugs or alcohol and see these behaviors modeled for them firsthand.
3. Reinforce the Positive
In alcoholic or addicted families, parents expend a great deal of energy when a child does something wrong, but very little when they do something well. It is just as important, if not more so, to catch them doing something right. Praising children for positive behavior rather than focusing on the negative promotes self-esteem and reinforces healthy behaviors.
4. Build Relationships in the Community
Isolation is a common characteristic of addicted families. To combat this tendency, build a sense of community by participating in team sports, taking classes at the community center or joining a religious organization. Whatever opportunities are offered in your area, get actively involved. In addition to gaining life experiences and role models in the community, you will foster the sense of belonging that children crave.
5. Accept Each Other’s Feelings
Addicts take responsibility for the emotions of others, leading to codependency and a host of dysfunctional behaviors. Parents in recovery best serve their children by teaching them that while they must treat others with compassion and empathy, they don’t have to “fix” another person’s emotions. Similarly, children can cope with frustration, distress and anger without needing to be rescued by their parents.
6. Adopt Flexible Family Roles
In alcoholic and addicted families, each member assumes a predictable and dysfunctional role that (often unknowingly) perpetuates the addiction. Some of these roles include the Hero (perfectionist), the Caretaker (enabler), the Mascot (family comedian) and the Scapegoat (rebel). Any deviation from those roles throws off the family dynamic.
Injecting flexibility and spontaneity into these rigid family roles improves the health of the entire family system. Each member plays a specific role, but people shift in and out of roles as the situation requires.
Parental Influence Reigns Supreme
As children enter adolescence, many parents feel they’ve lost all influence. The truth is that parents always have been and always will be the most important influence in their children’s lives. It’s never too late to start parenting with joy and flexibility so that kids get their needs met at home rather than from drugs or alcohol. Our children continue looking to us for support and guidance whether they are 2, 15 or 50.
David Sack, M.D., is a board-certified addiction psychiatrist and CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, which owns Promises Treatment Centers, The Ranch, and The Recovery Place. He often appears in the major media discussing drug addiction and related co-occurring issues.