As addicts, we like to believe that our behaviors only damage ourselves. What we do is nobody else’s business. But this is a delusion crafted by the disease of addiction. In reality, our behaviors affect friends, relatives, co-workers and everyone we come into contact with. And no one suffers more than those we most want to protect: our children. Children of alcoholics and addicts are at greater risk for emotional problems and addiction than other children, often displaying risk-taking behavior, school failure, aggression, anxiety, depression and relationship problems. When we finally get sober and begin the lifelong journey of recovery, we set out to make right by our kids. But without positive role models and new parenting skills, we tend to inflict the same emotional injuries on our children that we swear we will never pass on. How can we put an end to the cycle? 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, say addiction experts Dr. David Sack, CEO of Promises addiction treatment centers in Los Angeles, and Dr. Shari Corbitt, a clinical psychologist with private practices in Agoura Hills and Beverly Hills.
A Healthy Home Combats Addiction Genes
Research is increasingly showing that having a genetic predisposition for addiction does not doom children of addicts to become addicts themselves. “We have long known that addiction runs in families, but there is a wealth of new research attempting to determine how much is genetically inherited and how much is environmentally influenced,” says Dr. Corbitt. “We suspect that while genetics are a factor, environmental influences play a much more significant role. This means it’s more important than ever for parents in recovery to learn sobriety-enhancing skills they can pass on to their children.” While parents cannot change the genetics they pass on, they can control some of the environmental factors that strongly influence addictive behaviors. “We encourage parents to capitalize on the strong protective factors they can use to lessen the impact of genetics and create a healthy home environment,” says Dr. Sack. “Preventing addictive behavior before it starts is far more effective than treating an addiction years in the making.” According to Dr. Corbitt and Dr. Sack, the following are some of the steps parents in recovery can take to raise happy and resilient children.
Parenting Tip #1: Practice Self-Care
Like the airline flight attendants remind us every time we fly, we are of little use to our children if we don’t put our oxygen masks on first and then tend to their needs. Parents in recovery often feel a great deal of guilt and shame, particularly if their children have been exposed to their addictive behaviors, and overcompensate by setting aside their own needs. 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. “Once sober, parents often feel that they should now be ‘super parents,’ says Dr. Corbitt. “But learning new parenting skills is a process that unfolds over time. While it requires ongoing effort and awareness, perfection is not the ultimate goal. Just as there are no perfect children, there are no perfect parents.”
Parenting Tip #2: Have Fun as a Family
Families struggling with addiction typically do not know how to have fun as a family, says Dr. Corbitt. While getting sober is a major milestone, it doesn’t mean parents have a clue how to prevent their children from facing the same obstacles they did. “Parents in recovery typically didn’t learn important life skills from their family of origin,” Dr. Corbitt explains. “Without education and role models, they have no reason to know what healthy family relationships look like.” As simple as it sounds, parents best serve their children by spending time with them having fun. Whether they spend the afternoon roller skating, walking the dog, baking cookies together or doing some other family activity, children need to learn that they can have fun without drugs or alcohol.
Parenting Tip #3: Focus on 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. Dr. Corbitt advises, “Catch them doing something right.” Praising children for positive behavior rather than focusing on the negative promotes self-esteem and reinforces healthy behaviors.
Parenting Tip #4: Build a Sense of Community
“Addicted families tend to be terribly isolated,” says Dr. Corbitt. In an effort to avoid airing their dirty laundry, parents in recovery may retreat from relationships with other people. Instead, Dr. Corbitt recommends building a sense of community by participating in athletic teams, taking classes at the community center, joining a church or other religious organization, or otherwise taking advantage of whatever community opportunities exist. This way, both children and parents gain life experiences and role models in the broader community and feel a sense of belonging.
Parenting Tip #5: Accept and Validate Feelings
Whereas addicts think they’re responsible for the emotions of others, parents in recovery best serve their children by teaching them they aren’t responsible for anyone else’s feelings, says Dr. Corbitt. While they must treat others with compassion and empathy, they don’t have to “fix” it if someone else is struggling with difficult emotions. Similarly, children can be angry, sad and frustrated without their parents needing to rescue them.
Parenting Tip #6: Assume Flexible Family Roles
Alcoholic and addicted families have assumed rigid and dysfunctional family roles. One is sick, another is a caretaker, another is the superhero and so on, and any deviation from those roles puts the whole family into a tailspin. In healthy families each member plays a role, but those roles are flexible. For example, if the caretaker gets sick, others step in and care for them, and vice versa. People shift in and out of roles as the situation requires.
Parents Make All the Difference
As children get older and begin making decisions of their own about drugs and alcohol, parents may feel that they’ve lost all influence. No matter how much it feels that way, Dr. Corbitt implores parents to continue communicating and setting clear expectations and boundaries. It’s never too late to change unhealthy relationship patterns, and our children look to us for support and guidance whether they are 2, 15 or 50. “Parents always have been and always will be the most important influence in their children’s lives,” says Dr. Corbitt. “Learning how to parent with flexibility, joy and community will dramatically decrease the number of teens finding friendship and self-soothing in a bottle. By building new skills now, parents have the opportunity to break the chain of addiction so we won’t see their kids at Promises 10 to 15 years from now.”