How Do I Tell the Kids?

Help for Recovering Parents

Parenting is hard. Parenting in recovery is even harder. It is likely that you are struggling with what you should say to your child about your addiction and current attempts to change. Perhaps you feel like your drug or alcohol dependence is a well-kept secret, or maybe your children witnessed your substance abuse first hand. Regardless of your child’s direct or indirect experience, breaking the secrecy that often surrounds addiction can help your family experience recovery along with you.

Why should I consider telling them?

1. They may be predisposed towards addiction themselves.

2. Addiction is a significant part of who you are, and sharing this part of yourself may bring you closer.

3. Developmentally, children feel that the world revolves around them. Even if they never saw you drink or use, they are aware of tension within the home and the consequences of substance abuse in your family’s life (i.e. fighting, financial problems, or legal issues). Many times kids take responsibility for either causing these problems or not figuring out how to stop them.

4. The secrecy and lies used to cover up or minimize addiction teach children not to trust the feelings they have and that it is not okay to talk about problems. Hiding or denying negative feelings in such an unhealthy way may contribute to their development of negative coping attitudes and behaviors (i.e., rebellion, promiscuity).

5. Many times, children create explanations for what is going on around them. Although the truth about your addiction may be unpleasant, their misconceptions of what is going on may be significantly worse. (i.e. They love beer more than they love me.)

6. It is best for the topic to be discussed in a safe and well thought-out manner as opposed to an accidental discovery of facts or only grasping bits and pieces.

7. Taking responsibility for your behaviors teaches children to also be accountable and that no one is perfect.

8. Speaking openly, honestly, and appropriately about problems in the family can set a wonderful example for healthy communication, helping you rebuild trust with your child.

What should I consider before I tell them?

Your primary focus should be what your child needs to hear in order to understand what is happening within their family and what they have experienced. It is important to provide validation and reassurance that their feelings and concerns are okay. Many addicts/alcoholics come from a family

where someone else was addicted to drugs or alcohol. What did you need to hear as a child? How has their experience been different than yours and what do you think your child needs to hear?

2. It is important to speak in an age-appropriate way. Some children may not be familiar with the lingo or concepts involved in drug or alcohol dependency and treatment. Practice a child-friendly way of explaining this concept and possibly seek out help from your counselor or sponsor for help in creating a clear and concise description of your problem. Graphic details are not necessary.

3. Some children will have questions. It is important to consider what you are and are not willing to share with your child. Some information may be inappropriate or unnecessary to share with a child. Think through what you will say if your child asks something that you do not feel comfortable sharing. Perhaps ask your child why that information is important to them and refocus the discussion to the important messages that they need to hear.

4. In the same way your addiction is never a child’s fault, your recovery is also not their responsibility. Have a support system in place and show the child that it is not their job to take care of you.

5. It is important to forgive yourself. Being accountable and making amends is a valuable point on the journey to recovery.

What can I expect from my child?

1. Some children will respond by being dismissive and saying that everything is just fine. It can take a long time for family members to break their secrecy and become open and honest about what they have experienced. Your communication with them is the first step in this more healthy process.

2. Some children, especially older children, will be angry. This is understandable and acceptable. It is important to simply validate these feelings and not become defensive.

3. Some children resent no longer being able to do what they want and may not trust you to be the parent or adult just yet.

4. Some children may still be afraid of relapse and will remain guarded for a while.

5. Some children will recall events differently from you or events you don’t remember at all. The details are not important. It is their experience of what happened that matters as you discuss your addiction.

6. Most children are proud of their parents and appreciative for their efforts towards recovery, even if they can’t say so right away.

What do I say?

1. I love you.

2. I am sorry.

3. You are not at fault.

4. I am responsible for my addiction and now my recovery.

5. I would like for us to break the chain of addiction in our family, and I believe we can.

How do I say it?

1. Be honest. Although details are often excessive and unnecessary, it is important not to minimize. I have a disease called addiction. It tells my brain and heart that I need drugs or alcohol, when really those things just hurt me and everyone around me. Even though I know these things aren’t good for our family, it is really hard for me to stop. Whenever I’m sick with my disease, it is also hard for me to be a good parent, spouse, or friend.

2. Encourage questions and discussions but be respectful of their choice not to discuss it right away if that is what they want. It’s important to let out your feelings about addiction and ask questions. I know we may not have done that in the past. I love you and want to hear what you have to say. You will never get in trouble for talking to me about addiction and how it makes you feel.

3. Help children identify healthy ways to express their feelings. When they express feelings inappropriately, help them find alternative ways to cope such as writing, drawing, listening to music, or crying. I understand you are angry, and that is okay. However, it is not ok to hurt anyone with your words or actions or to destroy things that are valuable or important. You can punch this pillow and scream into it or you can rip up this newspaper from yesterday.

4. Establish a plan for how your child and you will approach difficult situations.

5. I want you to know that I am doing what I can to stay healthy and be a good parent for you. However, if I slip up, which sometimes happens to people, I want you to know that it is okay to call your mom and have her come get you. In the past you got in trouble for that, but it is very important that you are safe.


It is often difficult to find the right balance in your new role as a parent in recovery. Sometimes parents become too permissive and indulgent, buying many new toys or clothes and allowing kids to "get away" with poor choices or disrespectful behavior. You may feel as though they’ve been through so much and you want to make up for lost time.

Other parents are so excited about their new commitment to health that they try to fix everything, right away. These parents may be rigid, inflexible and attempt to set things straight all at once.

It is important to remember your role as a parent. It is your job to teach children about right and wrong as well as possible consequences for choices. It is also important to be sensitive to the changes within your family and be patient as everyone attempts the transition to a healthier family life. After all, this is something that can only be done one day at a time.

The Serenity Prayer is a wonderful parenting tool.

God, grant me the serenity to accept tithe things I cannot change.

I cannot change the past, I cannot change:


The courage to change the things I can,

I can ask for help, I can work a recovery program.

I can: _____________________________________

And the wisdom to know the difference.


You can’t change the past. It does not benefit you or your children to continue beating yourself up or attempting to make up for lost time. You can make amends by doing everything you can to be healthy from this point forward. This involves asking for help, receiving support, making amends when you make parenting mistakes and giving support to other parents who are dealing with addiction in their lives.

Children who have undergone trying times are capable of developing resilience, an ability to rebound, in a way that others often cannot. Resilient children cultivate amazing problem-solving skills, rich humor and an ability to relate to people in very deep and meaningful ways.

Yes, they have been hurt by familial addiction, but with support, and especially if the adults in their lives find recovery, they are sometimes better equipped to handle challenging situations than their peers who have not faced such difficult issues. As adults, resilient people are typically more happy and appreciative of their success as well.

"It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men."

-Frederick Douglas

Links & Resources

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