Adolescence is a period of new beginnings, challenging endings, and figuring out one’s position in the world. It is a time when teenagers start asking tougher questions and we find ourselves tasked with providing more complex answers to their inquiries. As teens look toward their future, they may begin to question their family past and, for 43% of the US population, this past includes a familial history of alcohol and substance addiction (www.nacoa.org). While this figure may seem overwhelming and perhaps disheartening, it is a good indicator of one thing; if you are broaching the subject of familial addiction with your child, you are not alone in your experience.
Discussing our family histories is hard but important- especially if we consider that familial links to addiction is the single most reliable factor when determining use and dependence of future generations (NCADD). Despite the significance of these conversations, many adults are left in the dark when determining what information, if any, is appropriate to tell their children and when. Below we offer three important tips on how to bring the topic of addiction out of the shadows and into the spotlight of your family dialogue.
Be honest, but only share as much as you are comfortable: Unpacking family addiction is messy, and some details are not necessary or age appropriate to share with your child. Rather than chronicling specific instances or stories of abuse, focus on the overall messages you wish to send. Instead of villainizing the family member suffering from addiction or dehumanizing them by using their narrative as a cautionary tale, ask your child what information would be helpful for them to know now. Let your child know how your family history has impacted you personally. And, when in doubt, stick to the facts; people may be genetically predispositioned to addiction, and substance abuse has very real internal and external consequences.
Ask questions and then listen: If your family is in the throes of active addiction, be aware that your child has their own interpretation of their relationship with the person suffering from addiction, as do you. These experiences may be similar or they may be very different. Ask questions about your child’s experience of this person and how they feel their relationship has been impacted by this person’s addiction. Oftentimes, especially if the child is close to the family member with addiction, they may feel directly responsible; “if only I were a better kid, this person wouldn’t drink,” or “if only I tried harder at school, this person would not use substances,” are familiar refrains. Acknowledge that feelings of guilt or responsibility are common, but that your child is absolutely not at fault in any way. Addiction is a powerful disease with symptoms and behaviors that can make everyone feel out of control, not just the person experiencing the addiction. Check in with your child regularly- the importance is not getting the conversation “right” or “perfect” the first time, but the fact that you are willing to bring up the subject and listen.
Seek support for yourself: Similar to the oxygen-mask analogy (we must first place the oxygen masks on ourselves before assisting others), we cannot help others if we do not care for ourselves first. This may seem counterintuitive when raising a child, but it is imperative to sort through your own feelings about your family’s history in order to help your child sort through theirs. Seek outside support and resources if you feel like an unbiased party might be helpful in facilitating an ongoing dialogue. Remember that you do not have to get it “right” the first time, and honor your own emotional process throughout the journey towards healing.
Learn more by checking out the following resources:
Allison Finder is a Prevention Educator/Counselor and an SAP at two NYC independent schools. She facilitates social-emotional workshops and provides on-site clinical support.