By: Marilyn L. Davis
“As a parent who raised his children in dysfunction, I know the parental wounds my children received were not intentional; often they were my best expression of love, sometimes coming out sideways, not as I intended.” ― David W. Earle
The Child’s Burden
An estimated 26.8 million children grow up in alcoholic and addicted families. Children of Alcoholics Week, highlighted many of the signs that teachers and families can see in children from addicted homes. The types of mixed messages differ from family to family, however, they all fall into the same group – the child is less important than the addiction or staying in a situation. I know because I chose drugs and alcohol over my children.
But there is something that parents can do for their children when they enter treatment to get help. It’s learning to communicate creatively.
Children Get Mixed and Negative Messages
Growing up with an alcoholic or addicted parent can add increased stress to a child’s life. They live in the shadows, never taking center stage; their parent’s addiction comes first. In addition to the stress are the mixed messages that a child interprets directly or indirectly from the discrepancy in what parents say and do. For instance:
- I love you – then leave to score drugs
- I love you – then use instead of demonstrating this love
- Do not lie to me – then force the child to keep drug use secret
- You are important to me – then spend money on drugs
- I’ll take care of you – then neglect food, shelter and medical necessities for the child
- I will always be here for you – then abandon them to get high
- I love you – then pass out on the couch without feeding or bathing the children
- I love you – then forget a birthday, graduation, or another significant event in the child’s life
Children are Scared, Confused, and Silent
Underlying all the mixed messages are chaos, and dishonesty, and the child learns: Do not trust, do not feel, and do not talk. The poet, Charles Bukowski, while relating this poem to a beating, demonstrates the contradictions faced by many children living in the addiction or domestic violence.
“…my mother, poor fish, wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a week, telling me to be happy: “Henry, smile! why don’t you ever smile?” and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the saddest smile I ever saw…”
Working with Addicted Mothers
In 1990, I opened a residential facility for women, and for over 20 years, I helped mothers regain custody of their children, their dignity, and learn to be responsible and accountable. More importantly, the women learned how to find the resolve to show the love that they felt towards their children.
In doing intake interviews with most women, the overriding feelings that they experienced were the guilt, remorse, and recriminations or self-blame. Compounding this problem was the fact that many of these women were single mothers. The added guilt of being the only parent in the child’s life and then abandoning them to enter treatment prevented many of these women from seeking treatment earlier.
When women decided to enter treatment, they cried and talked about their guilt. Most wanted to call their children the first night. Explaining that calling them when they were upset was selfish took finesse.
Thinking like their Children
Asking them to switch roles and think about how they would feel if they got a phone call and someone was obviously upset, they usually acknowledged that they would try to fix the situation. When I asked the women if their children had not been in the parent role of fixing long enough usually helped the women see how calling their children was not in the best interest of the child at that time. Therefore, we had a 30-day phone restriction except for emergencies. We limited the phone conversation for two reasons:
1. It allowed the women to bond with and rely on one another as resources for healing within the house.
Clearly, there might have been love and support in their family before treatment, but families do not always have answers, directions and solutions for addiction, treatment did.
2. Families needed the time to organize their lives without it revolving around the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the mother; she had resources at hand.
In many cases, grandparents were raising toddlers for the first time in decades, and they needed this time to focus on the child’s needs, not the mother’s.
Long Distance Love and Creative Communication
Finding ways to show their love when their children were not present initially posed a problem. I looked at communication in a different form. Creating the Absent Parent part of the program allowed women to communicate with their children while not living with them. Some of the age-appropriate ways we accomplished this were:
1. Letters about the Child
Rather than the typical “Mommy is sorry for the way she treated you” which in conversations most mothers agreed they had said countless times, letters home were about the child.
- How was your school day?
- What subjects do you enjoy?
- What subjects are you struggling with and do you have help?
- What are you and your friends talking about at lunch?
- How is soccer, football, tennis, golf – whatever the child’s sport was
- Did you get your new dress, new shirt, fingernail polish? Do you need any more?
- How was your dental checkup?
- How are your puppy, kitten, and hamster?
Even children as young as three liked getting a letter in the mail. I never met nor talked with a child during family conferences that did not like the attention that they received in these letters. It demonstrated the mother’s interest in her child, something that her actions in addiction did not.
We asked friends for old cards, stationery and bits of paper so the women could add their personal artistic touches to these communications.
2. Communication Calendars
When the women first arrived, we bought a calendar with a theme their children liked. Mom went back to North House and circled the days that:
• The child could expect a letter
• When mom would phone
• When there was a visitation
These became a marker of her newfound accountability and reliability helping rebuild trust with her child. When that letter or phone call happened on the day Mommy said it would; it went a long way towards repairing broken promises and building trust again.
3. Color Me – Color You: Children Wore their Colors Proudly
Taking a copy of a coloring book page about a subject their children liked, the mother would color one of the copies and send the uncolored same picture to her child. The child in turn would color theirs and send it back.
We then took a picture of the mother holding the colored picture.
Sending this photo back to the child along with a letter that told the child how important their colored picture was, helped the child see the long distance connection.
After several of the exchanged pictures, we had the mothers ask their children which picture they would like to wear.
We then made templates of the pictures and used paints to decorate a t-shirt so that the child could wear the connection.
What do YOU Need?
After establishing trust, we had the mothers ask their children what they needed. We created a form for school-aged children with columns for Must Haves, Like to Haves, and Special, giving the children some choices in their lives – something many did not have growing up with a mom in active addiction.
With education, from books we recommended, to finding counseling for them through the school or community resources, or private providers in their area, the children were able to understand that the addiction was not their fault, they could not have prevented it by being a better child, nor could they fix it.
Creating New Messages for the Children
These messages started replacing the old ones. The children started understanding that they were important, had needs, wants and “like to haves” and that they were legitimate and okay.
Along with the caregiver’s expectations, these messages from the children then formed the basis for reunification.
If you or someone you love needs help:
The SAMHSA* Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator is a searchable directory of drug and alcohol treatment programs in the U.S. that treat alcoholism, alcohol use and drug abuse problems. There are over 11,000 programs in this free database that includes programs for:
The SAMHSA Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) may just save a life. Make that call today.
*Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Writing, and recovery heals the heart
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