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How To Talk With Your Children About Your Past Addiction To Drugs Or Alcohol

Jennifer Cousineau MSCP, LPCI, NCC

Medically reviewed by

Jennifer Cousineau MSCP, LPCI, NCC

March 8, 2019

Many parents may find it difficult to talk to their children about their past struggles with addiction because they don’t want to disappoint them. This conversation, however, can create an open dialogue about addiction and help keep children from experimenting with drugs themselves.

One of the greatest influences on me in my young adolescence wasn’t my peers, but my parents, who openly talked about their battles with addiction. Our family had been ravaged by addiction and the consequences were evident, but this alone was not enough. Children exposed to drugs and alcohol at an early age are far more likely to fall into patterns of addiction. What stopped this cycle of abuse was an openness with which my parents shared their stories. They were honest about their past and this honesty painted the seduction of drugs and alcohol in vivid colors.

While it’s worrisome to talk to your children about your previous addiction to drugs and alcohol, it is probably one of the most valuable and important discussions you can have. It might feel contrary to normal parenting, in which it feels like your job to be the all-supreme and flawless character born of television sitcoms, but the reality is parents make mistakes and it’s the sharing of these mistakes that can act as a protective layer of wisdom imparted on youth who are likely regularly exposed to the temptations of using.

In the end, by sharing their story, my relationship with my parents was strengthened. It allowed me to understand some of the ups and downs our family faced. Looking back, had they not been honest, had they chosen instead to hide their history, it would likely have caused tremendous friction in our relationship and without the knowledge they gave me, my life could have ended up on a very different path.

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What Works In Talking With Your Kids About Drugs And Alcohol

Studies indicate children are exposed to substance abuse in middle school beginning around age 12. This is an age when children are entering their adolescence and beginning to challenge common assumptions about the world around them. Understandably, this shift in attitude can feel like a threat to parental authority, but when approached in a light that allows youth some room to formulate their own ideas, it can be a tremendous opportunity to build a lasting trust between parent and child.

It isn’t easy to talk with your kids about past mistakes and certainly this is a far more difficult question when you’re telling them not to do the things you’ve done. Telling kids not to use drugs or alcohol because you say so is one thing; but delving into the story of how you started using alcohol with a friend for fun, how you never intended to become addicted, and how painfully difficult your recovery was demonstrates to them the reality of drug use and can be a powerful tool in prevention.

When talking with your kids about your past drug use, be honest. Talk about the initial romance the drug had on you. Share what your friends said about drinking or using – all the pressure on you to try something new. While it may feel like you’re deflating your parental authority, you’re really building a firm foundation for real and lasting awareness. You can speak the truth about addiction because you’ve survived it. And they can relate because they’re likely enduring some of that pressure from friends already. By being honest with them, you’ve given them an ally; someone they can trust and feel comfortable talking to when these situations arise. Likewise, you also have a new support and can continue to share thoughts and feelings as they emerge.

Keep The Door Open For An Ongoing Conversation

I don’t know how many times my teenage girls have told me they “hate” me since they hit that 13th revolution around the sun. It’s par for the course as a mother of three teenage girls, and at the same time, I am keenly aware of how important it is that I do not tune them out. If you have a child who is going through a challenging time between changing hormones and the stress of school, keep the door open for ongoing conversations about drugs and alcohol.

Keep in mind, they might throw it back at you at some point. Teens have a way of occasionally being crushingly cruel. If you tell them they can’t go to a party and find yourself listening to your story parroted back in a condescending tone of defiance, stay calm. Remind them that you shared something deeply personal out of trust and that you did so to help them avoid the same mistakes. Let them know you trust them to make good decisions (despite the fact they won’t have a fully developed frontal lobe until their early twenties – God, help us).

Really, talking with your children about past use of drugs and alcohol can potentially save them from the wrath of addiction by providing them with a clearer and realistic understanding of what happens beyond the lure of the initial high. It can also benefit you in your recovery.

The Benefits Of Sharing Your Recovery Story With Your Children

Talking with your children about your past addiction to drugs or alcohol can benefit both your children and your recovery. Sometimes, the farther out from using, the easier it is to romanticize the old days and old thinking. Grounding yourself occasionally in the hard realities of how drug or alcohol use affected you and those you love is one way to stay focused on recovery.

Sharing these experiences with your children can help them understand your struggles and hopefully allow opportunities for them to share in your recovery process. While children can cause us a lot of grief and worry, they can also be our closest allies.

The Disease Of Addiction

Addiction is a disease; it changes the brain and alters personalities. Sometimes talking with children about addiction means explaining what addiction is and how it forms from a medical standpoint. This explanation can help kids understand that you did not choose to become addicted to alcohol or drugs; but that it is a condition that develops regardless of our intent. This explanation can be especially helpful if your children witnessed you during your drinking or drug-using days acting out of character. It can also reinforce the notion that by taking that first sip, they’re potentially heading down a very slippery slope on a similar path.

Make Only The Promises You Can Keep

Keep in mind, recovery is a life-long process and with it comes the possibility of relapse. Sharing your story can help your child understand what happened in your past that may have affected them, like long stays with a sitter or other guardian, or uncharacteristic, erratic behaviors. Let them know you are sorry for how your addiction has impacted their lives, but do not make promises about the future. You can promise you are working hard to maintain sobriety, but promising you will never again use may not be a realistic promise and the consequences of breaking that promise can be traumatic for your child in ways no parent intends.

Foster A Relationship Of Trust And Hope

Only you will know when you are ready to talk with your children about your past addiction to drugs or alcohol. When ready, choose a time when there are few distractions. Ask that they put away phones or other devices. Leave time for questions and your responses. Give them space and remember they may not know what to say at first and that’s okay. If your relationship with your children is challenging already, it may be helpful to talk with your children about the addiction alongside a counselor, who can help navigate the conversation. While approaching this topic can be worrisome for some, being open and honest with your children about your past is one way to foster a long-lasting relationship based on trust, and more importantly, on hope.

If You Are Struggling With Addiction

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