The Child’s Change Cycle- how children feel during a parent’s recovery
I came across the Child’s Change Cycle in Fiona Harbin and Michael Murphy book, ‘Secret Lives: Growing with Substance Misuse – Working with children and young people affected by family substance misuse’ in 2006. It’s a fantastic book and in it they developed the Cycle of Change to add further context to it in terms of how children might feel during their parent’s recovery from substance misuse.
I previously wrote about the Cycle of Change- How to use it to support a loved one’s recovery. This was an introduction to the cycle of change and how to understand it to support a loved one’s recovery. In this blog, I’m taking it one step further to consider children on the change cycle. Here’s a reminder of what the Cycle of Change looks like.
Substance Misuse and Parenting
It is no surprise that parenting capacity is affected by a parent who is drinking or taking drugs. I do not like to drink in front of my children and I don’t like other people drinking around them either. Why? I know that after a couple of drinks, my guard is down and my parenting is not as good as it is when I’m not drinking. I also know that my tolerance levels these days are critically low, so I can feel the effects from one drink. I recognise that when adults drink around children, the conversation can change to inappropriate topics, swearing freely and that children can see a difference in adult behaviour when drinking (or have the time of their lives because they have fewer boundaries!). So wherever possible, I keep my own children away from it.
It is important to remember here that SUBSTANCE USE DOES NOT MAKE PARENTS BAD PARENTS! How everyone manages their own use is up to them, I have formed my own view from over fifteen years of working with children, young people and families and helping many of those families recover from parental substance use. Many people use substances and manage and function very well in their daily life, including in their parenting capacity. Many parents still go out at the weekend, ensure their children are safe and cared for and have a great time using recreational drugs or drinking and slip back into their routine when they’re done.
In my work, however, the parents I supported had significant problems with their use and there was not one child who has not known about their parents’ problems with drug or alcohol use in one way or another.
A friend of mine told me a few year’s ago that she had given up drinking when her son told her she drank too much. She described that this was a realisation for her and she decided to have a break months ago. She feels so good from giving up that she has continued. Is she an “alcoholic”? No. Was alcohol causing her some problems? Yes.
Children and the recovery cycle
It would make sense that when a parent stops drinking or using drugs, that everything in family life will be happy and there would be a great deal of positive changes. There will be positive changes, but a parent stopping using is the very start of that change in a family. For a child, having a parent that is more present than they have been in a long time, perhaps actually parenting for the first or a long time can be confusing and needs to be handled with care.
So, Harbin and Murphy, created an additional layer to the Cycle of Change to reflect how children may feel at each stage of the cycle (diagram from Children and Young People affected by Parents’/Carers’ or Siblings’ Drug or Alcohol Misuse Guidance for Professionals)
When a parent is in active use and has no intention of changing, a young person can experience neglect and emotional abuse. This sounds harsh, but in reality, when a parent’s priority is drugs or alcohol, their child is not. The relationship is affected and the child will not understand why.
In contemplation, a child has hope that things might change.
In preparation/decision, there is further hope but also anxiety about change.
In action/active change, this hope and anxiety increases.
Liane Goryl, who has managed young people’s services and is now managing locally commissioned contracts said, “If the parent is in the maintenance phase and living a substance free life, the young person will have been impacted upon during other stages of the parental cycle of change. As the adult moves through the cycle of change, so does the child. They experience their own worries and concerns which can impact on their mental wellbeing. Even when the parent successfully stays in the maintenance phase, the young person can wonder why all of a sudden their parent is putting in boundaries and rules and interested in where that young person is. This can contribute to a young person trying to regain control and pushing back and not obeying rules that are now being implemented by parents. Where there are much younger siblings that have only known the parent to be drug free compared with an older brother or sister; it can be difficult for that teenager to understand why the parent could become substance free to look after that child but not them, causing an emotional response in the form or anger and depression”.
As Liane states, I have seen young people react in this way to their parent’s recovery. The shift easily moves to their behaviour rather than anyone actually considering the change for them and why their behaviour is occurring. I have sat in many child protection meetings which have focussed on the behaviour of a child without a connection being made that that behaviour is due to a parent’s substance use. Please bear this in mind.
Lapse and Relapse cause disappointment, fear, confusion and sadness.
How can we help?
At each stage of the cycle, we need to consider where a child is at too. What are they thinking? How are they feeling? Families think they hide a loved one’s substance misuse well, but the best thing to do is speak to children in an age appropriate manner. A good starting point is to ask them how they are, what makes them happy and is there anything that makes them sad. I explain more about this in my blog Helping Children with a Drug and Alcohol Using Parent.
The thing to remember is not to feel guilty if you have children. The key with family support is communication. Talk to your children about the problem, create an open forum for them to talk and ask them how they are. Discuss any changes and make sure they have good quality time with you, your loved one and their friends and family. I always advise to let school know about the situation so that they have someone to talk to that they can trust outside the family. Use this model to establish how they might be feeling and work through those feelings. Not all children will feel the same but they need someone to talk to.
I can help you!
We work on this and more in my one to one programmes. This month, I have an offer on for 10 sessions for £997. This is a low investment for the changes that I help my clients make.
My service, The Vesta Approach, supports families affected by a loved one’s substance use. You can access confidential support from me wherever you are in the world. I help my clients reduce stress and live a better life.
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