I have been fortunate enough to have worked in a job I love. I’ve have been able to help families affected by a loved one’s drug or alcohol use. I have learned so much from my clients and I have been astounded by the recovery that families are able to make.
This is from working with children like my first client who was a fifteen-year-old heroin user in prison, to families with a parent who was knocking back a couple bottles of vino every evening. Every family is unique and has their own needs. Many parents are capable of caring for their children while using substances and some aren’t as much. Some children have fantastic support and some don’t.
Over the years, I have seen patterns emerge from supporting children living in homes where one or both parents has problematic drug or alcohol use. I wanted to share them with you…
What have I learnt about children living with a drug or alcohol using parent?
1. They know what’s going on. No matter how much families may try to hide it. The best thing to do is to speak to them about it.
Most parents I worked with believed that their children did not know that one (or sometimes both) of the parents were drinking or using drugs. Every child I worked with, with one exception, knew. A four-year-old girl told me, “When my mummy drinks, she gets silly and falls off her bike”. A teenage boy said he hated his mum because of the embarrassment she caused him when she was drunk in his neighbourhood. A mum who was an amphetamine user slept off her drugs while the oldest child cared for her younger two siblings while her mummy was “poorly”. She was six. They all knew that their parents were different when they were under the influence of substances.
The best way to approach this is to explain to a child about drugs and alcohol so that they know it is not their fault and they know they don’t have to keep anything a secret. Pretending it isn’t happening is not helpful for anyone.
2. They usually wanted to stay with their parents.
All the children I worked with loved their mums and dads. They didn’t want to leave them. Often, Children’s Social Care was involved so we asked these questions. The fifteen-year-old boy loved his mum but he couldn’t bear to see her the way she was. Talking to children and reminding them about good times with their mum or dad will help them to remember positive times when their parent wasn’t under the influence.
3. They may see and hear things at home that scare or worry them.
Try not to argue with your loved one, even when your children are in bed and definitely don’t involve them to make a point. Put yourself in their shoes and save your own energy. They absorb everything.
Ask children how they are feeling in a quiet space, at a good time, on a regular basis. This builds up their trust. Teaching them about feelings words helps them to learn how to describe them and prevents them bottling their emotions up.
4. They can grow up with drug and alcohol problems themselves.
Children with substance misusing parents are three more times likely to have problematic substance issues themselves. In my experience, this can also go completely the opposite way where children don’t want to touch substances at all. It’s been evidenced that around half of addiction is due to environmental factors and half is genetic, so influencing the environmental factors at home can really help.
5. They need somebody they can trust and to talk to that isn’t in the family home.
You are doing an amazing job of caring for your child (ren) and partner. However, children need someone else to talk to. Letting somebody know what is going on outside the family that they know they can talk to in confidence helps enormously. I have seen families try and keep everything secret and it doesn’t help. I supported children in one to one sessions so they could talk about their wishes and feelings with someone they could trust who was not in their family which allowed them to say whatever they wanted. This was with their parents’ permission, without it being shared or worrying that they will upset you.
6. They need to do fun things in and outside the family home.
I created a groupwork programmes for children in my work. The feedback was fantastic. They all got some quality time doing a variety of activities and meeting other young people in the same situation as themselves. They realised they were not alone. Supporting them with hobbies obviously helps them to thrive and prioritising these over whether a loved one has caused chaos that particular day is even better!
7. They need quality time with the substance using parent if possible
Speaking to your loved one about a good time for them to do something fun with their children may seem like an impossible task. We cover the “hows” in the Vesta Programme. Selecting a time when you know they are sober, for example, straight after work, and remind them on the day that they have plans with their children.
8. They need their basic needs meeting, no matter what’s going on
Providing love and attention, routine, enough sleep and sticking to boundaries will help them continue to be children. When we feel guilty, we often let these things go thinking they may help but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.
9. Their whole family needs support to recover from drug or alcohol use.
There are many options for drug and alcohol users but not so many for family members. I can’t emphasise the importance of everyone in the family receiving help to recover.
10. Criminalising people for substance use does not work.
I always wonder how well my clients in prison would have done if they had been supported in their own communities to recover. Instead, they were stamped with a criminal record which will affect them forever. To do so well in prison and then be released to the same problems just seems a bit ridiculous to me.
I can help
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 will help you to get your loved one into treatment and lead a better life. I offer face to face sessions in the Manchester (UK) area.
You can also get help via Skype and my online group therapeutic programme which I’ve launched this week! Take a look here
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