Last week I wrote about the power of one parent who remains emotionally sober to preserve the mental and emotional well-being of children growing up in a family struggling with addiction. A colleague,Glenn Richardson who is a trainer and consultant in Texas, responded to my post noted that 12 step guidance about emotional honesty, openness and willingness points the way for parents who are striving for emotional sobriety. I agree with Glenn that emotional honesty is a crucial pillar of emotional sobriety. But what exactly does emotional honesty in an alcoholic family look like? Two things come immediately to my mind.
First of all, there is the classic matter of acknowledging the elephant in the room. Are you (or the family you’re treating) discussing addiction as a central fact of life (perhaps the central fact of life) in the home? Recovering parents often ask me what…or if…they should speak at all about the problem. In fact, I think they must speak and must offer age-appropriate explanations of the addiction, just as families should openly and honestly discuss any other medical disorder that is affecting a loved one. Children who don’t receive important information about problems that are afflicting their parents are left to their own devices to explain the problem and the troubling events that stem from it. They will invent explanations using their own immature cognitive and emotional resources to do so. Children are “ego-centric” in the sense that, lacking the capacity to see the big picture, they seem themselves as the center of most family events. This leads them to believe that they are responsible for the problems–that the adults they love are experiencing distress and behaving badly because of them. This can cause real damage to the sense of self and self-esteem.
Another important aspect of emotional honesty is a willingess on the part of the adults in the family to express their own feelings about important events in the family–in a contained and proportionate way of course. Sadness and anger are natural things to feel about illness of any kind in a family. Children know when their parents are unhappy and worried, even when parents think they are concealing it well. Parents are often surprised at their childrens’ responses when they finally admit that they are sad/or angry about the circumstances the family’s facing. I remember well what happened when one father, who had been keeping a stiff upper lip about his separation from his drug-addicted wife, finally told his young son how sad he felt that his wife had left the home. His normally reserved son began to sob about his own grief. This dad had always believed that his son was temperamentally quiet and limited in his ability to express feelings. However, now it seemed that what he’d needed all along was his dad’s permission to grieve openly about his mother’s departure.
As I thought more about the importance of emotional honesty, another question came to mind: What are the barriers to emotional honesty in alcoholic homes (or in any home, for that matter)? My colleague’s comment about AA led me to look for what Bill W had to say about emotional sobriety. Pretty interesting things, as so often is the case. In a reflection on the roots of his own depression and the disappointing failure of his 12th step work to provide more relief from it, Bill W. defined emotional sobriety as the development of of “real maturity and balance (which is to say, humility)” and suggested that the things that tend to destabilize people come from (often less than conscious) striving for “approval, perfect security, and perfect romance”. (See http://www.barefootsworld.net/aanextfrontier.html) That is, people lose their balance when the “(demand) the impossible”. And he observed that such demands usually stem from “false dependencies” on people or circumstances” for “prestige, security and the like”. Bill W concluded that his own demands for “possession and control of the people and the conditions” surrounding him was blocking his own emotional sobriety and also, feeding the depression that frequently plagued him.
When we conceal the truth, about addiction, and about our true feelings, aren’t we trying to possess and control the attitudes and responses of others? Trying to prevent them from becoming angry, disappointed, afraid? Trying to prevent them from acting on these feelings in ways that will unsettle, terrify or horrify us? When I think about errors I have made as a therapist, I think most of them occurred when I was trying to take the edge off the bad news I needed to deliver about the severity of someone’s addiction. And just as Bill W explains, I was taking that edge off in order to manage the patient’s reaction. I’ve found over the years that, most of the time, people are braver and tougher than I give them credit for and I need to go ahead and do my job, which frequently involves telling the truth, respectfully but firmly, as I perceive it. Children can be brave and tough too, but they need the truth from adults in their life in order to use these qualities constructively. Parents may fear that the truth will de-stablize their children, but in fact, authentic responses from parents, even when these responses contain distressing information, help children to gain and maintain their balance, because they strengthen the parent-child bond. And a strong bond with a parent helps a child in crisis feel less alone.
Read more about caring for children in addicted families in Dr. Wood’s book: Raising Healthy Children in an Alcoholic Home