I recently updated Raising Healthy Children in an Alcoholic Home, a book I wrote in 1992 to help parents in recovery from addiction and co-dependence to heal relationships with their children. As I re-read and edited the book, I reflected on its essential message. I was heartened to discover that over 20 additional years of treating addicted individuals and their families has only strengthened my views about the most important things families in recovery need to know. Moreover, the central idea I was trying to convey then still seems to me to be the most important thing for parents in recovery to remember: A child’s chances of remaining healthy when a family plunges into crisis depends, to a great extent, on the ability of at least one parent (or other adult caretaker) to remain emotionally sober–that is, stable, supportive and capable of holding the child’s most basic needs in mind.
Certainly other factors, like the child’s basic temperament, influence a child's resilience in the face of extraordinary stress. However, even sunny, hardy children experience fear, sadness, anger, and many other kinds of emotional distress when a family is struggling to cope with severe illness. And typically, the younger children are, the less able they are to soothe themselves and maintain a hopeful and confident outlook when frightening things happen. Their cognitive and emotional resources are just too immature to help them assess the situation accurately and imagine a path forward for themselves and the people they love. So a parent’s ability to maintain his or her own emotional footing, and to notice and respond appropriately to a child’s pain is critical. (Please continue reading.)
A parent's response to a child in crisis does not have to be perfect. In many cases, it is good enough, at least in the short-term, if the parent perceives the child’s distress, conveys that it is normal under the circumstances, and offers assurance that it is okay to talk about feelings that are bubbling up. Even if a parent has no clear ideas about how or when the family’s problems will be solved, it is very reassuring to a child in crisis to be “seen” and to have painful feelings noticed and validated by a person she counts on. A parent who says, “I see you are scared, I see you are worried and sad”, and adds, “I understand why you feel that way and I want you to know we are working to figure this out and will make sure you are taken care of” makes a child feel safer and calmer. A good many of the people I see in my clinical practice grew up with an addicted parent. The ones who had at least one grownup they could trust and rely on during dark periods are the ones who find it easier, as adults, to find and form solid relationships with healthy friends, partners and therapists who can help them construct rewarding lives.
Of course, reassuring words must eventually lead to meaningful actions. Parents and other caretakers have to take definitive steps to protect and nurture vulnerable children. But this first step, of noticing the child’s emotional distress, letting her know that she is seen and that her feelings make sense, is a profound gift. Most parents can only offer it if are receiving enough comfort and support themselves as they cope with the family's crisis. Isolation is the enemy of recovery and emotional sobriety, for addicts and their loved ones. More about that later.