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The Most Important Thing for Parents in Recovery to Know

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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.

Barbara Wood is a licensed psychologist who practices in Bethesda, Maryland and specializes in the treatment of addictions and trauma. She is the author of two books that explain the impact of alcoholism on families and describe a path toward recovery for family members. Her first book, Children of Alcoholism: The Struggle for Self and Intimacy in Adult Life wa an alternate selection of the Psychotherapy and Social Sciences Review in 1987, and is identified in the current New York Review of Books Reader’s Catalog as one of the best books in print. The Journal of Contemporary Psychology described it as "compelling from intellectual and emotional standpoints" and said that it was "highly recommended to a general clinical readership.” Dr. Wood's second book, Raising Healthy Children in an Alcoholic Home" is a book written for parents in recovery from alcoholism, co-dependence, and other addictive problems. It helps them to become “therapeutic ” parents—active and compassionate listeners and sensitive guides to children in crisis. A reviewer from the Harvard Medical School described it as" an impressive contribution for everyone who grapples with this issue in their own lives as well as for practitioners helping their clients to become therapeutic parents.”

Dr. Wood also performs forensic evaluations and provides expert testimony in cases where plaintiffs or defendants have been affected by traumatic events and/or substance abuse disorders. Washingtonian Magazine has identified her as one of the top 123 psychotherapists in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan area. She lectures widely on her work.

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