Divorce can be traumatic enough for a child, but when you throw an addicted parent into the mix it gets even worse.
Helping your child get through the divorce while dealing with an addicted ex-spouse can be stressful and difficult to navigate due to the unpredictability and unreliability of the addict.
There may be times when your child spends time with their addicted parent where you are unsure of their safety and whereabouts. Your child may struggle to understand why their parent behaves in a certain way or they may even be exposed to substances.
So, what are the options available to you when your ex-spouse remains addicted to a substance but is legally allowed to be around your child?
Ideally, you should encourage them to work some kind of sobriety program or to enter treatment for their substance use disorder before they spend time with the child you have together. Odds are that they will want what is best for the child, but it is also possible that they refuse to seek treatment and may continue behaving in an unsafe manner.
It takes a substantial amount of time for an addict to get clean, demonstrate responsibility, and start living a sober lifestyle, but in the meantime, you may have to help your child cope with and understand the disease of addiction as presented by their parent.
How to help your child cope with an addicted parent.
Create a Co-Parenting Agreement
A useful tool for helping create accountability on the part of your ex-spouse is to create a co-parenting agreement. This agreement comprises what the expectations are for when your child is in the care of your ex-spouse. Some examples of parts to include would be how often the child is under the supervision of each parent, expectations about drop off and pick up times, phone call times, expectations about the person’s substance use (such as not drinking when around the child), and how often the parent is supposed to be in contact.
You can also include potential consequences for breaking the agreement such as calling child welfare services and restricting access to the child. Depending on the nature of the divorce, your ex-spouse may or may not be receptive to such an idea. It’s important to frame this agreement as trying to find what is the safest, healthiest, and happiest outcome for your child.
Acknowledge and Encourage Communication
It may be difficult to notice how your child is hurting. Oftentimes, children with an addicted parent develop tendencies to suppress and withhold their feelings. While you may suspect they are hurting, some children will dismiss their feelings and say that things are ok. It’s important to support and encourage your child to express their feelings about a situation.
When you seek to understand and validate their feelings, you are sending a strong message that they are valued, you respect them, and that’s it’s ok to talk about a problem. There should be no reason for them to feel ashamed or embarrassed about their parent’s addiction or their own feelings.
Help Educate About Addiction
While they may be too young to fully understand the complex disease of addiction, there are still resources that may help your child better grasp the situation. Additionally, it will be helpful to teach your child about practicing safety when around the addicted parent, such as never getting into a car when they are using, never trying their substance, and when to call an adult for help.
Here are books for different age groups that will help your child cope with an addicted parent.
Age 4 – 8
I Wish Daddy Didn’t Drink So Much by Judith Vigna
Up and Down the Mountain by Pamela Leib Higgins
Wishes and Worries: Coping with a Parent Who Drinks Too Much Alcohol by the Center for Addiction and Mental Health
When a Family Is in Trouble by Marge Heegard
A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M. Holmes
Age 8 -13
Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor
Tall Tales by Karen Day
Easter Ann Peters’ Operation Cool by Jody Lamb
Age 14 – 19
For Teenagers Living With a Parent Who Abuses Alcohol/Drugs by Edith Lynn Hornik-Beer
Alateen: Hope for Children of Alcoholics by Al-Anon Family Groups Headquarters Inc.
Let Them Know It’s Not Their Fault
Children often feel a strong sense of responsibility and guilt over things such as divorce or addiction. Reassure our children that they are not to be blamed for whatever has happened and they cannot change or solve their parents’ problems for them. You don’t have to go into great lengths to explain why a divorce happened, but by letting them know that there were reasons outside of their control you can help slightly ease the transition for them.
Similarly, by explaining that one parent’s addiction has nothing to do with them, they will hopefully not internalize any negative feelings.
Always remember that healing from divorce takes time. Issues such as alcohol and drug abuse can make this process take even longer, so it’s important to continually be positive and supportive of your child throughout this period. Children of divorce and children who come from families where one or more parents are addicted are at higher risk of becoming addicting themselves.
This is why it’s important to encourage communication and help provide education about the potential harms of using drugs and alcohol. With these tips in mind, you can hopefully help ease the transition for your child and teach them about the disease of addiction.
Matthew Boyle is the Chief Operating Officer of Landmark Recovery, a drug and alcohol recovery center providing inpatient and outpatient programs to meet the individual needs of their patients. Matthew graduated from Duke University in 2011 Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree and has been working in the healthcare space for 7 years. His vision is to save a million lives in 100 years with a unique approach to recovery that creates a supportive environment through trust, treatment, and intervention. www.landmarkrecovery.com
NOTE: As an Amazon Associate, the author of this article earns from qualifying purchases of the books listed above.