Addiction is a family disease. Too often, the youngest family members are left out of the recovery process. The reality is, kids are the first to be affected, and the last to be helped. Parents frequently believe they've hidden their addiction from the kids, and professionals often fail to realize how deeply children are impacted. Even if a parent gets sober and begins recovery, children still need to learn about addiction and have a chance to talk about their own experiences in a safe and supportive space.
February 14 – 20 is COA Awareness Week. Sponsored by NACoA, it is a time to recognize the impact that addiction has on the children in a family. For fifteen years I worked with young kids living with familial addiction in the Betty Ford Children’s Program. Doing this work was one of the personal and professional highlights of my life, primarily because I was one of those kids who grew up with alcoholism in my home. My life would have been much different had I received the help I needed when I was young.
There is help out there, and one of the best is still at the Hazelden Betty Ford Children’s Program. Due to the pandemic, these groups are not in-person, but available on-line. If it’s hard to imagine what a group process might be like for children, the following might help. I wrote this essay in 2012 (originally published on my personal blog and later on a recovery blog) and it is a description of my first experience working in the Children’s Program:
On a sunny, Thursday morning almost thirteen years ago, I walked into my first Children’s Program. The process was a four-day intensive, specifically designed for young children whose parents were struggling with addiction to alcohol or drugs.
I had no idea what to expect. After a move from Maine to California, I found myself working at an addiction treatment center where the focus was on recovery that included the whole family. This meant kids too. Working in the Admissions Department at the time, I was vaguely aware that we offered this service.
I had worked with youth in the past, and the Children’s Program was looking for a new counselor. The Director approached me one afternoon and asked if I might be interested in trying the program out.
“We work with kids and their parents for 4 days, Thursday through Sunday. I could describe it to you, but it’s better if you see for yourself. It's hard to put into words. Come try it out and see what you think.”
I was definitely intrigued but also a bit puzzled.
How do you teach little kids about addiction? Won’t they just feel worse? Will they shut down? Do they even know what’s going on in their families? It was difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that people less than half my age were going to talk about their problems in a group setting. I couldn’t imagine what was in store.
Twelve kids walked in that first morning. Ranging in ages from seven to twelve, none had met each other before. They all had one thing in common; a loved one who was struggling with substance abuse or addiction. As parents said their goodbyes and we took our seats, looks of fear and apprehension prevailed.
There was Tony, who clearly had better things to do, and sat scowling with his arms crossed. Elise was eight-years-old and struggled to hold back tears as she let go of her mom's hand. Ben, who was smiling but still seemed withdrawn and cautious, sat quietly in his chair, suspiciously surveying the room.
We spent some time getting to know each other, easing in, playing games, and laughing a bit. The group began to relax. An hour and a half into the morning was the first time we even spoke about why everyone was there. The counselor focused the group and each member was asked to introduce themselves.
"Please share with us your name, your age and where you live. Also, there is one thing that all of us here in the room have in common. There is someone that we love, that we care about a whole lot, who has a problem with drinking too much alcohol or using drugs. Who is that person for you?"
A hush came over the room....
Slowly, one boy raised his hand. He took a deep breath and then stated,
"Hi, I'm Ben, I'm 9 years old, and I live in Los Angeles. In my family, my dad has been drinking too much. He breaks a lot of promises, and my parents are getting a divorce because of it. I don't get to see him much."
With those few statements, the spell was broken. A collective sigh of relief filled the room and hands waved frantically in the air. These kids, so reserved and closed down when they first walked in, had all experienced the same revelation at once. That their family secret, the one they had so cautiously guarded, was a secret shared by others. They were not alone, and clearly this was the place to talk about it. The emotion was palpable.
I was in awe of these kids over the next four days. They bravely spoke of their confusion, guilt, sadness, and anger. In addition, there was intense love and empathy for their parent who was struggling with addiction. Through the activities and gentle guidance from the counsellors, they were able to share feelings, talk about their problems, and learn that the disease of addiction was not their fault. Each had their own unique story, but all connected deeply with the group in a way that I did not realize was possible for such young children.
In the midst of the tears, there was plenty of laughter. Play was essential to the process, and each day we had lots of fun. The group was encouraged to celebrate the joy of being a kid. Adults joined us on the last two days, and a rousing game of hide-and-seek gave way to hugs and connection between parents and children. The focus of the curriculum was not on all the damage done, but on the strength that each child and family brought to the table.
I had been one of those kids.
My mother struggled with alcoholism while I was growing up, and I felt a deep connection to this group. But unlike my young group members, I was never given the opportunity to learn about my mom’s illness in a safe and compassionate way. Instead my experience was one of secrecy, silence and shame. Even as my mother got sober, I rarely talked about it. I had no idea that the problems in my family were not my fault. I internalized my feelings, and my teenage years and early adulthood were marred by depression and anxiety. My family had been ravaged by a disease that I did not understand, and that other people, especially well-meaning adults, stigmatized and shamed.
Something happened for me as I witnessed the four-day process unfold. The guilt and shame I had carried since I was a child dissipated. For the first time I truly understood that my mother had not “chosen” alcohol over me. She was robbed of her choice to be the parent she wanted to be while in the throes of her disease.
I watched as these kids had a chance to express how much they hated the addiction, while at the same time conveying the deep love they had for their struggling parent. I realized that the course of my life would have been extremely different if at a young age I had experienced a program such as this.
It would have been life-changing.
I don’t know exactly what happened to all of the youngsters in my first group. At the end of the process, some went back into homes where their parents were working on recovery. Some are still living with active addiction. All are better prepared, with the knowledge that they are not alone and that there are safe people to talk to. Most importantly, each child left with the understanding that the addiction that was wreaking havoc on their family was not their fault.
As for me, I stayed. Since that first program I have done hundreds more. I continue to be amazed by the kids I meet. I am honored to work with the brave adults who bring them, hoping to break the cycle of addiction in their own family. My first group compelled me to realize that there is immense hope, and that given the right tools, people have an amazing capacity for healing.
Most importantly, I came to a clear understanding that children deserve help just for themselves, and a chance to start their own journey of recovery.
The memory of the little girl I once was, who could have used a group very much like this one, is a constant reminder of this truth.
Authored by Peggy McGillicuddy, MEd - Inner Direction Recovery