What happens after rehab, and talking to kids about addiction

Anonymous writes:

“I’m hoping you or your readers can help me with a big life thing, hopefully a big change. My dad is very close to my family, and an alcoholic. On Monday morning he asked me to drive him to detox, which was amazing and a day I thought would never come. But I was home with my three-year-old daughter, so she came with us. It wasn’t traumatic but it was different and strange and she knows something is going on. Plus there are all these FEELINGS happening all over the place that she’s picking up on. Monday, we told her that Grandpa was sick, and was going to stay in the hospital until he gets better. Today, she asked why he was sick and we told her she couldn’t catch what he had, he was born with it (why did that come out of my mouth?!) and that he is getting better. 

So… what’s next? I don’t know what will happen in terms of detox, if he goes to rehab, when we will hear from him, what he will even be like. How do I help my kid understand what is happening at an age-appropriate level? If anyone else has gone through this with a parent, spouse, or other loved one, it would be so, so helpful to me to hear how they communicated with their children. 

And yeah, I have a therapist, a good one. “

The baby questions are always easier than the adult questions, aren’t they?

First, congratulations. I have no idea what’s going to happen with your dad, but the fact that he asked you to drive him is big and wonderful and made me tear up.

Now, I’ve recommended it a couple of times this week already under different circumstances, so here’s another recommendation for Al-Anon. The entire group is there to support you in your relationship (and parenting your kids through their relationship) with someone with a problem with alcohol. They know the patterns, they know the language, they know what you’re feeling. They’re there and they will help, and they’re free. You can go and they’ll be able to tell you what a typical pattern is for someone going into detox/rehab and what to do when he gets out, and also how to help your daughter through this.

You can find them here. Local in person meetings, and it looks like they have electronic meetings, too: http://www.al-anon.alateen.org/

This is all complicated right now, but I think the simple answer you gave is good, and tells her what she needs to know without scaring her. Obviously when she’s older she’ll need to know specifics, but for now this is good. And what she’s also going to take out of this is that if she has a problem, you’re the person to go to, and also that she and you are the kind of people who help. Good lessons, both of those.

Has anyone else been in this situation from any side? Any good words for Anonymous?

9 thoughts on “What happens after rehab, and talking to kids about addiction”

  1. I am happy that you’re dad is seeking help and so sorry that your whole family has struggled with this illness.

    My only comment is: Don’t assume that your daughter didn’t already understand a lot, on some level. My five-year-old shocked me when I told him his dad was in the hospital. He nodded calmly and told me: "I’d really glad dad went to the hospital. I wish he went sooner." When I asked him why, he said "I knew there was something wrong and I thought he was going to die". We don’t live with his dad, and he never directly witnessed the behavior, but he sure as heck knew something was up. He didn’t ask many questions, just seemed really relieved.
    I have no idea what to say when he asks me "Is dad going to get sick like that again?". I say no, but I;m not sure.

  2. Best vibes for you all.

    My father is an alcoholic, and it was very painful for me. I have gotten better over the last ten years, but the years I was living at home, we experienced so much stress. I worked with a therapist for many years to help me with my anxiety, poor self-esteem, and bodily harm. I am glad you are working with a therapist. I’ve never been to an Al-Anon meeting, but I think it would have helped me.

    I think the greatest release was learning that I could not help him. His Hep C lead to cirrhosis. Even his doctor cannot get him to change. What was interesting is that my acceptance of the situation grew when my own self-acceptance grew.

  3. I have heard it called an allergy when explaining it to kids. This analogy by itself will not fully explain why the alcoholic keeps drinking when he knows it is bad for him, but it may may be a helpful way to put it in context and to explain why some people can drink alcohol and some can’t, and why an alcoholic can seem healthy and normal until he takes a drink.

    I would treat it like sex: follow the child’s lead and answer the questions that are asked, not the ones that aren’t. Keep answering simply and honestly (not easy about such a confusing and emotional topic) until she stops asking. Probably she will ask some questions, digest the answers for minutes, or hours, or days, or longer, and then have more.

    This is not for a three year old, but one thing I talk to my daughter about is the fact that alcoholism has a genetic component and so she (and I) have a "special responsibility" when it comes to drinking because we may be more likely to develop alcoholism. I drink very sparingly and rarely. That is partly for this reason and partly because I am just lucky enough to have escaped without a taste for it, but I like to emphasize the former with my daughter.

    Finally, yes, al-anon is an incredible resource for anyone who has a current or past relationship with an alcoholic or an addict. Anonfortoday, it may still be very helpful for you and I encourage you to try going to a few meetings if you feel like it. There is no requirement that the alcoholic still be in your life, or still be alive, or anything.

  4. We haven’t dealt with this specific situation but other very difficult situations involving serious illness/ death/ very bad things have come up with our young children, one of whom is very sensitive/emotional. I think that it helps to have a canned explanation ready on a small-child level – it can be simplified, as others say, because they need something on their level. For example, when a friend’s baby was hospitalized for a year, we had to explain that Baby M was very, very sick; no, we didn’t know if she was going to get better but we hoped so; she was in the hospital so the doctors could do their best to help her get better. For us it’s more about giving the child a truthful but reassuring framework in which to process this new, scary experience. I think it’s okay to say you don’t know (but you hope so). And I think it is also important to reassure the child to the extent that’s necessary – here you could say this is a sickness that only bigger people get (as in not three-year-olds) and you don’t have it, and a simple, factual answer, and then divert, like "Grandpa is (in place X, doing thing y) and we hope he’ll keep getting better. Would you like to draw him a picture?"

    In terms of children’s relationships with their grandparents – my in-laws make a lot of stupid self-destructive choices, and I try to keep those things – and my complex feelings about them – out of my kids’ relationship with their grandparents. If I’m not sure if Grandma and Grandpa are actually going to show up, I don’t tell the kids they’re coming until they’re five minutes away. If they do something dumb and my kids ask why, I say "Well, they are adults, and they make their own choices."

  5. I have experience from all sides: dad was an alcoholic and went to rehab (and got and stayed sober) when I was 8. I am an alcoholic who has been sober for almost 5 years (I have a six year old). My brother in law, who has two young kids, has been bouncing in and out of rehab for 5 years now without being able to achieve lasting sobriety. My five year old knows what alcoholism is; in an age appropriate way what it can do to people and how it can make them act; that many times, people can get better (like mommy) and that sometimes they can’t or have a lot of trouble getting better (like Uncle R); and that because of our family history, he should probably never drink alcohol, etc. My father had similar conversations with me as a child and I was always appreciative of it. Kids do understand a lot.

  6. My husband quit drinking (after he, and our marriage, were close to rock bottom) when our daughter was 3. He did not go to rehab, but he started going to AA meetings 3-4 times a week, which we simply explained as "Daddy is going to a meeting"–which she just accepted. She noticed that he wasn’t drinking anymore (it was a very big part of his life so it would have been hard not to notice) and actually asked him why he didn’t drink beer anymore. He told her, "Because it isn’t good for me," and that was enough explanation. As she has gotten older (she is 7 now), we have had little conversations here and there about what alcohol is (drink just for grown-ups) and how Daddy used to drink alcohol but doesn’t anymore because it was bad for him/making him sick. I think that, as with all the big topics (sex, race, etc), it’s not just one conversation but an accumulation of little everyday conversations that not only gradually introduce the concepts, but reinforce the idea that this is not a taboo topic and that she can always come to you with questions. Eventually (when she is 11 or 12) we will have at least one (probably more) big sit-down conversation that really lays out her family history of alcoholism and why she will need to be careful herself. And in some of the smaller conversations we have introduced the idea that some people, including Daddy and other family members, have a harder time than other people being able to drink alcohol. But for now, "Drinking alcohol makes Daddy sick" is good enough.

  7. Sometimes when you go to your first alanon meeting it can seem strange, and not what you were expecting. It isn’t a how-to lesson on what to do with an alcoholic or how to help an alcoholic, it’s about you. It’s about how you can be happy and healthy (and in the case of a parent, be able to give your child what she needs to be happy and healthy) no matter what happens to the alcoholic in your life. His recovery may not stick, but you can still be happy and healthy. He may never drink again but the patterns put in place by an alcoholic system will persist even in the absence of drinking. You can be happy and healthy under those circumstances too–and so can your daughter.

  8. We have told our kids for years that "Daddy is allergic to wine" and a 3 year old completely understands that analogy. With so many warnings about peanuts and other foods, it’s part of their world to think in those terms. Regarding the trip to the detox center, children aren’t going to ask a lot of questions, because they don’t know what to ask. I would encourage you to "eavesdrop" when your daughter is playing pretend by herself; that’s where you will hear her processing what happened.

    And like many others, I would encourage anyone to try Al-Anon. Some meetings offer childcare, and when kids are older it’s helpful for them to hear that others share this situation. My husband is many years sober and I still need it to be a good parent.

Leave a Reply to Anon2 Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *