“Keep quiet.” “Don’t tell anyone.” “Just act normal.” For the more than 11 million children living in alcoholic homes in the U.S., these are the phrases they hear every day. These kids are trapped in silence by a family that usually denies the existence of the very illness which has them in its grasp. Even worse, they often have no place to turn as alcoholism wreaks terror, chaos and pain upon their lives. Unfortunately, these youngsters are at high risk to eventually abuse alcohol and other drugs themselves, perpetuating the disease through their own children.
How do we break the cycle? Children of alcoholics and addicts need to learn about addiction in an age-appropriate way so they can realize the situation is not their fault and they are not to blame.
They need safe ways to explore and express their anger, fear, hurt, guilt and shame. They need to know there are other adults and kids who care about them.
Kids can learn how to cope positively with the problems at home, such as parental fighting, verbal violence, broken promises, blackouts, and neglect. These children need to learn how to take care of themselves and stay safe. To escape the world of isolation that has enveloped them, they must grieve, be angry, cry, and be comforted. It sounds daunting but there is a solution.
The good news is that children of alcoholics and addicts can and do heal. Treatment programs and community-based organizations can use specially designed games and activities to help children play their way to health and understanding. During this process
they build upon their strengths, deepen their resilience, and further realize their intrinsic beauty and worth.
An estimated 75% of the parents whose children have participated in a specialized program I’ve directed over the years are also children of alcoholics and/or addicts themselves. Often the biggest difference between the children and parents is that the latter never had a similar program to help them in their youth. The greatest gift parents can give their children is the gift of their own recovery.
The second greatest gift is providing the chance for their children to begin their own healing. Children often cannot participate in children’s groups without parental consent. The parents who do consent are giving their children something most of them never got as kids, a safe place to learn, grow, and heal.
Why is it important for children to participate in a program? Research clearly shows that addiction tends to run in families so children from alcoholic and other drug addicted families are at high risk. Empowering these youngsters with healthy living skills is truly prevention in its purest form. Helping children to learn that it’s not their fault and they are not to blame allows them to become kids again.
How does children’s program help a family deepen its healing? Through their artwork, stories and letters to Addiction, the children share with their parents about what it’s been like for them living with addiction. This is a very powerful and moving experience.
Parents respond the next day by often asking for forgiveness and letting their children know how much they love them. On the last day they work on how the family will proceed with its recovery.
What do children do in a kids program? A well-developed program features a balanced blend of learning, playing and growing for children between the ages seven through 12. Youngsters learn about addiction in an age-appropriate way, share feelings, develop a variety of coping and self-care skills and build upon their strengths and intrinsic worth. Just as importantly, a program provides the opportunity for children to be kids, as recreation and other fun activities are always included.
How do you encourage parents’ participation? One has to explain that a children’s program is a gift that their sobriety brings to their children. They deserve the opportunity to heal and alter the cycle of addiction in the family. Since children have unwittingly been a part of the disease, they deserve to be a part of the healing as well.
There is typically a meeting at the conclusion of the program where staff members meet with each family for continuing care recommendations and referrals.
It is truly a rewarding experience to watch children breaking the family legacy of addiction. They heal as they become reconnected to their hearts. Their drawings and letters depict them in various stages of coming to grips with family addiction. Their courage and strengths shine throughout. There is hope in knowing that resources are available to address this challenging issue.
Parents, family members, teachers, physicians and friends have the ability to explore the available options and help connect children of parents with addiction to recovery services. They have an extraordinary opportunity to change children’s lives and guide them toward a brighter future.
Jerry Moe is the National Director of Children’s Programs at the Betty Ford Center, a part of Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, in Rancho Mirage, California. The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation is the nation’s largest nonprofit treatment provider, with a legacy that began in 1949 and includes the 1982 founding of the Betty Ford Center. With 15 sites in California, Minnesota, Oregon, Illinois, New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Colorado and Texas, the Foundation offers prevention and recovery solutions nationwide and across the entire continuum of care for youth and adults.
Jerry is an Advisory Board Member of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA), he is an author, lecturer, and trainer on issues for children and families hurt by addiction. His latest book is Through a Child’s Eyes: Understanding Addiction and Recovery. Moe received the 2005 America Honors Recovery Award from the Johnson Institute, and the 2000 Ackerman/Black Award from NACoA for “significantly improving the lives of children of alcoholics in the United States and around the world.” Moe is the opening plenary keynote speaker at the National Drug Endangered Children Conference taking place in Orlando, Fla. on Oct. 7, 2014. His topic is “Changing the Family Legacy.”
To learn more about Hazelden in Naples, call 239-659-2351 or visit www.hazeldenbettyford.org.