Question: I am going through a horrible divorce where there is substance abuse involved on the part of my ex. My children know that something is going on and have questioned me repeatedly about it, but I haven’t told them outright. They are smart kids, and I would like to break the cycle of dishonesty and shame, yet they are still young. Any thoughts?
Answer: First, I am sorry for the pain that a difficult divorce brings into a family. There are a million things to consider when we are looking at divorce, addiction and families. I really want to keep things simple and clear, because if I know anything, I know that addiction, divorce and family do not lend themselves to quick or easy fixes.
But there really isn’t a list of “five easy ways” to get through this.
And so here it is:
What do we do when we are panicked about our young children and the things that might impact their lives?
It is a natural inclination to close the door on it, or to maybe even throw your body against that door to protect your kids. Yetwhen it comes to addiction issues, non-addicted parents know that pain cannot be stuffed away, hidden, or ignored. Like a balloon held under water, it will pop up despite our best efforts.
And so to get some guidance, I turned to Gabor Maté, an addiction specialist and physician and author of “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts,” a book that melds medical, physical and spiritual studies to approach addiction in a holistic manner.
First, before anything else, Maté says that you, the non-addicted parent, need to tend to your own self. A non-addicted parent who is full of rage, sadness, anxiety and fear cannot provide a safe haven for his or her children. The child, therefore, will feel the fear and anger from this parent, which in turn creates an undercurrent of stress for the child. And because children are naturally focused on themselves, they will blame themselves for the worry and anger in the house — What did I do wrong? I must have made Mommy angry.
Counseling, support and basic needs such as food, rest and exercise for yourself are necessities to create a safe place for your children.
Next: How do you weigh the presence of an addicted parent against not just the potential pain and harm, but the deep anger of the spouse who is sober?
Your first job is to be responsible for not putting your children in harm’s way. But if the addicted parent can be a part of your children’s life, he should be, Maté says.
Of course, most sober parents will recoil at this idea, but think about it: Your children are suffering either way. And your children love that addicted parent. Although seeing that parent will cause pain, so will not seeing that parent.
So let them see each other (if it is safe). And then remember that the other important job you have is to “help the children endure pain, not protect them from it,” Maté says. You must let your children experience their emotions fully. When your children can safely express their emotions, Maté said, the feelings no longer control them — the anger is simply anger, the disappointment is disappointment. It doesn’t take root as more or less than what it is, and the family can face what is in front of them.
And as for the cycle of dishonesty and children who want to know what is really going on? Always keep the information age-appropriate, but discuss it. Your children obviously know that something is going on, and they will find out at some point. So start the discussion, because this discussion of divorce and addiction is lifelong.
When it comes to explaining addiction, the simpler the better, Maté advises. You say, “Daddy has a problem, and the problem is called addiction.” The more convoluted the explanation becomes, the more confused children become. It is more important to focus on making sure the children “feel felt,” Maté says, than to explain the ins and outs of addiction.
This does not mean that pain, suffering and anger go away. This does not mean that the non-addicted parent takes on extra blame or pain. This is all a way, Maté says, of leading your family to live with pain, to experience it without self-judgment and to take back power and hope.
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Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Wednesday.