As parents, we look at our own lives; mistakes we made, hurts we felt and we resolve to help our children steer past those disappointments. Yet parents who are in recovery often see their children careening toward the same substance use and other high risk behaviors they once pursued. Since many of these parents entered recovery before they even had their first child, it begs the question: was the die cast in the womb?
I have yet to see research that suggests 100 percent inheritability or anything even close to that, but we can’t dismiss it altogether. A better answer is that the legacy of substance abuse is a combination of BOTH nature AND nurture. No one can change their DNA, so that leaves us examining the environment provided by parents in recovery to their children.
Parents with a Past
As is so often the case, the past drives the present. Often adults in recovery who made serious mistakes earlier in their adult lives have difficulty moving beyond them. If you begin with parents who have the normal parental desires for their children, then add the reality that most have some sort of personal baggage that creeps into their decision making. Finally, pile on a few secrets or scandals from their past. All of these hidden scars affect the way people in recovery parent.
Perhaps they think they owe their child leniency. Others want to be their child’s “friend.” Some overlook substance use in their teenager because of feelings of hypocrisy. These things are not new. We are just looking at them through the lens of culture. They present us with patterns of behavior and attitudes that are not helping our children navigate a difficult world.
Three Errors of Parenting in Recovery
A family is no different than any other type of culture. Each has its own version of the hallmark cultural elements – common language, values, norms, beliefs. I have studied dozens of families and, based on that research, developed a top ten list of faulty parenting behaviors and attitudes. In this brief article, I can only cover three of the recurring themes that seem to morph into the destructive patterns associated with high-risk behavior in children.
Awareness: Think of the sort of tunnel vision that a lot of people suffer – not just people in recovery. They fail to see how they affect others with their personal approach to living. For example, they might be great at listening to the concerns of another person struggling to stay sober or make some other dramatic change in life, but they rarely listen to their own spouses. They can sit for hours with friends talking about their hopes and dreams for their children – but never ask those children what they want for their own futures.
Discipline: For some parents, the consequences of misbehavior depend more on their mood than the nature of the offense. Sometimes parents choose to avoid confrontation, or in other cases, they completely overreact to their children’s bad choices. Often they take their children’s behavior personally – reacting as if the child’s behavior was “done” to the parent, personally.
Modeling: Finally, many parents forget that they are role models for their children. They talk about personal responsibility then turn around and blame their problems on others. “Old ideas” creep into their conversations and their actions – despite their recovering status. They talk to their children about not letting their emotions rule them and then they yell in traffic and practically wreck the car trying to cut off the offending driver.
Changing the family culture requires us to identify these elements or themes. Some people are put off by a focus on shortcomings – faulty parenting, as I call it – but the reality is that if we are going to identify solutions we must first pinpoint the problems as specifically as possible. Mistakes may be unintentional, but nonetheless, we must call them by that name.
Solutions, on the other hand, give us hope and allow us to immediately feel better because we have a plan. In this case, the solutions are derived from one or more of four processes:
• Resolution of old issues,
• Attitude changes,
• Learning about ourselves and our children, and
• Taking specific, measurable action.
For professionals interested in working with the children of parents in recovery, I’ve developed a brief reading list:
• Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids. Written by Kim John Payne. (2009)
• Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall: A Parent’s Guide to the New Teenager. Written by Anthony E. Wolf (2002)
• Rein in Your Brain: From Impulsivity to Thoughtful Living in Recovery. Written by Cynthia Moreno Touhy. (Forthcoming)
These books help us frame some of the parenting issues, but they also cover the residual effects of self-destructive behavior, the impulsive behavior of parents in recovery, and the peculiar nature of the recovering mind.
This is just a modest start – looking at how family culture contributes to errors in parenting. I invite you to share patterns you’ve observed in families in recovery, as well as resources that you find helpful. Let’s have a productive dialogue!
Phyllis A. Gardner, PhD, Professor of Sociology and Addiction Studies at Texarkana College, was elected President of IC&RC in October 2011. Gardner holds a doctoral degree in Sociology from Texas Woman’s University and is a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor, Certified Clinical Supervisor, and Certified Advanced Addictions Counselor. IC&RC is the global leader in the credentialing of prevention, addiction treatment, and recovery professionals. Organized in 1981, it provides standards and examinations to certification and licensing boards in 24 countries, 47 states and territories, five Native American regions, and all branches of the U.S. military.