Parent in Recovery: Teaching My Children to Think and Feel for Themselves

The other day a friend said to me, “It seems as if all the people I knew in high school who used drugs were the ones who had trouble coping with their feelings.”

As a person in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, I agree with her observation.

I had a great amount of anxiety as a child and teenager. My parents were often angry at each other. We frequently ate dinner in silence and, although we didn’t acknowledge it, the tension was high. I didn’t understand how to sort out my anxiety and my feelings became too much to bear. Just thinking about it 25 years later (14 in recovery) brings knots to my stomach.

I didn’t want to be at home with my family. As a result, I started going out every night at an early age, even on weeknights, just to get away.

At 14 years old, when I had my first drink, the anxiety went away — albeit temporarily — and I thought I had finally found the answer to all of my problems. After that, all I wanted to do was drink again.

Now, with children of my own, being in recovery, and knowing what I know about drugs and alcohol, I think a lot about the concept of coping.

I often see parents using distraction as a method to calm down their children. But what are we really telling our kids if each time they are upset about something we say, “Oh, let’s go over here, and let’s look at this really fun book!” Or “Here let’s see what’s in the fridge?” This method prevents children from learning how to experience emotions appropriately. We’re setting them up for a lifetime of bottled-up emotions; we’re teaching them to cover up their feelings, rather than to express themselves. My mother’s idea of comforting herself was through shopping and sweets. Naturally, my brother and I picked up similar habits. And believe me, I thoroughly enjoyed the shopping, chocolate and Coca-Cola.

I didn’t have a safe place to express myself and never learned how to process feelings. When I felt bad and anxious, it was so painful and overwhelming.

In early recovery, when I no longer had drugs and alcohol to cover my feelings,  it was very difficult to deal with sadness and despair. I became very depressed; I would cry endlessly. I didn’t have the ability to get past my pain and release my emotions.

With the help of the 12 steps, therapy, and meditation, I have learned how to cope better. Today, when I get sad about something, my reaction is appropriate to the situation at hand.

Nevertheless, parents today never want to see their children sad. We fear that they won’t be able to handle adversity. I fall into that trap even though I consider myself to be a pretty conscious mother. Recently, my 4 year old had a play-date with a young girl who subsequently made her cry twice in the little time she was at our house. My instinct was to ban the girl from our home and I hoped that my daughter would never want to play with her again at school. I was adamant about it. I didn’t want anyone to hurt my little girl.

But then I thought, “Wait a minute, is this the right way to go?”

I recently watched a video called the Opiate Effect. It is a short film about the Oxycodone problem in Vermont. In the film, Dr. Bob Bick (Director of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services at the Howard Center) says, “If we encourage young people to THINK and FEEL from the earliest age as opposed to believing that we can think for them or feel for them, we will be in a much better position for young people to make decisions which ultimately will affect the rest of their lives.”

Thinking and feeling for myself was something I did not know how to do until several years into my recovery. Thinking, but foremost FEELING for themselves is something I deeply would like my children to learn. And if I just step out of the way, not necessarily interfering, but instead simply giving them gentle guidance along the way, I’m hoping it will be achieved.

So, I’m taking a different approach. If my daughter is angry or sad, I ask her what is going on and try to get her to talk about it. Sometimes I’ll just hold her without saying anything and let her cry until she is done. I never try to distract her with TV, food or shopping like I see so many others do.. Like my own parents did.

To me, it is clear that teenagers who have learned to cover up their feelings with video games, shopping or food will more easily say yes when someone offers them a joint at a party. And if they are predisposed, and have a lot of unresolved or pent-up emotions and the joint offers them relief, then they will likely want to do it again. And then, who knows what will happen.

As they say, I am trying to just take it one step and one day at a time. I encourage my two little girls to figure out life, to think and feel on their own. Hopefully, it will make a difference. Of course, I am just a parent in recovery. I am not an expert, nor have a PhD, and these are just my observations.

I would really like to hear from parents who have had or currently have children who are suffering from drug and alcohol abuse issues and hear what they have to say on this topic. Does any of this matter? Please comment below and let me know what you did or didn’t do.

Recovery 101

Read an overview of what being in recovery really means for your family and your child with a substance use disorder.

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13 Responses

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    Patti Herndon

    October 10, 2013 at 8:22 PM


    What you share inspires us to have faith/hope in…to engage discovery in the innate ability/potential we all have to overcome our challenges as we journey toward our desire/our goal of experiencing better-lived moments.

    What you write about ‘acceptance’, i.e. ‘not blaming’ is key to our personal growth and healthy change. Clearly, you have an understanding of this critical part of recovery. And, obviously, that understanding has served you very well in your journey. And, now, your example of logic and love in action serves so many others. Thank ‘you’ for that blessing:-)

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    August 20, 2013 at 8:18 PM

    Patti, thank you so very much for your post. It makes so much sense. My mother still struggles with her anxiety and today I am able to just step back and watch her go through it instead going down that road with her. A few years back, I would still feel her anxiety in my body when she was in the same room. Her anxiety would translate into the tightness in my chest and a general sense of discomfort that I desperately wanted to get rid of. When I was using, I would leave and drink or do drugs to get rid of it, but after starting my recovery, I had no where to go so I would feel her anxiety and just simply shut down. Sometimes, I would just stop talking, and do something else such as watch TV for hours on end. I am so glad that I have been able to learn how to separate and that we are no longer entangled in that way we used to be. I don’t ever blame her, she did the best she could.
    Thanks again, Patti – I am printing out that article as we speak!

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    Patti Herndon

    July 24, 2013 at 10:30 PM

    Wow! Awesome…Thank you for this blog post. It hits at the very core of why we see so many people using substances to cope with their feelings/their stressors in life.

    Parents can ‘pass’ a deficit in coping to their children due to their own lack of coping skill set, their own anxiety.

    Anxiety has a genetic component. In much the same way we inherit eye color, we can inherit a propensity for anxiety. Anxiety disorders are common and nothing to feel ashamed of. It’s no different than inheriting a propensity for diabetes. But, there are things we can do, in both cases, that will keep the genetic component from disrupting our physical and emotional health, and our day to day lives -Skills/behaviors we can learn and apply that help to ‘cancel out’ the genetic proclivity.

    When we ‘tune in’, it becomes pretty evident that many parents who have kids with a substance use disorder, demonstrate ‘some’ level of anxiety themselves. We can sense evidence of anxiety in listening to the way a parent describes their experience of parenting a son/daughter with addiction.

    I don’t think there is anything more difficult, in the human scope of experiences/challenges of parenting, than going through addiction with a son/daughter. And, in trying our best to navigate the challenges of addiction, we have days as parents when it’s all just too much… and we melt down. That’s understandable. It’s to be expected. But, when a parent is ‘consistently’ expressing extreme feelings ofanger, fear, resentments, shame etc. -ruminating; That pattern can reflect that the parent could be suffering from some kind of anxiety disorder. And, that makes a parent less able to advocate effectively for their son/daughter with a substance use disorder.

    Experiencing anxiety exhausts our energies that would otherwise be used for dealing with stress in the best possible way we can identify, for our individual circumstances -on any given day, any given moment.

    Anxiety interferes with our sense of self efficacy.

    While we may be inclined to attribute a parent’s description of their experience of despair, frustration, worry, anger, etc. to the beyond difficult hardships, traumas and trials experienced due to a child’s addiction/substance use disorder; Quite often it’s the case that the anxiety we sense, hear/read in their words… the anxiety we empathize with in a fellow parent struggling through their child’s addiction has been present, at some level, long before their child developed a substance use disorder.

    ‘Power of the pattern’. Chances are the parent wasn’t taught how to respond to their feelings appropriately by their parent(s), either. So how can we have the expectation that a parent will model healthy coping to their own children if they were not shown it? The positive in this, though, is that it’s never too late to increase our coping skill set. We need to recognize that need in order to have the best chance of doing that.

    The mention of ‘modeling’ is so very important. It just makes sense when we really think about it: When children are not shown how to experience/respond to their feelings in a healthy way -by parental modeling, or by some other significant adult in their life- they have less ability to choose appropriate/healthy responses to stressors. That, coupled with going through the intense process of adolescence -individuation/identity achievement- kids become at higher risk for developing a pattern of coping with substances.

    ‘This’ is addiction -maladaptive coping. It’s the psyche’s way of dealing with all sorts of feelings, and mitigating stress/pain. And in some strange way, it makes sense on some level. It’s not healthy coping, of course. But, in the absence of having been modeled appropriate responses to feelings throughout childhood; substance use and abuse developed in adolescence becomes the stand in coping mechanism. It’s learned. But, it can be unlearned, too. It’s a process. It takes time.

    Recovery happens all the time. It’s more common for people to recover from their addiction(s) than not to. We are not exposed to stories of recovery near enough. That’s a shame, because with so many parents suffering with anxiety, in tandem with dealing with their child’s addiction, they could benefit greatly by there being a balance between the accounts of the outcomes associated with recovery.

    Parents need/deserve to hear about the victories, too. They need to hear that other parent’s kids recover. We owe that inspiration to parents who are wired to experience extreme anxiety in the wake of their child’s addiction. It helps parents cope better. And, when parents are genuinely coping better -actively engaged in the journey of addiction with their child, learning/practicing evidence-based, proven techniques in communicating/interacting with their son/daughter, (not ‘detaching’/’disconnecting’/’letting go’)- it helps them advocate better effectively on behalf of their son/daughter. Recovery has a much better chance under these conditions.

    Anxiety is genetically/environmentally rooted. It has likely lived in a family lineage for multiple generations. It’s common. But, we can stop anxiety’s detrimental impact on families. We have the tools and resources available to help parents build their coping skill set and intervene on anxiety before it gets passed along to future generations.

    In reference to the great comment about studies on teaching kids to cope, the following is an excerpt from an article from John Hopkins Children’s Center. The entire article can be accessed by googling Trickle-Down Anxiety: Study Examines Parental Behaviors that Create Anxious Children.

    “Children with an inherited propensity to anxiety do not just become anxious because of their genes, so what we need are ways to prevent the environmental catalysts — in this case, parental behaviors — from unlocking the underlying genetic mechanisms responsible for the disease,” Ginsburg says.

    The researchers analyzed interactions between 66 anxious parents and their 66 children, ages 7 to 12. Among the parents, 21 had been previously diagnosed with social anxiety, and 45 had been diagnosed with another anxiety disorder, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The parent-child pairs were asked to work together on two tasks: prepare speeches about themselves and to replicate increasingly complex designs using an Etch-a-Sketch device. The participants were given five minutes for each task and worked in rooms under video surveillance.

    Using a scale of 1 to 5, the researchers rated parental warmth and affection toward the child, criticism of the child, expression of doubts about a child’s performance and ability to complete the task, granting of autonomy, and parental over-control. Parents diagnosed with social anxiety showed less warmth and affection toward their children, criticized them more and more often expressed doubts about a child’s ability to perform the task. There were no significant differences between parents on controlling and autonomy-granting behavior.

    Prevention of childhood anxiety is critical because anxiety disorders affect one in five U.S. children but often go unrecognized, researchers say. Delays in diagnosis and treatment can lead to depression, substance abuse and poor academic performance throughout childhood and well into adulthood.”

    The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.”

    Addiction is the journey. Recovery is the destination.

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