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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