Last Updated on May 29, 2024 by Dr. Alberto Solà

Parenting isn’t easy, no matter what the situation, but if you’re someone who has experienced addiction and now is perusing recovery, it has its own, unique challenges – and can seem overwhelming.  Children are very sensitive to what is happening in the world around them, and your addiction may have had a larger effect on yours than you will ever fully know.  Taking steps to include your children in your recovery efforts, and taking ownership for your mistakes in the past, is extremely important.  Building a strong relationship with your children is paramount, and there are many things you can do to make things easier for them emotionally now that you are on your way to a new and healthier life.

An estimated twelve percent of children in the United States live with a parent who is dependent on or abuses alcohol or other drugs, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).  While you were deep in the throes of your addiction and were an active substance abuser, your children may have had to deal with a great many things for which they were not prepared. One study published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse surveyed seventy drug and alcohol addicted mothers; 80% of them reported at least one arrest while their child was growing up, 34% said they received treatment for an emotional disorder, and 14% were hospitalized – all things that can effect a child’s emotional health greatly.

Parenting in Recovery

Although you may be feeling much guilt over whatever your children may have experienced, it’s not too late to repair things and get everything back to normal.  It’s important that parents in recovery be cognizant of the difficulties that may have forced their children to grow up faster than necessary.  Even without issues as drastic as the arrest or hospitalization of a parent, children may have been exposed to other things that were hard for them to process. They may have felt confused by mood swings that they did not understand, or they may have felt hurt on more than one occasion due to parental emotional unavailability when they needed a shoulder to cry on or sought praise for doing something well.  Children of addicts often have experienced a lack of structure in the home that may have led to discipline problems or failing grades.  And furthermore, children may have had added responsibility in the home during a parent’s addiction; a parent being absent in many ways – even if they were physically present – may have resulted in children caring for their siblings, caring for the parent, and doing extra chores around the house in an attempt to keep appearances normal.

Although all of these things would certainly be difficult for a child of any age, it’s never too late to turn things around and fix what is broken, even if these issues were the norm in your home for many years.  No matter what the age of your children, its important to first and foremost take ownership for your addiction, admit that big mistakes were made, and take the time to directly apologize to them.  Emphasize that none of what happened was their fault, and show them your unconditional love any way you can.  Be patient with them; remember that this was just as difficult for them as it was for you, and don’t forget that changes of all kinds can be especially hard for young people who are not yet fully mentally developed, and who lack the life experience to effectively process what was happening.  Behavior problems, failing grades, and changes in personality in your children can likely be the results of a period of unpredictability, and now that you are in recovery, it may take them quite a while to adjust and to return to being the same child you remember before all of this.  Spending time with your children can help them to truly see that now everything is going to be okay, and it can also help you with staying clean and sober as well.   Be careful not to isolate yourselves; some families in recovery make this mistake due to embarrassment over what has occurred, but getting out into the community and doing things as a family will only strengthen your family bonds and help you on your path.

As someone active in recovery, you certainly have a lot on your plate – even outside of parenting.  You need to take care of yourself in order to be a good and effective parent, so be sure to eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, and manage your stress levels.   Be careful not to overindulge your children as a result of guilt about your past, it is more important now than ever to set boundaries and adhere to discipline rules you have in place.   It’s possible that during your addiction your children had few rules to follow, so they may not be excited about new parameters over what they are and are not allowed to do, but it is vital that you to stick to your guns about who exactly is in charge in your home.  You need to build trust on both sides of your relationship, and perhaps the best way to do that is to set firm rules and give your children responsibilities.

Just like you sought support for yourself during this difficult time, it’s critical that you find help for your children as well. There are many groups out there that are available to assist in this situation.  Confident Kids Support Groups is an organization devoted to helping children with various difficulties they may encounter in their young lives, including grief counseling, counseling for children in foster care, divorce, violence – and drug addiction by a family member.   School counselors or psychologists can offer a great deal of assistance as well in many ways, and groups like Al-Anon, Alateen, and Adult Children of Alcoholics, along with Nar-Anon, can really help children of addicts of all ages by helping them realize they are not alone in having an addicted parent.  Learn to Cope, which is mostly based in Massachusetts currently but has a very active online community available to all, exists to offer support, encouragement, education, and resources specifically to family members and loved ones of addicts of any type, but focuses on opiate addictions in particular.   And finally, Project Know is yet another family-focused organization that assists and addresses children, siblings, spouses, and parents who have been affected by the addiction of someone close to them.  All of these organizations have helped hundreds or thousands of children in the same situation as yours currently are, and can make great strides in helping them process what has happened and move forward from here.   Certainly, you can ask the staff at your rehabilitation center or your own sponsor or counselors for more information about these groups or for more resources in your region.

Remember, many people before you have been down this same path and have managed to repair relationships with their own children, so you can find success in doing so as well.  As with all things related to recovery, don’t hesitate to reach out to others for help when you need it.  Between parenting, working, and doing things to support your own recovery like attending support groups, you are likely very busy.   Asking others to help with things like getting your kids to school and activities and even errands and household tasks can be a lifesaver.  Some recovering parents are more likely to cut out counseling and support groups when their lives begin to get hectic, but don’t take that route; attending meetings that support your recovery are crucial to keeping things running smoothly in your new life.  Your friends and family are there to help, and want you to stay on your new, healthy path.  It is most important that you continue to address the things that led you into addiction, so you can continue to be the parent your children most want and that they absolutely deserve, and can be the best parent you can be.