What About the Kids?

One of the hardest aspects of addiction is that it doesn’t just affect the person having it. I’ve talked about families of people with substance use disorder before, but it’s always good to keep this conversation in the forefront as we continue to battle the stigma and try to educate the public about this complex condition.

In my own experience, it was my wife and my children who were most affected by my addiction. It was my son who found me passed out in the basement, which led to me finally doing something about my addiction and getting sober. It was tragic, but it began a necessary process. However, I know that prior to that event my children witnessed many occasions when I was under the influence.

Talk to any child of a parent with addiction and you will learn some heartbreaking things. Those kids often become hypervigilant and live in a state of angst that no child should have to live through. According to one definition, “Hypervigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect activity. Hypervigilance may bring about a state of increased anxiety, which can cause exhaustion.”

Children of people with addiction live in the state of over-alertness—listening for certain sounds, watching for certain sights—watching their addicted parent closely and often feeling unsafe. There are children who can tell if mom or dad are intoxicated by how they close the door (with force or gently—either can be an indicator, depending on the parent’s patterns), children who listen for the sound of the engine when dad comes home, children who watch for how much makeup or perfume mom wears (I know of a mother whose son hates it when she puts her up in a bun because he has associated that particular hairstyle with her drunkenness in the past). On the other hand, the same parent who causes so much anxiety can be loving and affectionate and fun. But it’s the inconsistency that causes additional stress. Any “unusual” behavior displayed by a parent might be a cause to be alarmed and the worst is that with a parent active in their addiction the child has no idea when to expect Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. Imagine living like that all the time.

That kind of damage can certainly be repaired with time and patience if the addicted parent goes into recovery, but the effects of past addictive behavior are lingering and don’t always go away. Thankfully, we do have services available to children, although the system is nowhere perfect.  Still, things are moving along a little bit.

Recently, Sesame Street developed a new character whose mom struggles with addiction. Karli tells her story over a few episodes available online. According to the article about the show’s great new character, “Why This Sesame Street Reveal of a Mom’s Addiction is So Major,” one expert, Fred Muench, the president of the Center on Addiction, who is himself in recovery from heroin addiction, said “that this validation and mirroring is a game-changer for kids. One of the mantras in addiction recovery is “you are not alone” — but for little kids, that may be hard to believe.

‘It’s so isolating for both for the parents as well as kids, and this will really help them see that they’re not alone,’ he said. ‘I’m so excited for this because we haven’t touched on this issue like we’ve touched on other issues. There’s still a lot of work we need to do here. This is ground-breaking. There are 20 million people in this country struggling with a substance use disorder and about 10% who are in recovery. Many kids in foster care have a parent who is actively struggling or in early recovery, so there’s a lot of kids who are going to relate to this.’”

As happy I am about these small changes, my hope is that we go beyond Sesame Street to address the problem of families, and especially children, feeling isolated. We all need recovery and recovery is a group effort that is done through connection and supportive environment.

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