What to say when a child cannot live with their parent
Young children will not understand a parent’s addiction disorder and may not understand why they cannot live with them. Often, if they are fortunate, they will live with loving family members who are emotionally supportive of their parent/s or at least not negative about them. However, children will have questions about their parents, and caregivers will face dilemmas on what and what not to say and how to answer the children. Even if a child does not ask questions, that does not mean they do not experience confusing feelings of loss. Learning to communicate at the child’s level about why their life may be different than their peers is important for all caregivers.
In discussions with grandparents who are raising their grandchildren due to their own child’s addiction disorder, they often ask each other, “What do you say when the child asks, ‘Why don’t I live with Mommy?’ Or ‘Where is my Daddy?’” It is often recommended not to say, “Mommy or Daddy is sick and they will be back when they get better.” Mommy or Daddy may not look sick to the child at all. To the child this is very confusing. Grandparents have been told by child therapists to not lie to the child. Tell them the truth in age appropriate ways.
However, it is not appropriate to describe all of the gory details. For a small child a simple statement of, “Mommy can’t take care of you right now, so I am”, will be sufficient. Older children may already understand what is going on but will still need to talk about their feelings and the repercussions of drug abuse.
One grandmother recommends to always start a conversation with, “Your mommy or daddy really love you but…” This works really well if the parent has shown loving, not abusive behavior towards the child. One little boy who had been severely traumatized by his father’s drug abuse and violence, asked his grandmother, “Why doesn’t my daddy love me?” The grandmother’s heart was torn. What should she say? If she assured the child that his daddy did love him that would be teaching him that abusive and violent behavior was love. No, that wouldn’t do. So the grandmother explained, “Right now, your daddy doesn’t love anyone. He can’t even love himself, and he certainly doesn’t like me.” The grandmother reassured the child that none of his daddy’s problems were his fault and that he was a very lovable little boy.
In one case, a young girl asked her grandmother, “Why did you take us from Mommy?” Taken aback a bit, the grandmother thoughtfully replied, “I didn’t take you from your mommy. Your mommy called me when she realized she couldn’t take good care of you. She loved you so much that she asked me to take good care of you. So I am.” The child merely murmured, “Oh” and went on her way.
What to do when a parent does not show up for a planned visit
Most caregivers choose to not let the child see their parent when the parent is an active drug user and their behavior is erratic and even dangerous. The first priority is keeping the child safe and allowing the child to live in an emotionally and physically safe environment. When a parent who suffers from a drug abuse disorder is clean, yet has not proven himself, supervised visits are often recommended. Eventually, when a parent has truly moved into living a healthy lifestyle, a relationship with their child can often be restored.
The longer an addiction is allowed to go untreated, the less chance there is to repair a damaged relationship between the child and parent. But that does not mean it is not possible. Even as adults children can reunite with their parent, but it does not truly make up for the childhood years lost.
One of the biggest harms done to a child who has been affected by the drug abuse of a parent is learning to not trust their parent. When a parent tells their child, “I will see you on your birthday,” and the child’s birthday party comes and goes and not a word from the parent, this can be devastating for the child. Caregivers have often learned to not even tell the child when the parent is coming for a visit, because too often the visits simply don’t happen. It is hard for a child to not take a “no show” personally. It is hard for an adult to not take it personally.
What not to say to a child about their parent
It is tempting for caregivers to make up excuses for the parent, mostly because they want the child to have some type of answer, such as, “Daddy probably had something come up at the last minute. I’m sure he is sorry he missed his visit.” The ugly truth with details is not necessary either. Sometimes the simplest, kindest, honest answer is, “I don’t know. Let’s go do something else that is fun.”
Obviously, drug addiction disorders not only affect the person with the addiction; the innocent children suffer as well. Children living in poverty, violence, and influenced by drug addicted parents or caregivers are at high risk for following the same lifestyle. Children who live in loving homes, protected from violence and drug abuse, and are taught true compassion can grow up with a chance to avoid the mistakes their parents might have made.
The worst thing a caregiver can do when a child’s parent is unable to parent them due to drug use (or any other reasons for that matter) is to criticize and complain about the parent and act like they are mere losers. No matter how much a relative caregiver may love a child and try to make up for the loss of the parent, the child will always feel a connection, in some way, to the actual parent. When that parent is demeaned, the child will feel there is a part of himself that is also unworthy. Keeping conversations as positive as possible while focusing on how none of this is the child’s fault is important.
It is also important to teach the child compassion. What this means will change depending on the age of the child. For small children, it may be simply coloring a picture for their parent on their birthday or other special day. For an older child, it may mean simply to not “hate” them for not being there for them. As children grow, they can understand that their parent has made some very bad decisions and is now paying the price for those decisions or is in the process of still trying to learn to make better decisions. Older children can be taught the long lasting effects of drug abuse on the brain of the user. Children will be hurt by their parents’ poor decisions that have had an enormous impact on their fragile lives. While caregivers focus on helping the children heal, teaching compassion without making excuses can become part of the healing process for the entire family.
Relatives raising children whose parents suffer from drug addiction disorders offer several suggestions in helping children deal with the trauma that results.
- Always be honest and provide age appropriate explanations for a parent’s behavior and absence.
- Respond to children in the most positive way possible in regards to their parent, as they will feel a connection to their parent.
- A relative often does not tell a child when a parent plans a visit, because a parent suffering from an addiction disorder may not be reliable and simply may not show up.
- Do not make excuses for the addicted parent. Sometimes the most honest and simplest answer may simply be, “I don’t know.”
- Children who live in a loving, safe environment where they can build a strong self-esteem and are taught compassion have a better chance to live a healthy lifestyle in spite of the trials of their parents.
Karen Best Wright
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- Why Can’t I Live with Mommy? - November 12, 2016