Even when parents and caregivers think they are hiding addiction issues, there are often effects on children.
For those kids, feelings of guilt and responsibility – ‘maybe if I behave, Dad won’t feel the need to drink’ – are common, said Dale MacIntyre, Edgewood’s supervisor of family programs.
Fear and anxiety – ‘where did Mom go and is she coming back?’ – are also common emotions he hears expressed by participants of a new recovery program the Nanaimo addiction treatment centre is offering for children of addicted parents.
Edgewood has offered programs for adults dealing with an addicted family member for years, said MacIntyre, and the facility began offering a program for children last year.
“Helping family members see that they’ve been impacted by [a loved one’s addiction] is an important part of treatment,” he said. “Children are often the ones that get missed.”
Bounce Back, based on a successful children’s program at the Betty Ford Center in California, is for children aged seven to 12.
The four-day program teaches children about addiction, that a parents’ struggles with it are not their fault and that they are not alone. Facilitators use games, role play, art, videos and group discussion and children are encouraged to share their feelings.
“It’s a mixture of learning about addiction and talking about addiction, but also about being a kid,” said MacIntyre. “The messages we’re giving them are pretty simple – this is an illness, this is not your fault, you can’t fix it and you’re not alone.”
Children attend the first two days of the program by themselves and for the final two days, they are accompanied by an adult, although not one with active addiction issues.
When children start to talk about things, MacIntyre said common reactions from adults include: “I thought I protected them from it” and “I didn’t think they noticed.”
Parents also notice that the program helps their children feel empowered to talk about how they feel, that they don’t have to keep their fears and frustrations to themselves, he said.
The more educated children are about addiction, the better chance they have of not becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs themselves, MacIntyre added, and they understand that the parent is not weak, but suffering from an illness.