Making The Decision To Come In To Treatment Is Up There With One Of The Most Important Decisions You’ll Ever Make.
If you have children, you’re probably even more aware of the need to get support for your mental health condition or addiction. That sense of the future is right there in front of you – and you want to get it right – for you, and for your family.
We’ve asked our therapists – and also learned from our clients – the best way to approach an age appropriate conversation with your children, so that you can help them to understand where you’re going, and why. The good news is, this can actually be a positive conversation. In the short term, it can reassure them that you’re ok, they’re ok, and that your decision to seek treatment is beneficial. In the long term, you will have strengthened your relationship by giving them the gift of honesty and your integrity, letting them know that it’s important to tell the truth, even when the subject may be uncomfortable. You will be also modelling that it’s ok to reach out for help – all of which makes it easier for them to do the same in the future.
Many parents feel guilty or selfish for taking time away from their families to come in for treatment, but the biggest gift of all is getting the help you need, so that you can show up for them in the best way possible.
South Pacific Private Program Director, Alyssa Lalor says, “Parents should remind themselves that the greatest gift they can give their family is to get help and support…this is a far better option than allowing their family to bear witness to their dysfunction”.
One thing to keep in mind is, regardless of age, children have an uncanny radar for when something’s up – and they will tend to blame themselves. When children sense something is wrong with their parents, they will always think they’re at fault. Children have an extraordinary capacity to pick up when something is not being talked about, and this creates a sense of incongruence which makes them feel uncomfortable, as well as unsafe. It is therefore so important to be truthful with your children, even if your inclination is to try to conceal the reality.
Depending on what ages your children are, there are a few guidelines that can be helpful. For younger children, in the 4-5 year old category, it’s important to acknowledge the situation, but to not burden them with information that they won’t understand. Using phrases like, “Mummy’s feeling sad, and Mummy’s going to spend some time with doctors, who can help Mummy get healthy and be a better parent for you”, or, “Sometimes Daddy drinks too much, and so Daddy is going to spend some time with doctors and get help”, are honest, and give the right amount of information. It’s also important to give clear, affirming messages, such as “I really love you, and this is not your fault”; and that you’ll be coming back very soon.
Program Director Alyssa Lalor suggests, “Let them know that you’ll be back in x amount of sleeps and that x will look after you and keep you safe. You can let them know you will ring them every night before they go to sleep to say goodnight. Use language like, ‘Mummy/Daddy loves you so much’ and ‘I will get healthy and look after myself better to be a better parent for you’. “Lalor also recommends a children’s book called The Invisible String, by Patrice Karst, which specifically addresses children’s angst of being apart from a parent.If you have children around 8-10 years old, you can share a little more information about where you’re going, and help them by normalising the concept of treatment for mental health or addiction. You might like to share how you’re going to a treatment centre where they can help people like you; or how many people, from time to time, struggle with mental health issues, and that there are options for support. Always assure them that you will come back soon, and that you will stay in touch while you’re away. Again, through speaking with them in this way, you release them from the assumption that it’s their fault, as well as give them the message that it’s OK to talk about mental health and to get help. Most importantly, you create a firm foundation for open and honest conversations in the future.
With teenagers, you can be more transparent about your decision to seek treatment and your concerns. They will likely have formed their own understanding of what you’re going through, and so an honest conversation can be a great gift for you both, where you might learn more about each other in the process. Sharing through language such as, “I’m worried about my drinking, and how it’s impacting the family,” or, “I’ve been feeling really anxious – maybe you’ve noticed,” and being clear about your need to get help, models integrity to your teen. This can be especially valuable at a time when adolescents are beginning to tune into their values and looking to the role models around them. It’s a conversation which has the potential to be healing, especially if there has been distance or tension in your relationship.
When children receive accurate information that is congruent with what they sense, it’s highly reassuring for them. It also releases them from the sense that it’s their fault, or that it’s their job to fix the problem. This may be a shift in perspective for you, if you’ve been assuming that by concealing your condition, you’re protecting your children. In fact, by having an age appropriate conversation with your children, you provide them with reassurance and connection, as well as modelling that it’s OK to ask for help. And for yourself, you take an important early step in your recovery by choosing honesty and openness. Whatever ages your children are, there are many gifts in sharing with them about your condition and decision to come for treatment.