How Can I Explain Going to Rehab to My Child?

Tips on how to start a conversation with your child about going to rehab.

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ARTICLE OVERVIEW: Addiction can ruin your life. It can leave scars on all those around you. How can you explain to your child that you are going into treatment? Read this article for ideas.



Addiction is Medical

Children who live with addicted parents have long lasting scars. In fact, children of alcoholics and addiction can have a higher risk for developing substance dependence later in life. Indeed, children who live with addicted parents often experience a variety of negative emotions such as:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Rejection
  • Resentment
  • Sadness
  • self-doubt
  • Shame
  • Worry

Are these feelings familiar to you? Often, parents go through these feelings together with their children. Addiction makes people act like they are out of control. But you can end the cycle.

As a parent you probably don’t want your child to make the same mistakes you did, right? But you may not know how to proceed or what you should say. First, you do not need to feel ashamed about your decision to enter treatment.

Addiction is a medical condition. It is treated medically.

You’ll learn more about how the brain works and respond to drugs-of-choice in treatment…but it’s enough to know RIGHT NOW that you need help.

Most people cannot quit drinking or using drugs on their own. Psychoactive substances change the brain. You need a “time out” to get back into balance. Deciding to enter rehab can clearly benefit you and your family.

Talking About Addiction

Parents are children’s role models. Usually, the way your child learns from you is by copying your behavior. If you are drinking or using around your kids…you are communicating a specific message. This message might be any one of the following:
  • I am in pain.
  • I am overwhelmed with life.
  • I don’t know what to do.
  • I don’t like myself.
  • I need to tune out of reality.
Talking about addiction is much, much better than continuing to live with these unsaid messages. You do not need to continue living in pain. If you’ve made a decision to ask for professional help, you’ve made the right choice! This decision can be the pivotal point in your life.

Do not forget that it is never too late to change! After all, you deserve to be a healthy, responsible and capable person…and parent. Not just for your own sake, for your child, too. Here are some ways that you can get the conversation started.

Tips To Help Explain Addiction

So, how do you talk to kids about addiction and treatment? Well, you need to proceed carefully. Children can internalize their feelings and shut themselves inward. Or, they can deny how they feel about certain situations. Doreen Maller, MFT, PhD uses specific language with children to describe their parent’s hospitalization:

When the child is concerned and asks “Will Mommy come home soon?” A response might be: “We sure hope so, getting better is difficult and takes a lot of work, for now, we want to be sure you are OK and doing all the things a kid needs to be doing, and that Mommy is safe and doing what she needs to do and can come home when she is ready…”

Another alternative when you want to create a safe place for the child to talk about and process her or his feelings, is to use language such as: “We need to go be with Grandma to be safe until Mommy feels better”. This can be a good place to start. Here are some other tips that can guide you through the conversation with your child about leaving your home to spend some time in rehab:

TIP #1: The conversation needs to suit the age and understanding of your child.

Consider that kids under the age of 5 don’t understand the meaning of the term “addiction”. If your child is less than 5 years old, try associating your addiction problem to the word “illness”, or “sick”. Suggested alternatives about announcing your absence to your young child can be: “Mommy/Daddy is not feeling well and need to visit the doctor in order to get better. It might take several weeks, will you be here and wait for mommy/daddy to return much better.”

For older children who have witnessed your worse moments, you might want to be frank or candid. You can recall incidents…and talk of your resolve to address the problem. Or, you might want to ask for back up. In these cases, it can be very helpful to ask a psychotherapist or family counselor to strategize the message with you.  Whenever you feel as if you are stuck during the conversation, or running out of ideas how to approach your child, you can always consult professionals such as:

  • A licensed psychologist or psychiatrist
  • A family counselor
  • A mental health professional

TIP #2: Remove guilt and blame from the table.

Children sometimes think they are responsible about what’s going on in their household. They feel especially connected with their parents. Before you talk about rehab, try to explain to your child that your addiction problem has nothing to do with their behavior. Take full responsibility for your addiction and express readiness and determination that you want to get well again.

TIP #3: Ask for their support.

As you plan to leave for treatment, reinforce that you will never forget or stop loving them. You can also say: “Your support and love means much to mommy/daddy and will be my greatest strength while I’m away.” You can also hug and kiss them so that you break the distance and discomfort in the conversation.


TIP #4: Listen to what your child has to say.

Some children want to get more informed about their parents visit to rehab. You can show images of the rehab center and inform your child more about the drug problem to your curious child. In cases opposite as this one, where a child refuses to know about your addiction or residential stay DO NOT PUSH OR FORCE them. Some children react very emotionally to their parents well being and health, so they feel protective and isolate. This is called a defense mechanism and can be the result to any exposure to stressors. Hear out your child first, s/he can lead you through the conversation.

TIP #5 Announce the news without drama.

Some children might feel abandoned by the idea of their parents leaving them for any reason at all. Therefore, you must talk to your child without drama or excessive emotions. Do not lose yourself emotionally when explaining that you’ll be out of home for a time. Instead, emphasize the importance and benefits of treatment. This way, your child can understand that you are leaving to get well and return as a better parent.

TIP #6: Agree on a support system while you away.

You’ll need to decide who will take full responsibility to care for your child while your are not at home. You should discuss options with your child and together find the most suitable person to take over ongoing responsibilities regarding your child. Take into consideration that this person should be well accepted by your child AND someone that you trust. Your kid should feel comfortable and protected around this person.

Communicating With Your Child During Treatment

After you have told your child the big news about leaving for rehab, you’ll need to make arrangements and discuss how communication will flow while you are away. It is very likely that during early treatment you won’t be able to talk to anyone. Most reputable rehabs have a window of time during which you have limited connection to the outside world. And if you need to g through detox, it might not be a good idea to get on the phone with your kids.

After the first week or so of rehab, you can usually arrange for visits to be built into your treatment plan. You’ll need to do this with your addiction counselor. Together, you’ll outline the frequency and length of visits with your child during treatment.

If you are close with your child and s/he is old enough, you might want to talk about your changes during treatment. Children appreciate when a parent is open and honest. Sharing your recovery experience with a grown child can mean that you are trusting them and considering them old enough to discuss some serious issues such as addiction.

In case you have a child that refuses to visit or talk to you while in rehab respect his/her decision. This does not make them less interested or concerned, simply more vulnerable to rehab environment and to seeing you unwell.


Focus On Yourself And Your Recovery

It is normal to care about your child while you are not around him/her. Still, the more you focus on treatment, the sooner you’ll have the chance to spend time with your kid again. Use the love for your child as motivation. Your connection to your kids can be the strength you need to go through all the stages of treatment and recover.

Every step you take towards treating addiction brings you closer to the chance of rebuilding a new stronger relationship with your child. You deserve to live a happy life. Your child deserves a healthy parent. Therefore, focus on your recovery and do your best to get better.


Your  Questions

What do you think? Are you worried or concerned about the process? If you have any additional questions, feel free to post them in the designated section below. We try to provide a personal and prompt response to all legitimate inquiries. In case we don’t know the answer to your question, we will gladly refer you to professionals who can help.

About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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