Most parents—whether they’ve been impacted by addiction or not—struggle to talk to their children about sex.
The infamous “birds and bees” talk is the source of endless jokes and secret discomfort for parents who fear they haven’t done enough to educate their children about their bodies or human sexuality.
So when addicts and their partners want to have that difficult conversation with their children about the addict’s struggle with out-of-control sexual behavior, it can be daunting.
An addict’s past behaviors and addiction are his private information. However, there are a number of reasons addicts may choose to disclose their addiction to their children.
One of the most common reasons addicts disclose to children is concern—or knowing—that one or more of their children have been exposed to their secret sexual behaviors in the past through inadvertently “catching” the addict acting out, finding sexual material on a home computer, or unknowingly having contact with an affair partner while with the addict.
Other reasons addicts disclose to children include a desire to be accountable and to acknowledge the impact their addiction has had on their children, or the discovery that their adult child is now struggling with unwanted sexual behaviors.
When deciding who will disclose to children, it’s always best for an addict and his partner to talk to children together unless the couple are no longer in a relationship, or there are extenuating circumstances such as an imminent public disclosure.
Here are 8 best practices for talking to children about a parent’s addiction:
Share Age Appropriate Information
Giving children age appropriate information is crucial when disclosing addiction—especially to minor children (under the age of 18).
For example, if you’re talking to a 5-year old, you would speak in broader generalities than you would with a 14-year old. You might tell a 5-year old, “Remember when you were having trouble learning your numbers and you needed extra help? Daddy has a problem too that he’s getting help for. When he’s gone at night (or treatment) he’s going to meet with other people who have the same problem so they can work on it together and he can solve his problem.”
For children who are a little older, you could add, “Daddy make a mistake and lied.” Or, “Remember when you and Sue were having a fight at school? Mom and Dad are having some problems in their relationship kind of like that, and we’re getting help to work them out.”
The need to share age appropriate information can be made more challenging if you have several children ranging in age from 8 to 17, for example. In cases like this, I recommend you speak to all of the children at the same time with information appropriate to the youngest child, and then have additional conversations—if needed—with older children who can understand the issue at a deeper level, or need more explanation.
Keep in mind that most children—including adult children—don’t want to hear about their parent’s sex life. For this reason, it’s better to err on the side of disclosing more general information, rather than sharing things you can’t take back that create a permanent, painful memory for them.
For example, it is better to say to an older child (over the age of 12) that her parent is struggling with addiction than to specifically say sex addiction. Sex addiction is not well understood even in the general adult population. Disclosing sex addiction specifically to a minor child requires you to explain and define it, and can make the child feel unsure or “icky” (shame) as she imagines or tries to guess what it means.
Unless there’s a specific, compelling reason for you to share more details, stick to generalities. You can always have another conversation at a later time when the child is more mature and capable of taking in and processing additional information.
Seek Professional Guidance
If you want to disclose past addictive behaviors—whether to a partner or your children—I highly recommend you seek professional guidance from a therapist who has experience with disclosures involving out of control sexual behavior or sex addiction. Most addicts who attempt disclosure on their own tend to over-share, often in ways that actually traumatize—rather than help—those who receive the disclosure.
Unless you’re in a situation of forced or imminent disclosure (see below), there is no need to rush. Disclosure to children should not take place before a formal therapeutic disclosure with a partner or the completion of a significant amount of step-work in a 12-step fellowship. Take your time and get qualified professional help.
Discuss What’s Included in Advance
Addicts and partners should discuss what information will be disclosed to children prior to the actual event, and have a list of agreed on “talking points” to cover. If the addict has prepared a disclosure with the guidance of his/her therapist, the partner should have an opportunity to review and discuss any edits or changes with the addict prior to talking to their children.
Decide—in Advance—Where & When
When planning where to make a disclosure to minor children, home is typically best. There are some cases, especially with adult children, when it can be helpful to have the disclosure at a therapist’s office. Having a therapist present acting as a facilitator is recommended in cases where the addict and adult child have been estranged, or the child has strong feelings about the addict’s past acting out behaviors.
Avoid making disclosure to children on an important day such as a birthday, holiday, or other special occasion so that they don’t have to carry the burden of having a joyful occasion “paired” with receiving confusing or painful information from one of their parents. Also, allow plenty of time after the disclosure for conversation and processing, rather than rushing off to an already scheduled event.
Don’t Ask for Forgiveness
I always cringe when I hear an addict ask for forgiveness when making a disclosure to his partner, or children.
The primary purpose of disclosure is to give the other person information they need and deserve to know. Addicts should avoid including any information in a disclosure that has the effect of evoking pity, or that highlights how he was harmed or victimized in the past.
Forgiveness is an organic process that arises in its own time.
How to Handle “Forced” Disclosure
There are some times—although rare—when a disclosure of sexual acting out will be disclosed due to an arrest, legal matter, or other situation involving the media. In cases like this, it is highly recommended that you seek guidance immediately about how to disclose to children so that they get the information directly from a parent rather than from the media, peers, or law enforcement.
Invite Their Questions & Accept Their Feelings
Once you’ve shared the information, ask your children if they have any questions. Depending on their age, personality, and temperament they may have no questions—or many. If they don’t have questions and appear eager to end the conversation, tell them you’re open and available for any questions they may have in the future.
If children become visibly distraught or cry during disclosure, don’t assume what they’re thinking or feeling. Start with a general question like, “Can you talk to me about how you’re feeling?” rather than assuming what may be happening for them. Whatever their feelings, tell them they have a right to all of them, and that they’re perfectly fine.
Tell Them It’s Not Their Fault
And last but not least, any disclosure to children should include a statement to the effect of, “This is a grown-up problem/adult problem and I am 100% responsible for solving it. It’s not your fault.”
Children—by their very nature—are ego-centric and interpret the painful events in their life as their fault or as a reflection on them. When you tell them it’s not their fault and that you’re in charge of taking care of the problem, you release them from taking on undue guilt and hardship.
For more information about disclosure to children, see Disclosing Secrets: An Addict’s Guide for When, to Whom, and How Much to Reveal by M. Deborah Corley and Jennifer P Schneider.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2017)
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