Should You Share Your Sobriety Journey With Your Kids? Why Experts Say Yes
Dax Shepard and Macklemore both recently opened up about how they discuss addiction with their families.
Though there's still an unfortunate amount of societal shame and stigma surrounding substance use and sobriety, it seems the COVID pandemic has helped people reframe their relationship with drugs and alcohol. It's a deeply personal journey that often comes with many ups and downs along the way. Still, navigating sobriety in a "wine mommy" world can be fraught. Even if you've opened up to the adults in your life, you're probably wondering if you should share your sobriety journey with your kids at all.
Thankfully, with celebrities like Dax Shepard and Macklemore opening up about their sobriety journey (and how transparent they're being with their loved ones), it makes room for the rest of us to have cultural conversations about the topic within our own circles: our friends, coworkers, family members, and — perhaps most importantly — our kids, who might not yet have an understanding about substance use and addiction.
"Working through sobriety can be a grueling endeavor, one that leaves a person feeling very alone and misunderstood," says Molly Desch, a certified sobriety coach. But talking to your kids, even (or especially!) when they're young, can help chip away at stigma and shame, notes Kelley Kitley LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist and owner of Serendipitous Psychotherapy. Desch says candid conversations can be "enlightening and freeing," adding, "A heavy burden is lifted when you are able to be transparent and honest about the decisions you have been making in your life."
Not sure how to broach these conversations at home? No sweat. Keep reading for tips from the sobriety experts on navigating the topic without overwhelming or scaring your kids, no matter where you are along the way.
Sparking the "Newly Sober" Conversation
If sobriety is new to you, you're likely going through a lot emotionally and physically. Even if you've never used substances around your children, there's a good chance they have some idea you've been struggling with something, says Desch. "They may not understand addiction, and they may not be aware their parent is suffering, but their intuition guides them and they know something isn't right."
Both experts note that you should tailor conversations to use age-appropriate language your child will understand, especially if there's a family history of addiction. "These conversations can be expanded with more facts and awareness as kids enter middle school and high school," especially given the genetic component at hand, says Kitley. Before you bring it up, notes Desch, you might want to think about each of your children and what you feel comfortable telling them — kids of any age are bound to have lots of questions, and you'll want to be prepared for them ahead of time.
The following tips can help you plan ahead:
- Desch recommends one-on-one conversations if you have multiple kids, offering a safe, open space to answer their questions and hear their thoughts. "Every child is different, and the conversation surrounding your addiction and sobriety should vary based on each child," she says.
- "Unless the child has struggled with addiction themselves, it is impossible for them to fully grasp your experience," says Desch. "Start out slowly — you don't have to tell them everything in the first conversation."
- For younger children (~13 or younger), Desch recommends language like: "Sobriety means that I am no longer going to drink alcohol. I have chosen to get sober because I want to make healthier choices for my body, and I want to be the best mommy/daddy for you." Kitley adds: "Mom/Dad is no longer going to drink anymore because I don't like the way it makes me feel."
- Another option, per Desch: "Sometimes people drink alcohol, and it makes them feel bad/sick or act strangely. I don't want that for me or for you, and being sober will make that possible. Mommy/daddy really wants to be a better person, and sobriety will help me do that. I will be more available to you when you need me, and we can do more fun things together."
- Kitley recommends comparing it to an allergy, with something like: "Mom/Dad has decided that my body doesn't process alcohol (or substance) the same way it does for other people. Therefore, I've decided to give it up so I can feel my best."
- For teens and up, Desch suggests something like: "I know you have seen me drink a lot of alcohol in the past. I've decided that I no longer want to drink alcohol, and I would like to explain why. I want to develop healthy coping methods that help me live a healthier, longer life. This is a choice I have made for myself, and while other people in our family or my friends may continue to drink, I am not going to criticize them. Everyone makes different choices in their lives, and it's important that we honor those decisions and not judge them."
Addiction in the Rearview
If you've been sober for years, do you still need to discuss it with your kids? Both experts agree that it's equally important, with Kitley noting that they will feel more comfortable coming to you should they find themselves struggling with substance use at any point in time.
"You don't need to go into detail about how it controlled your life and all of the mistakes you made, but you should talk about why you decided to no longer drink/use and how you no longer want to harm your body and mind," adds Desch. "Especially for kids that are entering middle or high school, this conversation could be an excellent tool to not only deepen the trust and respect your child has for you, but it shows them that anyone can be susceptible to addiction."
Kitley adds the importance of letting teens and adult children know they can always come to you, whether they have questions about a substance or need a ride home from a party.
The Ugly Truth
Desch says that younger kids, in particular, might ask pointed questions about your experiences or point-blank if drugs/alcohol are dangerous. Kitley notes that keeping boundaries in place is important, even though you should have open and honest dialogue. "Keep in mind that experimentation is age appropriate as a teenager — don't project your own addiction fears or experiences on your kids," she says.
"It doesn't matter if you are newly sober or if you have been sober for years; relapse is always a possibility," adds Desch. "It's helpful to let them know ahead of time that this is a possibility, but it doesn't mean that you aren't trying or that you aren't prioritizing your sobriety. Opening up the conversation about relapse shows your children that even after you decide to make a positive choice for yourself, you can still fall backward."
This is where you can and should frame addiction for what it is — a disease — and not a moral or personal failing that you need to hide from them, says Kitley. "We need to look at addiction as a medical condition. If someone has cancer and it comes back, they get the appropriate treatment. This is true for substances, too."
Mutually Beneficial Teachable Moments
Ultimately, there are tons of benefits to having these tough conversations and inviting your children to be an active part of your recovery, says Desch. "If you are learning healthy coping strategies, offer to teach them as well. If you catch yourself feeling overly emotional or stressed out and craving a drink, you can mention that in the moment to your kid and tell them you are going to meditate/go for a run/practice deep breathing for a while to recenter yourself. You can even invite them to participate with you. When your child experiences their own emotions, use it as an opportunity to show them how they too can work through unwanted emotions in a healthy way."
Celebrating sober milestones with your kids (say, by baking a cake or having a small family party) is a great way to acknowledge your progress with them, suggests Desch. Sharing your honesty and vulnerability allows them to get to know you better as a person and a parent, eliminating judgment or embarrassment. "No matter how old they are, remember it is never their responsibility — this is your responsibility," she says. "But having more fans in your corner will help you be more successful."