How do I explain to the Kids about my Spouse Getting Help for Addiction?

One of the most difficult aspects of drinking issues or a drug problem is how to explain to your children why your spouse left for a period of time to go get help for a substance use problem. While it may seem stressful to discuss this with your children, being honest while also limiting some information and details is usually the best course, but that comes with some caveats.

Unfortunately it has become clear that addiction treatment is ineffective and counterproductive. While you won’t hear that in treatment and recovery circles, it’s very clear based on the fact that people who receive treatment have worse outcomes than those who change on their own. Consequently, if your spouse is going into a treatment or rehab, you are setting you and your children up for heartbreak. In treatment your spouse will be told he/she has a progressive, incurable disease called addiction, which means he/she is forever powerless over drugs and alcohol. If your spouse takes on this belief, be prepared for a return to heavy usage, occasional binge usage and additional emotional struggles as rates of these problems go up after treatment.

Addiction treatment is based on trying to scare someone into abstinence. Fear is a temporary motivator, and will eventually (and usually quickly) give way to what a person actually prefers. If your spouse returns from rehab swearing off booze because he/she “can’t drink anymore”, then it’s best to be prepared for when in a few days or weeks they go on a binge or return to heavy use. Saying you can’t drink or drug is a far cry from saying you want to make a change. Rehabs force the narrative that substance users cross a line where they become powerless over alcohol and drugs, and therefore cannot take even one sip or one hit of a drug without disaster. This approach is an attempt to scare people into choosing complete abstinence. This forced approach lowers the percentages of success over the long term because it never addresses the substance user’s personal reasons for their usage, and if they actually want to change it. In other words, rehabs and treatment cause continued struggle. If you want to be honest with your children, and it’s important to set realistic expectations for your spouse’s return home in this unfortunate scenario. This then brings to light my suggested caveats – if your spouse is going to rehab or treatment, set realistic expectations, as success rates for this kind of “treatment” are actually lower than if your spouse did nothing at all and simply tried to make a change on their own.

Here is the second caveat. If your children are very young and unaware of the substance use issue, then there is no need to try to explain. Instead say something that is easier for them to understand, such as, “Mom is going on a business trip.” “Dad needs to go on a training session for a few weeks for work.” “Mom is going to get some help for some health issues she is having.” There is no reason to explain an adult, personal, temporary problem to young children that will not fully understand or remember it down the road.

A Different Approach

The Freedom Model System does not attempt to scare your spouse into abstinence, nor does it force your spouse to admit or believe that he/she is powerless and alcohol and drugs have the power to enslave them. Rather, it provides the facts that people can and do change their substance use habits when they change their preferences. Because the Freedom Model approach is not disease based, the substance user does not get trapped in a cycle of active heavy use, treatment, then being “in recovery”, and then cycling back into treatment after “relapsing” to heavy use. Instead, they learn the truth – that addiction is not a disease – and that they can make a permanent change in their substance use habits if that is what they want to do.

It all comes down to choice. Unlike addiction, a true disease contains a pathogen that has a will of its own: cancer cells grow into tumors whether we like it or not; viruses attempt to change the DNA of the host, slowly killing that host, bacteria lives to feed off of the tissue of others, etc. You cannot choose away a disease, the onset is beyond your control – it just happens to you. But this aspect of disease is completely missing in substance use. There is no pathogen, no living entity present. Therefore there is no disease present. Booze and drugs are not alive and do not have a will of their own as true diseases do. The solution in The Freedom Model provides crucial information and a method to choose what path is personally best for you, and since there is no disease present, changing a habit can happen quickly when given the right information.

You might be asking why I’ve gone into the weeds about the disease/non-disease debate here. It’s necessary to make the distinction between treatment programs that offer no real solution because they are fighting a fictitious disease, with a model that allows the user to move past the problem with the truth that they can choose differently. This is a massive difference, and affects how you will address the issue with your children. In the case of a spouse who will attend a Freedom Model Retreat, you can provide your older children with an actual copy of the same curriculum that your spouse is learning from – The Freedom Model for Addictions, Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap. No other addiction-help model offers such transparency and knowledge to the family. Also, The Freedom Model for the Family was written specifically for you and the children. It addresses the family dynamic directly, and what to expect when your spouse returns home.

There is no reason to be in the dark about how people get lost in their habits, and the fact that they can move past these habits if they choose to do so. There is no shaming or labeling necessary in The Freedom Model System at our retreats. Because the approach is so positive and open, it makes explaining your spouse’s issues easier. It makes the entire conversation less stressful, and with the books as your guide, you will have all the answers to your questions and your child’s questions at your fingertips.