Even if you have been away from your children because of reasons related to your addiction, your kids are probably not far from your mind. In early recovery, it is important to focus on yourself long enough to build a solid foundation for change (however long that takes will vary from person to person). Once a stable foundation is established, it is time to think about your relationships, especially those with your children.
Most parents strive to be the best parents they can be. Given the hectic nature of our lives, this is not always an easy feat to accomplish. When we are under stress, our children may also exhibit signs of stress by becoming irritable, moody, clingy, or withdrawn. They may also show changes in their eating or sleeping behaviors (such as more frequent nightmares or night waking), or they may develop somatic complaints (such as stomachaches or headaches).
Fortunately, children can overcome past difficult experiences, and anyone can learn to be a better parent. The following parenting guidelines and techniques are ones to think about, or to discuss with your treatment professionals.
- If your children are fighting over a toy and you have to step in, the toy should become yours for the day. This generally stops them from yelling for a parent to intervene in the future.
- Give children two options – no more, no less. They like having a sense of choice and control, yet too many options can be confusing and overwhelming.
- Use “I” statements (take ownership for your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors).
- Empathize with your children.
- Set clear limits – your children will thrive on having structure and rules. Follow through with warnings so that they do not just become idle threats.
- Be a good role model for your child by leading a healthy lifestyle yourself (nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress management).
- Become your children’s biggest booster and supporter.
- Create family rituals (such as family meals) and make family time a priority.
- Praise your children when they are behaving appropriately.
- If your children do something well, reward their process and effort rather than the outcome.
- When there is a problematic behavior, figure out how to reward a new behavior to replace the problematic behavior, rather than punish it. Gradually the new behavior will become self-rewarding, but punishment only works as long as you administer it.
- Encourage your children to do their best – not to be perfect (it does not exist!).
- Stop lecturing and listen carefully to your children.
- Eliminate (or least reduce) yelling.
- Be a model of patience.
- Teach your children good manners (“please” and “thank you”) and use them yourself.
- Apologize to your children when you have made a mistake – it teaches compassion and forgiveness.
- Avoid using labels with your children because such descriptions can become self-fulfilling prophecies for them.
- Talk, play, and interact with your children every day.
- Do not compare your children to each other. It does not accomplish anything and it can lead to one child feeling like the “lesser” one in the family.
- Provide affection and attention at times not related to good performance.
- Offer both verbal and nonverbal (hugs) support.
- Encourage your children to be curious about things and to follow their passions.
- Pick your battles – don’t make every small matter into an issue.
- Learn when to let go and allow your children to try things on their own.
- Trust your gut.
- Tell your children every day that you love them.
- Most importantly, give yourself a break! With practice you’ll get better at being a parent.
Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., is a health and clinical psychologist with Practical Recovery where she works with individuals with addictions and eating disorders.