Children of addicts given voice to break the generational chain of addiction

June 15, 2012

The goal of the Children's Addiction Prevention Program at Brighton Center for Recovery in Brighton, Mich., is just that — to prevent a new generation of children from succumbing to drugs and alcohol. Studies show the children of addicts are four times more likely to abuse drugs. Early education can help break that cycle.

But the four-day program gives kids something more — permission to hate addiction while offering a path to forgiveness.

"Basically what we give them is hope," said therapist Patricia Schafer, who introduced the Children's Addiction Program at Brighton. "These kids are so resilient and so responsible, but they feel a lot of guilt."

Modeled after a groundbreaking program at the Betty Ford Center, Brighton's adaptation runs monthly for four consecutive days and serves about 10 children ages 7 to 12. Brighton, a member of Ascension Health's St. John Providence Health System, offers the program free to all children whether their parent or loved one is receiving treatment at Brighton or elsewhere. Because Brighton is regarded as a top treatment center, families from across the nation have participated in the program.

"It's intensive for a purpose," said Schafer. "Because during those four continuous days, the kids start to feel real close to one another, and it becomes a safe place to talk about some real powerful things that have happened in their families."

During the first two days, Schafer works with just the children. She mixes in games and playtime with discussions about the disease, treatment and ways to stay safe around an addict. The truth is some parents will relapse, so Schafer wants the kids to know how to identify grown-ups who can help in a crisis.

"There are things kids can do when a parent is being dangerous," said Schafer. "If, for instance, your mom's been drinking and wants you to get in the car with her, it's really important to have someone to call. Or even if they are using alcohol at home, find that person and say, 'Can you pick me up?' Or even run to a neighbor's house."

Keeping secrets
One of the most popular exercises involves a bag of rocks, each marked with a different emotion such as hurt, anger, fear or sadness. Every kid in the room knows those feelings, but few arrive with the vocabulary or confidence to discuss them openly.

"They're always told not to talk about what's happening at home," said Schafer. "But we have the rule of confidentiality — that you can say anything and it's not going to be repeated. They take it seriously, and I think it's contagious. When one of them starts talking about what's going on, another wants to follow."

Eight-year-old Sam Brown picked the rock "angry" during his session in the spring of 2011. He attended with his two siblings. Sam's father started drinking shortly after Sam's birth and, two years ago, his father fell backwards into the bathtub while drunk. Blood was everywhere. Police cars and ambulances were dispatched to the home; the neighbors stood outside and watched.

"That's what I talked about," recalled Sam. "It made me angry when my dad always drank, and it was scary when he passed out in the bathroom, and I was trying to get to him, but he shut the door, and I couldn't get in and I was nervous."

Sobering truths
The parents participate in the final two days. Some participants have been sober for years; others have just started treatment. Though they are at different points of their recovery, all must be strong enough to hear some pretty ugly truths. During these sessions, children write a letter to addiction and read it in front of the group. The letters can be hard to hear, but also powerfully motivating.

"They talk about who got trapped by addiction and the one wish they have for their family," said Schafer. "I start the session by saying, 'Today we're going to get back at addiction.' It's about feeling the feelings and then letting go. It's very emotional for parent and child."

Though every family is different, their experiences are similar.

"There's always broken promises," said Schafer. "Or the danger — how they left them alone or how they were drinking and driving with them in the car. Or how older kids had to take care of their younger siblings because mom or dad couldn't do it." But most of all the kids talk about the fear — the fear of relapse, the fear the parent will die.

"What it does to the recovering parent is to create a strong desire to stay sober for their kids," said Schafer. "They don't get how much their child has been affected by this disease. We do this in front of everybody because all of the families learn from it. There's guilt and shame, but there's also almost a sense of relief that now they know where their kid is at with all of this."

'Not enough Kleenex'
For Sam's mother, Kim Brown, the session was eye opening. She realized then exactly how much her children — Sam; Hannah, now 11 and Jacob, now 12 — had witnessed. But she also learned something about their strength.

"For Hannah to say, 'Dad, I felt really scared when you weren't here for four months. I don't like it when you and mom fight,' took so much courage," recalled Brown, whose family lives in nearby Commerce Township, Mich. "There were not enough Kleenex to harness my tears. I was so proud that she was so brave to do that."

Brown had enrolled her children in a six-week program at the facility where her husband was treated. She was "moderately happy" with it, but says the Brighton program is superior on many fronts. She liked how the groups included children of different ages and how safe her children felt there.

"If anyone does it better, I would like to see it," said Brown. "Prevention and knowledge are such powerful tools. I feel like my kids have the tools to make the right choices now."

Brown's husband has been sober for a year. Sam loves playing ball with his dad, who coaches his baseball team. And Hannah loves having her dad back at home.

"When he was drinking, it was weird being around him," said Hannah. "But now I can have so much fun with him like play basketball with him and games like Uno and Apples to Apples."

The children all attend Al-Anon meetings. Brighton also offers an Alateen group and recently started a continuing care program for graduates of the children's program.

Piercing the isolation
Diana Anderson of Fenton, Mich., feels her four children are ready to handle the temptations of junior high; and, she feels better prepared to guide them since the family attended the Children's Addiction Prevention Program. She enrolled her four children in the program after her 17-year-old niece died of a heroin overdose in 2010. Anderson admits she didn't know how to talk to her kids about the cause of their cousin's death.

"I found out later that my son knew, and it made me so sad that he was alone and couldn't talk to me about why she died," said Anderson. "I wanted it not to be too heavy for him. I mean it was too much for me to bear, and I didn't want him to take all of that on. But it made me realize you can find a way to talk to them at the level where they're at."

Her son, Isaac, 14, said he's grateful for the program.

"It felt really good to share that with someone," said Isaac. "I was kind of amazed to see that people had problems just like we did."


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.