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Geoff Steurer, MS, LMFT
Friday, March 14 2014

Your Hardest Family Question: My husband has an addiction. What do I tell my kids?

By Geoff Steurer, MS, LMFT Notify me when this author publishesComment on Article
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Question:

I just discovered that my husband has a pornography addiction and I’m wondering about how I should handle this with my children. Should I tell them about what their father does? If so, what do I tell them and when? Will they need special counseling? Should a counselor be involved when I tell them?  What if they are devastated? What if they don't want to talk about it?  Will they become so curious about pornography that they will be more apt to participate in it? What special needs will they have? What signs do I look for? Are they in danger from their father? As you can tell, I have no idea how to proceed.

Answer:

The impact of addiction on a family, regardless of the type of addiction, is something that’s difficult to keep secret. Granted, the details surrounding the nature of the addiction may never surface, but the collateral damage of strained relationships, lack of connection, and other consequences are difficult to hide from children living in the home. They know something is different, even though they might not know why.

I’d like to outline several considerations you should discuss with your husband before you proceed forward. However, remember that you’re the expert on your child’s temperament, personality, and current level of stability. Whatever decisions you make in this regard, always put the needs of the children before the needs of the adults. They are counting on you to protect them.

The ages of your children will determine how much you share, if you share anything at all. Children younger than 12 years of age have difficulty with abstract concepts like addiction, so it’s best to focus on the things they are directly experiencing. For example, you might talk with them about how much arguing there has been in the home lately and help them understand it has nothing to do with their behavior. Older children may benefit from more of a general discussion on addiction, if it’s something they’re mature enough to handle. However, your children may already know something serious is happening. In one study, 67% of children already knew about their parent’s addiction before disclosure.

If your children already know something about the addiction, then find out from them what they already know. Don’t lie to them or minimize the seriousness of what they’ve already discovered. Make sure you don’t punish them for sharing what they know. Regardless of how they found out, recognize that children will often do whatever they need to do so they can feel safe and secure in their home. While the details of the addiction are not necessary to share, it is critical for them to know they’re not crazy or making things up in their heads.

It’s also important to recognize that what you tell one child may be shared with a younger sibling who isn’t developmentally prepared to handle the information. Make sure you carefully consider how much you share with older children so you don’t put them in a situation where they become so overwhelmed by the information that it spills over to younger siblings.

The discovery of an addiction often brings on so much intense emotion that the shocked partner can inadvertently share information with their children that puts them in a dilemma. If this happens, don’t ignore what was said, but instead, approach the child and own the mistake. Do your best to explain in age-appropriate language the nature of what’s happening.

If your children don’t know anything about the addiction, then you might consider what Stefanie Carnes, author of “Mending a Shattered Heart”, calls a “softened disclosure”, which is the process of staggering the disclosure over time, respecting the developmental growth of the child. The parent can acknowledge the changes in the emotional climate of the family and then share whatever will be most helpful to the child at that time. As the child grows up and either has more questions, or would benefit from more information, the parent can include more details.

Children are sensitive and pick up on emotions, body language, and discussions. Because children are egocentric, they will naturally believe that anything that feels tense in the family is because of them, or involves them. They need to know it’s not because of them.

It’s best if your husband takes accountability for causing the tension in the home by saying something like, “dad did some things that have hurt mom’s feelings and he’s working to make things better.” Again, older kids might benefit from more details and accountability, but that entirely depends on the factors I outlined earlier. If you’ve overreacted and overwhelmed your children, then make sure to take accountability for your actions, even though you might want to blame your husband’s behavior for your reaction. Your kids only need to know they’ll be safe with you, so keep it simple and straightforward as you repair your relationships with them.

If you and your husband are having difficulty knowing how to talk with your children about this, then I recommend you work with a counselor so you can both take a unified approach. If your husband ultimately doesn’t want to say anything or take any accountability for the impact he’s having on your family, then it will be up to you to decide what to share and how to share it based on the recommendations I’ve outlined.

Even though your husband has kept secrets from you about his pornography use, it doesn’t automatically mean that he’s a danger to your children. In fact, one of the biggest dangers to children when a parent has an addiction is the lack of attention, the constant tension, and other dynamics that disrupts the stability of their relationships and environment. Recognize that your couples recovery process should include a full disclosure of all of his acting out behaviors and a thorough assessment by a competent therapist trained in working with sexual addictions to make sure there are no concerns about his level of safety in the home.

As you can see, the decision to disclose to children isn’t a simple one and can be an agonizing part of an already difficult situation.


2 Comments

  1. You gave excellent answers, the short and sweet version, you are only as sick as your secrets; get counsel regarding age appropriate disclosure, but do tell them that what is going on is not their fault.
  2. Thank you for this article. While my husband does not suffer from pornography addiction, he is now a recovering addict. My children were young 6,7,10 when his addictions came to light. At the time, I was not sure how to handle this with my children BUT with counsel from my HF I did exactly as explained above. Not having known anyone in my same situation, I had no one to turn to but my HF. How thankful I am today that we have a connection with a Father who can see all and will directs our paths. We attended and still attend support groups (7 years later) my children are supportive and understanding to many from all walks of life, they "get" it. They understand on levels that I am still trying to understand. I know this comes from honesty, openness and discussion on their level as they were prepared. Doing the 'hard thing' when directed by the spirit has made life so much easier and enjoyable. While this article is too late for me, it affirms that it is spot on because I see the fruits of this counsel. Thank you for a well written and thought out article. I hope it will get in the hands of those who need it!

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