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Should we tell the kids?

by Ned Wicker
(Wisconsin)

Things were not good around the house. Cheri was trying to hold things together; the usual balance between work and taking care of the children, but husband Tom’s drinking was getting increasingly more of a problem, to the point where his drinking was the center piece of each day.

She tried to act “normal,” but she knew, as did everybody else who knew the family, that Tom was in serious trouble and with each passing day the situation got worse. Not long ago a friend asked her, “What do your kids think?”

She hadn’t really thought that question all the way through. As a mom, she was concerned for the well-being of her children and naturally she would make every effort to protect them, but what she hadn’t thought about was whether or not to sit the kids down and have a discussion with them about their father.

Tom was a functional alcoholic

He had a good job and he never missed work, but his daily schedule always included a stop at his favorite tavern for a couple of cold ones with his buddies at work. A couple of cold ones were hardly a couple, but rather it was a succession of tappers and shots, and most nights he would not come home until the kids had gone to bed.

Cheri would tell the kids that their father had to work overtime, but it was always something. Tom never saw the dance recitals, the soccer games, nor did he participate in parent-teacher conferences. Other than bringing home a paycheck, he was missing in action as a dad.

It was a lonely existence for Cheri, but she always held on to hope that maybe Tom would stop drinking. Tom was a nice guy, but as his alcoholism progressed the nice guy slowly faded away. He wasn’t able to maintain his schedule and began to miss work and it wasn’t long before his supervisor was voicing his concern over Tom’s work performance.

Rather than stop drinking or get into treatment, which the company offered to help with, Tom decided to take out his frustrations on Cheri.

The absentee husband became the abusive husband. It wasn’t so much physical abuse as it was a kind of mental and emotional pounding that Cheri would have to endure every day.

He was ALWAYS annoyed

The kids annoyed him, Cheri annoyed him and he rationalized that the world was fighting him at every turn. It was Cheri’s fault for not holding up her end of the marriage, or not doing a good job with the kids, or nagging at him about his drinking.

The kids were 11, 9 and 6. Should she say anything? She decided to talk to the children and try to give them an explanation for what was going on in the house. The age of the children in the home was the key to determining whether or not to share the full measure of the husband’s addiction.

Small children are not going to understand the physical, emotional and spiritual components of addiction, and even teenagers aren’t necessarily going to respond appropriately to any negative news about one of their parents. It’s a tough call. Addiction is a disease, so children can understand that people get sick.

They get a cold or the flu, or maybe they had some other illness and they needed a doctor to treat them. Cheri did the best she could.

The 11 year-old was acutely aware that something was wrong with her father, who paid little or no attention to her. She felt it was something she had done or said, and it seemed as though no amount of love and encouragement from her mother could stem the tide of negativity that had fallen on her relationship with dad.

She also saw the ugly underside of the addiction, the arguments and the emotional separation. The nine year-old son like to play ball and go fishing, but it was always with someone else’s dad, but that was just the way life was and he didn’t think too much of it.

He was told that his dad had to work and take care of the family, so he had no real understanding of what was really happening. The six year-old just knew that her daddy was not feeling good.

Cheri tried to explain to each of them individually. She fumbled through, but she knew that without treatment, the situation was going to get worse. The emotional roller-coaster she was experiencing was beginning to get overwhelming.

- She was angry that her 11 year-old was internalizing her father’s problem.

- She was angry that the nine year-old had no emotional connection. She knew that someday the six year-old was going to suffer as well. Like many other moms and dads, Cheri turned to Al-Anon for support and help in getting Tom, into treatment.


His employer provided help and encouragement as well, but gave Tom an ultimatum—either move to get himself straightened out or risk losing his job. Cheri, herself, drew the line in the sand. Tom would either get treatment, or she and the kids would leave. He chose treatment.

She did tell the kids

Cheri had many conversations with the kids, talking about how drugs and alcohol “make you sick,” and how to develop good habits. She encouraged her church youth pastor to include prevention measures in his ministry to kids.

She met with school officials and her husband’s company representatives to institute prevention programs to help employees avoid the pitfalls of alcoholism and drug addiction.

But it all came about by her honestly trying to explain the situation to the kids.

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