I recently heard about a youngster who asked his mom, “How come I’m the only one in my class who has a family with these kinds of problems (referring to alcoholism/addiction.) I don’t like being the only one.” He was feeling like there was something wrong with his family (and maybe with himself.) In reality, his family is getting into recovery and he himself was able to go to the Betty Ford Children’s Program where he learned it’s “okay” to ask these kinds of questions. So his family is “ahead of the game” in that respect. His family does have a disease, which they share with about 20% of the population, probably more if you add in process addictions like co-dependency, gambling, sex, love and relationship, shopping, pornography, etc. But one of the reasons he felt so “different” is how families with addictions operate.
The three rules of: “Don’t talk,” “Don’t trust” and “Don’t feel” permeate every aspect of family life and communications inside and outside the home. Nobody on his Lacrosse team is going to tell him about his own mom or dad’s drinking, that would be breaking the cardinal rule of, “Don’t talk” – so he indeed feels alone, like the only one, even though he isn’t
Telling him, “You’re not alone,” right off the bat won’t be as helpful to him as first empathizing with how that feels to him, getting more information, empathizing again, and then offering more of an explanation. I think, in our own discomfort we often go immediately into “fix it “ mode, we want to take away their pain before we share their pain, stand in their pain, or acknowledge and accept their pain as real. We want it to go away because we are uncomfortable when our children are uncomfortable and if we don’t have boundaries around that pain, we will want to take it away, not just so our child feels better but so we feel better too.
It is surprising how far a statement or two, said from your heart like, “So you’re feel like you’re the only one experiencing this, huh?” or “It sounds like that’s hard for you” will go. When your child responds to that kind of empathetic statement, you can ask something that will help your child bring out more of his feelings or reality, and allow you to more fully explore and understand his perspective before you respond with information or your perspective. You can say something like, I’m not sure what feeling that brings up for you, can you tell me? And when he shares, you can follow up with something like, “I can understand you feeling that way. It makes sense. Yeah, that must be tough to feel that way.” All of those empathetic responses coupled with soliciting more information will help your child feel “heard,” less alone, and he will have “unburdened” himself from some of his own pain by sharing it with you, you hearing it, and you validating it. When a child feels heard, he or she is more likely to “hear you” when you start sharing or helping him/her deal with what is bothering him.
We don’t need to jump into “fix it” mode so quickly. All we have to do is feel comfortable with our child’s discomfort , which is real for him, and be with him in his discomfort, be empathetic, pause, and then offer perspectives which may relieve some more of his/her pain and discomfort. Sometimes it is appropriate to feel uncomfortable or in pain about something for a while. Discomfort does not kill us. When we self-medicate discomfort or pretend it is not there, then we may get out of touch with reality or even overdose on whatever we are using to numb ourselves. That’s the danger, not sitting in it for a while, but making it go away too quickly. Of course we can err in the direction of creating high drama when it isn’t necessary, but that’s a topic for another blog….
Joanne Baum, PhD., LCSW, CAC III