How To Help Your Children Heal From the Trauma of Addiction

How To Help Your Children Heal From the Trauma of Addiction

Children and addiction. A very scary combo. And something my three kids have personally experienced. No matter what age your children are, young or old, my interview with Dr. Gowda could help bring you some hope that it’s never too late to help our children heal from the trauma of addiction.

We don’t have to give up. Our children are not “doomed” because the ones we love are not getting sober. Since we are our children’s biggest advocates, it’s our responsibility to learn how to help them through the roller coaster ride of loving someone who suffers from substance abuse disorder.

This is a message every mom needs to hear. And as a little free “gift” to you, Dr. Gowda has put together 5 Helpful Tips for Engaging With Your Children. Enter your email below to receive your tips.

Enjoy sisters. It takes a village and we’ve got you.

Michelle: Dr. Gowda, thank you so much for agreeing to speak with the women in our community. I know there are thousands and thousands of women who love somebody that are suffering with addiction that have children. Whether they’re small children, adult children or teenagers, they’re really looking for answers and clarity on how they can be better mothers to their children who are clearly suffering from trauma.

Can we start at the beginning and explain to us what trauma specifically is and how it affect our children?

Dr. Gowda: I want to start by thanking you for having me here. I think this is a really important conversation for us to tackle. Starting from the beginning, we consider trauma to be any type of stressor or event that might cause significant distress in an individual.  Thinking specifically for our children, these can be both indirect events or direct events. So, classically, we think of traumatic events as being child maltreatment, whether that’s physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. We also had a significant amount of research developed to suggest that more indirect forms of stressors within the parenting dyad or parenting relationship can also cause these significant stressors in our children.

These things include marital conflict, parental substance use, parental incarceration, and even parental mental illness. And the reason trauma has become such an important topic for us to discuss is because of a Landmark study that took place in the 1990s. This was conducted by Kaiser Permanente, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They found that social factors can actually proceed the development of disease and disability in adulthood. What they found was called the adverse child experiences study.If you grew up in a household that had significant stressors, which include things such as the history of substance use and parental substance use, your likelihood of growing up to experience health outcomes is significantly increased. These health outcomes could be anything from STDs to obesity to heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, liver disease.

We found a direct link between these adverse childhood experiences and these later adult outcomes.

Michelle:  Wow, that’s huge. I never would’ve thought some of those would be listed. I have three kids who grew up in a house with addiction. And it was always in the back of my mind going, “How is this going to affect them long-term?” and “What can I do to help them?” I wasn’t necessarily ready to leave right away. What do you say to all of the mothers out there that might not have the resources yet or might not have made the decision yet to leave? What would you say to them if they were sitting in a room with you and were probably worried about their children? Or, if they were wondering, ” What do I need to be looking out for as signs to show that my child is experiencing trauma and needs help?”

Dr. Gowda:  I think first and foremost, one of the most important things to recognize and understand is not all children who come from a household with parental substance use, experience trauma or neglect. There is a percentage that doesn’t. What you want to be doing as a parent in that household is doing your own appraisal or assessment of distress. If you’re experiencing significant stressors day-to-day, you need to understand that’s probably multiplied in the experience of your children. Children are really looking to us as advocates because they’re still learning about how to frame the world and how to understand the world, so they look to us to provide that structure and that safety.

They understand a lot more than we often give children credit. They’re huge sponges that just absorb every interaction that they’re experiencing and witnessing.What you’re modeling for them becomes paramount in kind of how they’ll learn to interact with and build on their own relationships later in life. Each individual situation is going to be different based off of the current available resources and available stressors. It’s really hard to say when or if is a good time to leave.

If you don’t feel safe in a certain environment or feel threatened or frustrated, try and think about what those feelings might feel like for your child in that environment.

Michelle:  That’s huge. You mentioned safety, which I love that word. It’s a big word in our community because a lot of us feel unsafe because our lives are so unpredictable when you’re dealing with addiction. How do we help our children feel safe in our environment?

Dr. Gowda: That’s a great question. I think a lot of times when you work with individuals who’ve come from households where a parent abuses substances, they often talk about the stigma that they experienced growing up. It’s a stigma that kind of contributes to silencing children. We unfortunately don’t recognize addiction to actually be a disease that somebody struggles with, in the same way we would as a medical condition. If a parent had cancer or heart disease, we would talk about it. We would provide support at school, and we would provide support in our community. You’d have somebody coming over and making you casseroles, just so you could get through your day-to-day. But we don’t do that when it comes to mental illness and illnesses like addiction, depression or anxiety, which could often be a product of addiction.

If we perceive that the problem is a problem of choice, we don’t offer those same supports. What we end up doing for our children, is we don’t provide them with an environment to really discuss what they’re experiencing and going through. There’s actually a wonderful paper about this  called, Living with an Elephant: Growing-up with Parental Substance Misuse.

Michelle:  I know that paper. I just read it two weeks ago.

Dr. Gowda:  It’s a great paper.

Michelle:  It’s brilliant.

Dr. Gowda:  And the metaphor that they use is, “Acknowledging that addiction is kind of the elephant in the room.” It becomes really distorting for children if they see the elephant. Typically, a child is going to point out the elephant in the room. They’re going to want to talk about it. But if the adults around them are brushing it under the rug and not giving it a space to be discussed, the child starts to internalize these things. They feel that they’re actually the one that has a distorted sense of reality and that there’s something wrong with them. It  builds up self-doubt, which then might impact later onset of depression, anxiety, or difficulties in their own relationships later in life.

Children need some of the same outlets that we do as adults. We need to provide them with a space that feels nurturing and safe to have discussions that might be really difficult for us to have. It might be tough to give your child that space, but that’s what they need. And also knowing that each developmental stage might be approached differently.  Would it be appropriate to have a conversation about addiction with a 5-year-old? Probably not. But, would it be okay to do so with a 16 or 17-year-old? Probably so.

One of the biggest things I talk with parents about, is trying to build up that safety which happens with developing a positive relationship and connection with your child. which can be done in 5 to 15 minutes a day. Just being with your child, spending time with them, helping them feel heard, whether it’s through their play or through their conversation, really helps them feel like they have one adult in their life that can be reliable and consistent for them.

Michelle:  That is so interesting you say that because most people would say, “Oh, 5 to 15 minutes isn’t a big deal.” But, I know as a mom, when I was living with addiction, it was so hard for me to disengage from the chaos that was going around me to focus on my kids. I remember giving them a bath and they were talking to me, but I couldn’t hear them because my mind and my brain was so busy thinking about, “Where was my husband? Is he coming home tonight? Well, what do I need to do to help him?” The worry and the chaos and the busyness in our brains.

5 to 15 minutes is tangible and it’s actionable and it’s necessary, but  not overwhelming. It’s not like we need to take them to Disney World for a three day vacation, you know? It’s very consistent and it’s very necessary.

Dr. Gowda:  You’re absolutely right. Sometimes we think if we table these interactions and we have these larger grand gestures, then that’s what’s really going to be meaningful for our children. But in reality, that’s not how you build that lasting kind of connection and foundation. Kids are looking for that consistency. They’re looking to be heard, they’re looking to have a space where they can be kids. They’re looking to have a space where they can learn and develop their emotions and ways. And really, the only way to do that is to have consistent, but short bursts of interaction.

It would almost be like if you had a goal of losing weight and you decided that once a month, you were going to work out for an hour to reach that goal,. and that was going to be all you did because you’re going to give it a lot of effort. You’re going to do an intense workout and you’ll eventually reach your goal. When in reality, if you were to spend just 15 minutes a day, you’d probably reach that goal faster and it be much more sustainable.

Michelle:  That’s a wonderful point. Consistency helps with safety. Open communication helps with safety. Let me ask you another question about the communication aspect. I’m anticipating our listeners that are hearing this are thinking, “Okay, I feel very uncomfortable talking to my kids about this because I feel like I’m going to betray my partner.” Having conversations about their parent behind their back, when they’re not even ready to admit that they’re actually having any problem, feels sneaky or dangerous. I’d be worried that the child might be put an awkward situation. I would love to hear your opinion. Isn’t not talking to them almost enabling this?

Dr. Gowda:  Yes, in some ways. Not talking to them contributes to the uncertainty that they’re already feeling. Iit doesn’t give them the space to process and understand the complexities that are associated with what they’re dealing with.. My first piece of advice would be to start small. Like you mentioned Michelle, it was tough for you to just even be present in certain interactions with your kids because of where your thoughts were and everything that you were worrying about.

I would say to parents who are struggling with the difficulties and the uncomfortable feelings that come along with having these conversations, is to work on building the relationship. Period. Let’s not even get into the conversation of addiction and what your partner might be experiencing. Let’s start small. And what that means is, again, spending 5 to 15 minutes with your child, where they can lead the play. They can lead the conversation. They can talk about everyday things. You’re fully present in that interaction and are providing that one-on-one feedback that they aren’t getting regularly otherwise. Start there.

Dr. Gowda: Once they start to feel comfortable and feel like they’ve built that positive relationship with you, they may spontaneously start to ask you some questions. This may put you in a tough space because you don’t want to get to a place of speaking negative about your partner or the circumstances. That’s where getting help and support is really critical. Seeking help from a therapist or a counselor who specializes in work with families that are experiencing substance misuse, is going to be really helpful.That provider  is going to be able to help you understand how and when to discuss these topics with your children. You can then translate that feedback into your everyday, to make sure it is tailored to your individual family and your individual needs, just like we talked about.

Every family’s going to be different, of course. And every family’s going to be different in terms of when the right time is to approach these topics and how we approach them. You want to do so in a way that isn’t going to make the children more guarded.

Michelle: Right, or feel defensive of the other parent. I remember one of the rules when I started communicating with my kids. It was to never bash or talk negatively about their father because they deserve to form their own opinion about him, not inherit mine. So, I would do more listening than offering advice or opinions. That’s what worked for me. To really emphasize and be compassionate and give them a safe place to express whatever feelings they had. There were different reactions that each child had. I have three kids and one of my youngest was totally passive, didn’t care. The middle one was my pleaser. She didn’t want to make anybody mad. She wanted to show her dad how much she loved him and me. And my third was very, very loyal to my husband and wanted to make sure that he was being honored and respected.

Michelle: Can you talk about different children probably react very differently to this? What are some of the types of normal reactions? As parents, is there a right reaction?

Dr. Gowda: Sure. Each child is probably going to process and respond to this really differently. We know from research that this lack of affirmation of what the child might be feeling early, (once again, that elephant in the room) and not acknowledging the elephant in the room, sometimes can lead to children internalizing. That’s where they develop things like anxiety or depression. And they might be addicts themselves later in life. That might be one way to cope with some of the feelings they’re having. Or, sometimes later in life, children become addicts to kind of bond with that parent. That’s not atypical.

An alternative route that children sometimes channel some of these feelings, is to become overachievers and people pleasers.You mentioned one of your children is a people- pleaser. You overextend yourself and place yourself at risk to later develop things like depression or anxiety. Sometimes there are kids who develop this ‘no feel rule’, where they block all of their feelings as a coping mechanism and try not to process the slightest of negative emotion. They don’t have to get into the nitty gritty of what they’ve experienced.

No matter the trajectory or the past of the child, it significantly impacts how they view their world. Meaning, it’s significantly going to impact later relationships that they have, whether it’s romantic relationships, friendships, or professional relationships. They’re going to constantly view the world with this lens for the rest of their lives. It’s tough if you have a child that goes down any one of these different paths. If you have multiple children that choose multiple different paths, it makes it really tough. I think the biggest thing you can do as a parent is recognize that each child is an individual.  They’re going to do things differently.

I think it’s wonderful the approach that you took, which was providing a safe judgment-free zone. You provided them a space to speak where you listened and they felt heard. If we were to go in and provide judgment about their father or mother in that interaction, that actually places much more distress on the child because that child loves both of their parents. They don’t want to have to pick which parent to appease. And if they feel like they’re being pulled in one direction or the other, that’s going to contribute to some of those internal difficulties that they’re already experiencing.

So, really as a parent, as the adult, the most we can do is understand that each child is going to process and deal with these difficulties on their own. And the most we can do is be present to try and hear their needs because they’re going to either show us or they’re going to tell us what they need. And we need to be aware of and watch for those cues.

Michelle:  That’s so helpful. What about for women who want to leave? They know that this is a toxic situation, there’s no signs of long-term sobriety in the near future. They have young children or high schoolers or children that are living under the same roof, but they are afraid that the children are going to be mad at them for breaking apart a family. They’re afraid of the long-term effects of the trauma for the children and how to deal with them emotionally. So they feel trapped in this marriage or this relationship. They’re afraid that they’re going to be the ones that cause the trauma by removing them from this marriage or relationship. What do you say to them?

Dr. Gowda:  I think anytime when you end a parental relationship, there are going to be questions that come up for the child as they develop. Going back to recognizing that those questions will eventually come up, is going to help us as parents respond. The other point I have, is that there’s now decades of research that shows that staying in a relationship that is filled with conflict is actually much more harmful for the child than it is to leave. Recognize that some level of conflict is actually appropriate and builds resilience in children.  They need to see conflict to learn how to problem-solve and tackle difficult obstacles in the world. But there is a level of conflict that is traumatic and is not productive. This includes more hostile types of conflict where the child might be witnessing verbal aggression, insults, threats, or even physical aggression. That’s not going to be particularly helpful for the child.

I’ve had parents  say, “Well, I won’t even engage in the conflict. I’ll just capitulate and I’ll give in, or I’ll just avoid.” Which might seem like a solution, but really it’s not because that’s not teaching children a healthy way of dealing with or addressing conflict. It’s just showing them that you’re giving in. That builds some anxious feelings and worries when it comes to managing difficult interactions later in life. Taking into account that financial stressors come into play and various other barriers and stressors come into play when making that decision. If at any point you, as an adult or an individual, feel threatened in those interactions and feel like those interactions are more harmful than good, that might be a good time to appraise and assess whether or not you’re truly benefiting your child by staying in the interaction or causing more harm.

Michelle:  If I understand you correctly, you’re saying if you’re in a relationship with somebody and you have conflict, some level of conflict is normal. And if you’re modeling a healthy conflict resolution, meaning you’re having an issue or your partner is having an issue, and your kids can see both of you with the willingness to resolve it, that actually can benefit the child.

Michelle:  But you have a partner who is defiant, aggressive, abusive, or just ignores you, then that’s not necessarily a great model for children to be around that type of conflict. Did I understand that correctly?

Dr. Gowda:  Correct. But on the flip side, often times when you’re in a relationship with someone who is hostile, one of the approaches that I frequently see people engaging in is they themselves wanting to avoid the conflict. They give in or ignore what’s happening, and that’s not healthy. Avoiding or giving in is not a healthy model for your child.

Michelle:  Okay, that’s good to know. What if you feel unsafe in your marriage?. Can you give us some examples? When I think of unsafe, I think of somebody holding a weapon, like a baseball bat in their hand. But what you’re talking about could be much more subtle, right? It doesn’t have to look like a Lifetime television movie. You can feel unsafe or in an “abusive relationship” with just subtle behaviors, correct? Could you give us some examples of women that said, “Wait a second. I am in that relationship. That doesn’t feel right to me. I’ve always wondered if that was a form of abuse or a form of unsafety.” Maybe with concerned children, too. What would feel unsafe for your child in a home?

Dr. Gowda:  I think some of the behaviors that are frequently documented as potentially causing harm to a child, or seen as more disruptive, are things like verbal aggression. This could be anything from name-calling to insults and even threats of abandonment. Also something that is much more blatant and obvious would be physically aggressive tactics, like hitting or pushing. Sometimes more silent, subtle things like avoidance and walking out or sulking and withdrawing could also contribute to more of this destructive, problem-solving resolution realm. This makes us feel uneasy, which makes us feel at harm at times. That feeling of unsafety is going to vary person-to-person.

Dr. Gowda: What I might view as unsafe might not necessarily be the same thing that you, yourself, might view as unsafe. That’s going to come down to that self-assessment we have to do as adults and really dig deep into our own feelings to understand what we are willing to work on and face, as well as things that we feel like is crossing a line.

Michelle:  Thank you for those examples, I appreciate that. One last question: can trauma be reversed? For the parents who didn’t leave and have adult children, is there any hope for those kids or is there anything that those parents can do or affect kids now?

Dr. Gowda:  I think one of the reasons why I love doing this work is this idea of resilience. Often times, we focus on the negative impacts and the risk factors that are associated with things such as addiction and parental substance misuse. We forget that there is a substantial amount of individuals that don’t develop these difficulties that we’ve talked about. This idea of resilience is the notion that there are certain protective factors and things that keep these individuals from developing these, whether it’s health outcomes or mental health outcomes. It’s never too late to build resilience in children.

There’s a ton of brain science research that documents this, which has shown that early trauma can really impact brain development in children. But when you start to provide things such as a supportive and attentive caregiver, those synapses in the brain that were once lost, start to rebuild which is really promising.It’s never too late to try and build up that relationship and build up that support system to help a person feel like they’re not alone in this. To help a person feel like they can express freely and process what they’ve gone through in their childhood. And that they can rebuild those relationships with their parents.

I’m sure for some of your listeners who have older children, it might feel like a loss as to the relationship with their child. But it’s never too late to call them and to try slowly re-establishing that relationship. It might not mean tackling the elephant that is addiction on the front-end., It will take time because of your histories and everything that you all have been through. But there is hope. And what really helps support that notion is just your willingness to want to rebuild those relationships and provide that supportive space for your child. Eventually, your child will see that.

Michelle:  I love what you just said. I left my ex-husband over 10 years ago, but I still at least once a week bring up addiction. Not only because it’s my line of work, but because I always want to give my kids the opportunity to express new feelings that are coming up. For example, during school, when it’s Father’s Day and they have to decorate a tie for their father and a card. Well, if their father’s not in their life, that could be a really difficult situation that schools are not necessarily sensitive to. So, I’m constantly checking in over the years with my kid, to the point where they know when I’m going to approach them. They say, “Mom, I’m fine, I promise. I don’t have any new feelings about this.”

If there is a predisposition to this disease, I want my kids to be hyper-aware of the risks involved with their particular habits when they get older. All of them live with me still but when they go to college and they’re offered a drink or they’re offered a joint or whatever, I just want them to be super aware that, “Look, this could be a real issue in your life, based on your genes.” And therefore, “Let’s overly talk about that.” I love the idea of communication and I really think that what you’re saying is so valid and so true. I’ve applied it to my life and it’s really helped.

Dr. Gowda:  I don’t think that you can ever over-communicate. I think what you’ve done wonderfully is try and recognize those triggers that happen in everyday life, that go unaddressed. That’s how you get that mountain out of the mole hill. They just start to pile up and eventually, you’re facing this larger problem that could be your own addiction, depression, or anxiety, you don’t know how to tackle it because you haven’t built up the capacities to talk about feelings. Over- discussing feelings is where you get into having really honest conversations about this. And that’s where kids feel safe expressing their feelings…whatever those  may be.

One more point I want to make is, ultimately, the way you are going to be able to do this as an adult who has a partner that is experiencing these difficulties, is to ensure that you are taking care of yourself. Self-care is paramount. You’re not going to be able to be a good parent if you’re not taking care of yourself. It’s the classic oxygen mask on an airplane metaphor. They always tell you to put your mask on before you put your child’s mask on because you’re not going to be of much use if you yourself can’t breathe. Similarly, if you’re not taking care of yourself, then you’re not going to be able to be good enough for your children.

Michelle:  I feel like we could do a whole podcast episode just on that topic. I was the absolute worst at that for so many years. Running on empty, feeling resentful, and snapping at my kids until I figured that out. And not only figuring it out, but actually having the courage because I  think for women like us in our community, we are caretakers. We’re fixers, and we worry so much about everybody else that it does take courage to be able to shut it down. I think that is a genius point that a lot of us need to hear.

Dr. Gowda:  Self-care takes work. It takes time, it takes effort, and it takes a lot of rationalizing in your own head to realize that it’s a necessity before you could do these other things well.

Michelle:  Isn’t it funny how it’s so difficult. Why is self-care so difficult? Do you think it’s difficult for everyone? Or, do you just think it’s difficult for high-achieving moms or caregivers?

Dr. Gowda:  I think it’s difficult for a lot of people but probably more so for a high-achieving individual, especially caregivers because they feel guilt. Because we know what needs to happen day-in and day-out for our kids. And it feels like we just don’t have enough hours in the day. So, it just makes you so guilty to try and take 30 minutes for yourself because you should be doing all these other things. But that’s where you get into that trap, because you’re really not going to be in the right mental or physical framework to really tackle all these issues.

Michelle:  That’s so true.  I feel that addiction or substance use has been truly a blessing in their life. My daughter said the other day, “I’m so grateful, not only that I had this experience but that I had it as a young girl. I’m in high school and I can see all of my friends really struggling with things. Because I had so many struggles when I was younger, I feel much more capable of handling.”

I thought, “Wow, that’s a full circle moment right there. That this doesn’t have to end up in tragedy and was handled correctly.” Resilience is such a gift.

Dr. Gowda: She had a strong, stable, supportive caregiver who was there for her, to help her through those difficult times. That was you.  Early traumatic stressors or early traumatic events can sometimes become intrinsic motivators that really help people want to be more successful in certain domains and realms. After they’ve gotten older and can look back on those processes, they can really develop those resiliencies. But, I think it’s also important to recognize that there were things that happened along that process to get her to where she is. And that was you.

Whether you consciously recognize that or not, you gave her that space, you built that relationship with her. You provided that open communication so that she could process and could deal with those things to then later build on that.

Michelle:  You’re right. To be fair and honest, because our community is a judgment-free zone, I asked her, “Do you think you would be saying that if I stayed?” And she said, “No, no way. You leaving was the best thing that ever happened to us.” It hurt, but I knew that it was necessary and I know looking back that it was absolutely the right thing to do. For us, it would have been an entirely different story if I had remained in that situation, especially because the addiction got worse over the last 10 years. I appreciate you acknowledging that. I did not know what I was doing but I went to a lot of amazing therapists who gave me a lot of insight and direction for me and my children. Can you tell us really quickly about your practice in Richmond and the services that you offer, so if people want to get in touch with you, they can?

Dr. Gowda:  Sure. We are a practice here in Richmond that focuses on helping build capacities at a family level. Wwe don’t view mental issues or difficulties as an individual concern but rather this larger systemic concern, recognizing that this is something that impacts families, communities, neighborhoods.  We provide a number of different services, including family therapy and individual therapy. We have some providers who provide more play-based services for children. And then we also provide some unique psychological assessments that examine the parent-child relationship, to really understand attachment and how that child attachment might inform some of the difficulties that we’re seeing in the child and the family. We provide recommendations and interventions to try and address that.

We also provide regular psychological evaluations but again, because we work from a family systems kind of framework, we’re always taking that into consideration any time we assess an individual child.

Michelle:  Did you mention the testing that you do that’s very unique that I got so excited about hearing?

Dr. Gowda:  One of evaluations that we provide that’s  unique to our practice are parent-attachment evaluations. We have one parent or both parents come in and we conduct a  detailed assessment of that interaction. We then provide detailed feedback, in terms of effective intervention strategies and next steps. From my understanding, we’re one of the few practices in the area and in the state, that really provide such detailed assessments, which has been helpful for a number of children who are either in Welfare Agencies or are about to be in those settings.

Michelle:  People come from different states to do that evaluation,  that’s wonderful. Where can people find you and more information about that?

Dr. Gowda: You can find us at our website, which is

Michelle:  I am so  grateful that you are willing to spend time with us and help our community. We definitely need more voices for our kids when it comes to how substance use affects them.

Dr. Gowda:  Thank you so much for having me. I’m glad for taking the time to do this. Thank you, too.

Michelle:  I’m really grateful to have found you. Continue with the great work.

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