Reflecting 5 years later: Supporting young kids with an alcoholic parent

Last month marked five years since my ex-husband passed away from his alcoholism at the age of 36, only 2 months after our divorce was finalized and our kids were 2 and barely 5. 

Shortly before he died, I was really starting to feel healed on a personal level. I was able to handle the consequences of divorce, speak about it (mostly) without crying, and the kids and I were in a good routine. But I constantly worried about long term, about the unknown. How to function if Jeff stayed an active alcoholic and went in and out of their lives for the next fifteen years. 

So, I made an appointment to go speak with a child psychologist about the kids, specifically my soon-to-be kindergartener, so I could have some idea of what I may be up against in the future. How would I talk to her about her dad’s absence? The discussion couldn’t have been more depressing. Bottom line, a girl needs to know her dad loves her. No substitute is enough.

The therapist used the words “hugely devastating” in reference to not having both parents in her life. And as painful as those words may have felt to me, I needed to push him to be involved and make it all about the kids. Because of his alcoholism, his filter was so distorted and everything I did, whether I had malice behind it or not, felt like I was controlling him.

As for what I could do on my own, and what you can do if you’re facing a similar situation—remind them that their daddy loves them. They need a sign that he cares about them. They need to know he’s thinking about them. Kindergarten and first grade would be especially hard for kids because “Me and my Family” is part of their curriculum. Father’s Day is hard enough to contend with, and now I’d get to deal with this from September through June too. 

One of the best pieces of advice I got, was to talk to the kids about their as if he had some illness like a brain tumor or something where he couldn’t engage with them. Telling them things like, “Your daddy loved watching hockey… he loved watching you ride your bike… When you were born, he…” Even though the memories and milestones he was here for were few, I could tell it in an impactful way that could hopefully ease their hearts when they’re older. When he died, the irony that I had done this exercise was not lost on me.

At the end of the day, kids need two things—to know they are loved, and to know they are taken care of. I could provide both of those things, and I know if you’re raising your kids and took the step to separate them from an alcoholic, then you’re filling that need to. 

My kids will always know they are loved, even if their dad wasn’t going to be able to show that. I will. My parents will. My neighbors and friends will. It truly takes a village, and that’s what we’re here for—supporting and loving everyone as our own. 

When kids are less than six, they don’t understand the permanence of things, so it’s hard for them to understand that mom and dad won’t be together again. I think telling my then three-year-old off the bat that mommies and daddies don’t always live together may have actually done some good. And at that age, I did lie to her for the reason she didn’t see her dad often. I focused a lot on his work and that he was in another town, and because of that, he couldn’t make frequent visits. Those were the reasons he couldn’t see her—not that he didn’t love her.

For us, it worked. I knew it couldn’t be a long-term plan, but in my eyes, it was age appropriate. And if there’s anything I’ve learned with kids, it’s that everything is a phase and you always have to come up with new plans as they change and grow.

Today, my son is seven and still doesn’t ask questions about his dad or how he died. He has had my current husband in his life for all of his memory, and so far, it’s kept his questions to a minimum. I have always answered the questions that my kids ask—but only when they ask, and only answering exactly what they’ve asked, nothing more. When he has questions, I’ll be ready.

My daughter is ten now and is full of questions. Good questions. And hard ones. She understands a lot about alcoholism. The biggest issue we face is that she sometimes shares too much with her peers at school, and I’ll occasionally get a note from her teacher to remind her that it’s pretty adult stuff and it’s not appropriate for her to discuss. It’s a fine line of being able to share her story without shame and forcing it on other kids who are still innocent to the things she’s dealt with so young. I’m always working on our communication and honesty so that as she enters these teen years, she’ll still talk to me, share with me, and make the best choices she can.

Excepts taken from my book, The Other Side of the Door, available on Amazon. 

Published by Ashley Adams

Author, former single mom, lover of Cherry Coke Zero and Taylor Swift. Here to coach and support and love on women in challenging relationships.

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