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Coping with change

As a child’s parent goes through the stages of change with their problematic alcohol and other drugs use, the child will need your support to help them cope with the ups and downs. Understanding how the stages affect a child and their parent will give you a clearer idea of how to support the family.

The stages of change as experienced by the parent and child

Parent’s stage of change

Child’s experience


Disappointment, fear, broken promises, What’s new? Not again!


‘I’m fine’

Familiar, secrecy, fear of disclosure, responsibility, neglect, abuse, lack of support, isolation.        



Things can’t go on like this. 


‘important, confident, ready’

No more secrets, fear of the unknown, it’s been bad, but at least it was familiar.


‘I’m doing it’

Hope and fear, stress, separation, parents needing more care. Who will look after me?


‘I can keep doing this’

Learn to be a child, this is too good to be true, I expect things will go back to how they were.

Permanent exit

‘I’ve changed my lifestyle’

A child at last! Now what about all my other problems?

(Harbin, 2006)

The stages of recovery as experienced by the parent and child

Parent’s stage of recovery

Child’s experience

Transition to recovery

A parent may be out of control and the family system in chaos. Often a major life event (or many events) may be the trigger for their transition to recovery.

Examples of life events: a partner threatens to leave, a parent is arrested or is hospitalised for an overdose, a parent is the victim of a drug-related crime or Child Safety has intervened.

I feel confused because of the changes and the chaos.

Mum or Dad are focused on what they need to do for themselves to recover, not me.

I am feeling worried, frightened and alone because Mum or Dad is not here with me; they are away somewhere getting help. I don’t know what what’s going to happen. I just want things to go back to what I know. Have I done something wrong?

Early recovery

Parents learn change is possible and begin to build their identity without drinking or using.

The household may become more settled and calm. It is new territory for parents and children.

Parents will need support to help them implement everything they have learned, to stay sober and to meet their child’s needs.

I might act out, go into myself and pull away from others, because I am away from the chaos and am starting to process what has been happening.

I like the change, but I’m not sure if I can trust Mum or Dad to stick to it. I feel really worried and try to do whatever I can to make sure Mum or Dad don’t go back to their old ways.

I don’t know what to expect of my mum or dad now that they are different. They’ve let me down before. I have no control. I want things to be good, I don’t know if I like how it feels.

I still like to be close to Mum and Dad all the time so I know they are safe and not drinking and using.

Ongoing recovery

At this stage, the recovery process becomes internalised for the parent. With prolonged abstinence, the possibility of relapse lessens and the family can begin to rebuild their routines and adopt new family rituals, such as family dinners and outings. Realigning roles in the family and re-establishing rules and boundaries is key.

Parents need help to repair their relationships with children alongside their alcohol and other drugs treatment. Unresolved issues with children and lack of skills to deal with these issues can put parents at high risk of relapse. Parents may need help with positive discipline, safe and appropriate boundaries, good role modelling about alcohol and other drugs  use, and not overindulging children as a way of making up for the past.

Now that Mum or Dad is sober they want to tell me all these rules. It was better when I did not have rules. They can’t tell me what to do now, when they have broken so many rules themselves.

Everything is changing; I used to be the one to look after my brother Max. Now Mum wants to do everything. I don’t know what I am supposed to do now. Max doesn’t need me anymore.


I don’t know how to be ‘just the kid’. I need Mum and Dad to show me again and again how they will be different so I can learn to trust them again. They need to pick me up from school on time, get breakfast, lunch and dinner for me every day and give us ‘special time’ together so we can be close. I need Mum and Dad to ask me what I need from them and what I need to see happening so I feel cared for and loved.

(Adapted from Addiction in Family)

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