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Children's Voice Article, September/October, 2004

A 12-Step Approach for Recovering Parents

Alcoholics Anonymous has helped millions of alcoholics and drug addicts get straight and stay straight. Its simple guidelines for living have inspired a plethora of self-help programs, all based on AA's 12 steps. The combination of psychology, spirituality, and good old common sense in the 12 steps can also help you share your love, nurture your children, and become a better parent.

If you work through the 12 steps to the best of your ability and face the challenges you encounter, you will become the parent you were meant to be--perhaps the parent you never had. You will learn how to give to the child within you all that he or she needs and lead your own children in a loving way. You can have it all, but the effort must be wholehearted and sincere. As the book Alcoholics Anonymous says, "Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path."

Step 1. Admit powerlessness over your ability to protect your children from pain. Become willing to surrender to your love and not your control. The first step in recovery programs--the one that lays the groundwork for all the rest--is a willingness to admit powerlessness. This admission is also important for parents.

Parenting is a continual struggle between fear and love. The parent loves the child deeply and fears harm will come to the child. This fear that one loved so much might be harmed can overwhelm parents, so they begin to believe they can protect the child from harm, and manage their fear, by controlling the child. This, of course, is futile.

Accept that no parent can completely protect his or her children from experiencing some pain and hurt in their lives. Pain is not always a bad thing for your children to experience; children will learn from pain. From this place of acceptance, you can share your love with your children and teach them to protect themselves.

Step 2. Find hope in the belief that recovery is possible through faith and a willingness to work on yourself. Drug-addicted families are filled with all kinds of learned insanity. These behaviors directly affect your parenting. Develop the faith to leave these behaviors behind and create a new vision for yourself and your children.

Step 3. Reach out for help, and acknowledge that you are not alone. Learn to ask for help and let go of the need to have control over others. Most people who come from drug-addicted homes don't know how to ask for help and are terrified to let go of their imagined control over their lives.

When you make a decision to turn your will and life over to the care of a higher power, you agree to do your share of the work but leave the worrying to someone else. If you really let go of your need for control--if you step aside and let a force greater than yourself work in your life--you will find that your parenting becomes inspired.

Step 4. Take stock of yourself as a parent. Identify your strengths and weaknesses as a parent, including a review of your personality traits and how they may affect your children. This should be done without prejudgment. You are simply taking stock of your parenting warehouse.

Working through this step may force you to face some upsetting facts about your parenting when you were actively addicted. It's important that you face the reality of your children's home life before your recovery so you can avoid repeating past mistakes. This step is not a punishment--its purpose is to give a clear picture of where you were, where you are now, and where you can go as an individual and as a parent.

Step 5. Learn to share your parenting issues with others without self-recrimination. Once you have taken an inventory, you can see the exact patterns of behavior that get you into trouble with your spouse and children. Maybe perfectionism or fear sets you apart from your family. Whatever it is, until you admit it to yourself, a higher power, and another human being, you will carry the burden of unnecessary guilt with you.

With your spouse, examine your parenting openly and honestly to see what each of you can do to make your parenting more effective. In sharing, you will find you are not nearly as bad a parent as you thought you were and that you have all kinds of opportunities for support and guidance when you need it. This step allows you to drop the pretense of perfect parenting and join the rest of the world of imperfect people parenting imperfect people.

Step 6. Become ready to change by giving up the demand to be perfect. Change is scary. Whatever patterns of behavior you have nurtured in the past, you nurtured for a reason. You may have done things in a particular way to protect yourself or your self-esteem from being attacked or destroyed.

You will need to develop new methods of protecting yourself that don't necessitate denying your feelings. This step means letting go of control as a defense against your feelings of vulnerability as a parent.

Step 7. Make conscious changes in your parenting by identifying specific strategies for healthy parenting. In this step, you'll begin to make conscious changes to parenting techniques that are no longer effective. Your children will challenge these changes; let them know you have discovered some ways to improve how you relate to one another and you are trying to apply them.

Your children may even provoke you to get the old responses out of you. This is natural. Set firm limits on their testing, but this is a period they need to go through as you begin to remove the shortcomings in your parenting and as they adjust to your new style of parenting.

Step 8. Take responsibility for the effect your parenting has had on your children, and learn self-forgiveness. Be very specific about the ways you harmed your children in the past, become willing to take responsibility for this, and forgive yourself. The natural reaction for parents reflecting on a disturbing history of parenting is to either judge themselves harshly or minimize the effect they had on their children. Although your addictive or dependent behavior did affect your children, you have not done them irreparable damage. Recognize that you did the best you could at the time, and now it's time to do better. Commit to changing those behaviors that were harmful, and follow through.

You can let go of the shame and guilt associated with your history as a parent by becoming a recovering parent who, like a recovering drug addict, accepts his or her problems and does something about them. Make a list of new parenting strategies and implement them.

Step 9. Make amends to your children through healthy parenting without overcompensating. The best way to make amends to your children is by being a better parent. Many parents who have had problems try to make it up to their children by attempting to become superparents as a means of assuaging their guilt about the past. This is not good for you or your children. You do not have to be the best parent in town. You do need to commit yourself to being the best parent you can be.

Making amends as a parent should feel good. It means sharing your life and attention with your children and opening your family to a healthy acceptance of each other's differences. It means giving permission for everyone to express feelings to one another and setting limits on your kids in a firm but loving manner. It means reaching inside yourself to heal the child in you that cries out for attention and love, and becoming all you were meant to be as a person and as a parent.

Step 10. Model being honest with yourself and your children, and create acceptance in your family for imperfection. This is the step in which you give up your goal to be perfect and give your children permission to make mistakes. Teach your children they can be imperfect and still be loved by you.

If you set healthy examples, your children will develop healthy ways of coping. Modeling daily self-honesty and self-acceptance will enable your children to learn to deal with life from a place in which their self-esteem is based, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, on the content of their character instead of how close to perfect they can get.

Step 11. Learn to accept your limits in life, and find your true spiritual path while allowing your children theirs. Spirituality means many different things to different people. There is no special direction you should take, but you need to find an expression of spiritual life for your family.

Step 11 is where you come to terms with the one essential painful truth about parenting: In the end, your children will be on their own, and some greater plan exists for all of us. This surrender to a greater consciousness allows you to do your best as a parent and let go of the results. You learn in this step to trust in a higher form of parenting that comes from understanding oneself in a spiritual context.

Step 12. Reach out to other parents in the spirit of giving and community. In helping others, one reaches the highest levels of recovery. For parents in recovery, this means reaching out to other parents in need and lending a hand. This may mean sponsoring a parent in your self-help group, lending support and insight to others who are recovering, or even establishing a parent support group in your community. It certainly means getting involved in your children's schools. It may also mean getting involved with your community to establish substance abuse treatment and prevention programs.

Adapted from The Lowdown on Families Who Get High: Successful Parenting for Families Affected by Addiction by Patricia O'Gorman and Phil Diaz (Child & Family Press, 2004).


The Lowdown on Families Who Get High: Successful Parenting for Families Affected by Addiction
by Philip Diaz and Pat O'Gorman
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