Family Life: How much should I tell my kids about their dad's issues?
Published 19/07/2010 | 05:00
Q I am desperately seeking advice on what to say to my three children, aged 10, 12 and 14.
I am separated from my husband for four years due to his worsening alcoholism and drug-taking, combined with other psychiatric behaviour. There is no regular contact between them and him despite the fact that he has had open access. He has just come out of his second rehab (early) and is straight back on the drink and, most likely, drugs. There is no doubt that he is in a very life-threatening downward spiral. He is always threatening suicide, although he has never actually attempted anything. I have informed the children that he is back drinking but ironically they have never seen him drunk in 14 years as I have protected them. What makes things worse now is that I feel his death could be imminent and am terrified by this for the children's sake. They have never asked any questions since the separation and since knowing more about him being in rehab. I have pursued this so often to their annoyance that now I have backed off. I feel I should inform them how ill he is, but don't know if it is the right thing to do.
A What a difficult situation you find yourself in. I am sure that your own relationship with their dad is very complex and I imagine that you possibly struggle to cope with his declining mental health, even though you have already taken the step of separating.
I would guess, too, that one of your reasons for separating was to try to shield and protect the children from the excesses of his drinking and drug-taking.
Your natural instinct is probably to protect them further from his worsening behaviour but your sense of responsibility to keep them informed and aware conflicts with this.
It must be hard for the children to make sense of their dad's relationship with them. His irregularity and inconsistency of contact makes it difficult for them to rely on him and his drinking and drug-taking fuel that unreliability.
My advice is not to tell them of their father's worsening health.
It is not a matter of simply what is the right or wrong thing to do because there are no absolute rights or wrongs in situations like this.
For what it's worth, I will give you my reasons why I think you should not tell them of your worries that he might imminently die.
Firstly, you may not be well-enough informed about his physical or mental health and so what you tell them could amount to simply your opinion.
Unlike a diagnosis of a fatal illness, you cannot know that his death is imminent; he may live on until his natural death by old age.
Secondly, even if you do have accurate information, by telling them you place quite a significant emotional burden on them and they are still quite young.
Knowing that he is in a precarious situation will raise their anxiety and worry about him and yet they have no control over his situation and so are powerless to do anything to resolve it or reduce their anxiety.
Thirdly, if they already choose not to confide in you about their dad, it may be because they feel that you are not a 'qualified' person to comment on him or his behaviour.
The fact that they don't choose to come to you with their feelings about their dad, his behaviour and their relationship with him is not surprising.
Many children avoid burdening a parent with their woes about the other parent for fear of stressing out the parent they live with, being disloyal to the parent they don't live with, or for fear of incurring the wrath of either parent.
However, in their situation, because you protected them from his drinking up to recently, they may never have fully understood your reasoning for separating from him (because they had no sense of how bad he was).
Consequently, they may perceive your information about his current drinking and suicidal ideation as an attempt to blacken his name and it may cause more friction between you and the children.
Fourthly, in the tragic event of his death, you may find that nothing can really prepare them for such an outcome.
They will be horrendously shocked and possibly very upset, whether they had some advance warning or not.
I imagine you may feel quite isolated and alone with the knowledge that you have about their dad and perhaps there is someone close to you who you can confide in to feel some support yourself.
Do continue to try to connect with their feelings about their dad generally. Even if they don't choose to come to you about him you can be supportive of them.
You are the best person to understand that their dad has, and probably will, let them down on a regular basis.
David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author. Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence.