Accessing Your Child’s Life Story

We Help Thousands of Addicts Quit. Who Answers?

How to Tell – and Affect – Whether Your Child Will Take Drugs and Manage His or Her Life

This article is, in part, an answer to the questions raised in Dr. Peele and Mr. Rhoads’ review of David and Nic Schiff’s film, Beautiful Boy.

The following are excerpts from a Parents’ Addiction and Development Manual that is being developed by Dr. Noriko Martinez, a child and family therapist in Chicago, and Zach Rhoads, a child development specialist in Burlington, VT, as part of Mr. Rhoads and Dr. Peele’s forthcoming book, Outgrowing Addiction: With Common Sense Instead of “Disease” Therapy. Mr. Rhoads and Dr. Peele are also principals in the online addiction coaching site, the Life Process Program.

Your Child’s World – Stories

When your child was little, you were present for every moment. You probably helped your child learn how to tell stories by telling stories together about things that happened. When a dog walks by and the child exclaims, “Dog!” the parent then expands, “Oh look, it’s a big yellow dog! Look at its fluffy tail!” And then later, when the child is reporting “I saw a dog,” the parent adds detail, “Yes, we were on a walk together, and we saw a big yellow dog with a fluffy tail, remember?” In this way the parent models and helps strengthen the child’s developmental next-steps in storytelling (respecting his/her stage of development).

Parents build out the story with the child. In building the stories, the parents help children decide what is important and what isn’t, and what feelings make sense. “When we saw that dog, it was so cute! We laughed when it licked your nose.” Or “When we saw that dog, it was so scary! We thought it might bite you.” These stories parents and children tell together, then shape how the children will see things the next time around.

As your child grows and has more and more of a world that is separate from yours, it can take more work to fully grasp their world and help them develop stories about it. But even teenagers benefit from adult help in paying attention to the world around them and developing their stories. The things you pay attention to give them ideas about what they should pay attention to, and the way you understand things helps them to understand what is important, why, and how.

The goal in this section is to take the time to be clear about the stories you tell about your child’s life, to them and yourself. What matters in your child’s life? Where is your child going at this point in their life? At the same time you will build a bridge to understand your child’s life story. What does your child’s perspective on the world look like? Are his/her stories compatible with your own views?

The goal of everything, at some level, is for your child to develop fully into an independent human being. The following questions will help you explore these ideas, so that you may help your child build resilience, even in the face of adversity. Here are some critical elements in such stories.

What Challenges Do You See Coming Up in the Next Few Years?

You are always planting the seeds to help build stories for what is to come in your child’s life before these events surface. For example, with a baby in diapers you can start to talk about what life will be like when they become diaper free. This is among the first examples of your helping them imagine their own positive future. Before you actually teach toilet use, you are building the beginning of a story that your child will live out while providing tools of understanding before your child needs them. By thinking through what is coming up next for your child, you can be intentional about what seeds you plant now.

This is especially important prior to adolescence, when a milestone of development is to separate from parents. Stories you build together ahead of time about how you will be ready to help out in an emergency no matter what, or how there is a difference between making stupid mistakes and being a bad person, can resonate through adolescence even as your child tries to create independent space for themselves.

Noticing, Naming, Framing, Responding

Your child will benefit from a coherent understanding and explicit naming of the realities of his/her world.

Once you have put some thought into all of the realities of your child’s life, then it’s time to put them into a story. To develop your stories of your child’s world, you should first put yourself in your child’s shoes as much as possible. Our worlds expand as we age, but as children, it is fine to have a limited awareness of the impacts of things outside of our own lives. When a parent gets divorced, a child’s perspective has to do with things like not understanding how mom and dad can be separate, worrying about what it means for their stuff and their schedules, wondering who they are allowed to talk to about it, etc. The story must start from their perspective.

Second, you should be as honest as you can, while being age appropriate, and as brief as you can. You do not need to fill your stories with detail, but you do want to include the truths of your child’s world. Do not underestimate your child’s competence to deal with hard realities. In fact, you teach them whether they can handle it by how you talk to them. If you are calm, and can rest in certainty that you and your child will handle it together, then your child will feel confident. The two of you are already building a story about how you can manage things together and, further down the line, that your child can handle whatever life tosses at them. (And there will be plenty.)

A good story to build together is one that is clear and rational, contains the truth of challenges and the possibility of overcoming them, and expresses the values that are important to you and your family.

Example: A father is upset because his mother has Alzheimer’s and no longer recognizes him. His 8-year-old daughter sees him coming home from the nursing home and senses his upset. She asks him what he’s upset about. Many parents would try to shield their children from the realities of aging and illness. Instead, her father can say something like this:

Father: Well, my mother has a brain disease, and she has gotten pretty sick.

Daughter: Is she going to die? (Kids often get right to the point, and it’s fine to go there with them.)

Father: At some point she will certainly die, but probably not for a little while yet.

Daughter: Could my mother get the brain disease too? (Kids often worry about death of parents or of themselves when they hear about death, and it is better to be honest.)

Father: She could, some day. Many people do get this brain disease when they are older. You’ll be older too, then, because that wouldn’t be for a long time.

Daughter: That sounds scary.

Father: It is, and it’s sad, too. (He may start to cry, and that’s OK, because that is a genuine feeling in response to something sad.)

You don’t have to hide any of the reality from your kids. So long as you have a way to talk about it clearly and honestly then your kids can understand it clearly as well. That is part of the reason why it is important to think through your own story first, so that you can tell it clearly when your kids ask. When they find out that they do not have to construct elaborate, sugar-coated stories for their kids – and can instead can be real – most parents feel a sense of relief.

The truth is much easier than complicated euphemisms, and when parents can be calm, children are not traumatized by information. And, most of the time, they come up with their own ways of understanding that parents can learn from as well.

The Role of Addictions in Your Child’s World

Part of what will shape your child’s life-long relationship with any mood-altering drug is the stories they learn about that substance and about addiction.

The purpose of this section is to develop an understanding about the stories circulating in your community and in your family that teach your child what it means to use a substance or engage in an “addictive” activity: when is it appropriate (if ever)? How dangerous is it? Why do people do it? What happens to people who use? What does it mean to become addicted? What happens to people when they become addicted? You can think about different the stories can be if you answer those same questions for different substances. For example, how do those questions sound when you apply them to alcohol? Heroin? Gambling? Video games? The answers reveal the stories of those substances/activities that your children receive from you and in turn base their understandings on.

Some of the common stories that are shared in the culture at large are misleading and contribute to more problematic responses to substance use – we’ve demonstrated this in the book. Your own views and values around addiction may or may not align with larger cultural ideas. For your child, those views will converge either way. You can help your child fit different – even seemingly contradictory – worldviews into their own single narrative. Here the purpose is to see your own stories and later we will consider how to shape them for children.

How Many People in Your Life Have Used Substances (legal or illicit) and Are Not Currently Addicted to Them?

The first question is to understand whether there are stories about people taking drugs without becoming or remaining addicted. If you don’t have stories like this, then any substance will appear more dangerous, and the choices for what substance use can look like will be more limited. Remember, the majority of people who take drugs do so responsibly and without ever becoming addicted. Of the people who do develop problems related to drug use, most of them outgrow their problems on their own over time.

And, remember, for the “addiction” concept to be real, it must not be limited to drugs. Nowhere is this more relevant and true than in child development (which we’ll discuss in the next sections).

How Do People Engage With Substances (or Activities) in Non-Addictive Ways?

As described throughout this book, substances and activities are not themselves the core of addictive behavior. Nonetheless, some substances have more stories of “normal” or “healthy” use than others. For example, although food addictions can be an issue, there are plenty of examples available (although fewer than there once were) of normal and healthy eating. But every child needs to formulate an idea of non-addictive, healthy eating behavior.

On the other hand, there are fewer stories about normal and healthy heroin use. There is less of a need for them.  But, of course, nearly everyone will use painkillers, and so you will be obligated to formulate a positive story about pain medications. Identifying the acceptable-positive end of the continuum is part of identifying what a relationship with this substance could be.

  • What is your position on what a healthy relationship with those substances/activities looks like?
  • How does that compare to the community around you?

What is the Story of That Substance (or Activity)?

Many substances have common narratives about their effects. You may have heard marijuana causes people to be forgetful, relaxed, and hungry; that it is a gateway drug that leads to more serious drug use later; or that marijuana is a miracle drug that can cure many illnesses and isn’t addictive.

Then there’s the idea that kids who are given the freedom to decide on their own video gaming time will spend every hour playing violent games that will desensitize them to violence. Or, some say, video games are the new social hangout and improve dexterity and reaction time.

What is your position on these things?

Developing Your Child’s Story

Your child wants to have an impact on you. There is nothing better for developing agency and efficacy than to impact another mind. Even more valuable is feeling that you can impact how that other person sees you. As a parent, your view of your child may be the one with the greatest impact, so your view is the one that your child wants most to affect. We often get stuck on things we wish were true about our kids (“my child wants to play piano, I’m sure of it!”) or things we dread are true (“my child is going to do terribly in school, just like I did”), and fail to be open to what actually is true.

And yet, despite these alternative realities, we can still find beautiful stories to tell about our children that help them feel truly understood and that we help and allow them to realize. And that is the primary job of parenting.


Images Courtesy of iStock

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