My First Group

Children and Addiction Recovery

Fourteen years ago I walked into my first group designed specifically for children whose parents struggle with addiction. Having recently been employed by the Betty Ford Center, I was encouraged to sit in on their Children’s Program. I was definitely intrigued, but had my doubts. What could be the benefit of including young children in the recovery process? Weren’t things painful enough?

I decided to give it a shot. The program was an intensive one: four consecutive days, all day, with a group of twelve children ranging in age from seven to twelve.

The boys and girls who walked in that first morning had never met each other before. As we took our seats in the group room, looks of fear and apprehension prevailed. The counselors spent some time easing in. Kids began to relax. We played some games and laughed a lot. An hour-and-a-half in was the first time we talked about why everyone was there. Group members were invited to introduce themselves. A hush came over the room as anticipation turned to silence.

Slowly, one boy raised his hand. He took a deep breath before he spoke.

"Hi, I'm Ben. I'm nine years old. In my family, my dad has been drinking too much. My parents think I don’t know, but they are getting a divorce because of it. I don’t get to see my Dad as much as I’d like, and I feel like it’s my fault."

A collective sigh of relief filled the room at his words. Suddenly hands began waving frantically in the air. It was as if these youngsters had all experienced the same revelation at once: their family secret, so cautiously guarded, was a secret shared by others. This was the place to talk about it.

The process continued to gently unfold over the four days. Children laughed and cried together, speaking openly about feelings of confusion, sadness and anger. They were able to talk about the intense love they had for their addicted parent in a safe place, free from judgment. In a world that tends to stigmatize and shame people who are “alcoholics” or “addicts” (and in turn harms those who love them), this was a rare gift.

I was deeply moved by observing my young group members. As the feelings that had burdened them came tumbling out, I also experienced a sense of loss. My own childhood had been disrupted by my mother’s battle with alcoholism. I carried the guilt, loneliness, shame and silence with me. By the time I hit early adulthood, the load was almost too heavy to bear.

Unlike me, these kids were being given the chance to experience their own healing process at an early age. They walked away with the knowledge that the addiction wreaking havoc on their family was not their fault. They knew it was okay to love their parent but still hate the disease. Most importantly, they left knowing that they were not alone. A deep sense of hope prevailed as we said our goodbyes on the last day.

No more convincing was needed. I was hooked. Since that first group I have done hundreds more. I continue to be amazed, not only by the kids I work with, but by the brave parents who bring them with the hope of breaking the cycle of addiction in their own families. And I still go back to the memory of that little girl I once was, who could have used a group very much like this one.

Peggy McGillicudyPeggy McGillicuddy has worked with young children impacted by parental addiction as a counselor, consultant and trainer for the Betty Ford Center. Having experienced familial addiction herself, she feels strongly that family recovery means including kids in the healing process. With an emphasis on reducing stigma and building resilience, Peggy writes from both a personal and professional perspective. This blog explores issues related to childhood, addiction and recovery.
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