When a Child Grows Up with Addiction

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
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Addiction to alcohol or other drugs takes a heavy toll on families, including the loving relationship between a parent and young child. Children’s counselors Jerry Moe and Helene Photias join host William C. Moyers to discuss the impact of a loved one’s alcoholism or other drug addiction from a child’s perspective. Learn why addiction is described as a family disease, what kinds of help and support are most effective, and how to involve children in the recovery process.

You know boys and girls don't care about how much you know until they know about how much you care.

Jerry Moe

0:00:14 William Moyers
Hello and welcome to Let's Talk, a series of podcasts produced by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation on the issues that matter to us, and the issues that we know matter to you, too. Substance use disorders, research, prevention, treatment and recovery support. I'm your host, William Moyers, and today we're on the road here at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California. I cannot think of a more appropriate place to be for the topic of today's podcast, when a child grows up with addiction. And nobody knows this subject better than our two guests today: Jerry Moe and Helene Photias, welcome to both of you for—for being here today, thank you.

0:00:58 Jerry Moe
It's great to be with you, William.

0:00:59 Helene Photias
Thanks for having us.

0:01:00 William Moyers
Yeah. Thank you. And you've been making such a difference for a long time. Right here on this campus at Rancho Mirage. Jerry, explain the history of the Children's Program here at the Betty Ford Center. 

0:01:09 Jerry Moe
Well when Mrs. Ford opened the Betty Ford Center, she always believed that alcoholism and drug addiction are a family disease. And that we need to treat the whole family. So right from its humble beginnings. 1982, the Center has always worked with boys and girls. At be—the beginning, informally, and then in 1996, a full-time program with a dedicated staff. And here we are today.

0:01:34 William Moyers
Helene, how did you get to the Children's Program?

0:01:36 Helene Photias
Well, you know I—I came here about 12 years ago. And I just wanted to work with children. So I started off working in the Children's Program with Jerry and other staff and have been there ever since. Just wanted to be around those kids.

0:01:50 William Moyers
So why is it important to work with the children of alcoholic parents or grandparents? What is the approach that you take? 'Cause these are very young children, right?

0:02:00 Jerry Moe
These are children between the ages of 7 and 12. You know. Why do we do this work? We know that alcoholism and drug addiction runs in families. And throughout our Hazelden Betty Ford treatment locations. Whenever I do a lecture with patients in treatment, all levels of care, I ask how many of them had grown up in a family with alcoholism or other drug addiction. William, 75 to 80 percent of the hands go up.

0:02:26 William Moyers
That many. Wow.

0:02:27 Jerry Moe
That many. So these are boys and girls at risk. And how can we break that inner generational cycle of addiction.

0:02:34 William Moyers
But what happens when the parent is still in active addiction using substances? Is it possible for the child to come to the Children's Program even if their parents don't want them to? Or do you need permission, Helene, for them to come here?

0:02:48 Helene Photias
Right. We—well we do, we need permission, from at least one nurturing adult to bring a child to our program. And many times what we're noticing is of course, there's still active addiction in the family. Whether it be one parent or both parents. You know we're working with children who are sometimes not even living with their parents anymore, for different circumstances. So, being able to get them to our program, sure, someone needs to say yes, this child can come. And we're really looking for that—that adult, that nurturing person, who will not only come to the program with them, but then stay with them afterwards and continue to build those skills that we're teaching.

0:03:25 Jerry Moe
And keep—you keep in mind that with boys and girls who are living with active addiction, they might need us even more. For someone to explain to them that it's not their fault. For someone just to teach 'em what addiction is. To give the—to create a safe place and give them opportunities to share their worries, their fears, their concerns. To find out they're not the only one. That they're not alone. And then to help them begin to see who are the safe people in their life that they can turn to for support and guidance. Even if mom and dad stay active in their illness.

0:03:59 William Moyers
But what do you mean that—that message about 'It's not your fault,' is it that children think that their parents' addiction is their fault? Helene?

0:04:06 Helene Photias
Sure, we'll see that on many levels. But at—at its simplest form, a child will think that even the smallest things maybe cause their parent to have a drink or use drugs. It could be things like fighting with a sibling. Or not doing well in school. Or not doing their chores. At the simplest form, they just want their parents to be happy and when they're not, and no one's talking about what's really going on, a child will start to believe that well then it must be something that I've done.

0:04:36 William Moyers
So that silence piece of not talking about it, walking around on eggshells, that's a big component of what you're out to attack or—or get rid of, right?

0:04:46 Jerry Moe
I know Dr. Claudia Black, a real pioneer in our field, William—

0:04:48 William Moyers

0:04:50 Jerry Moe
Taught us years ago that to survive boys and girls learn don't talk, don't trust and don't feel. This is—allows them to stay alive. And yet, when they come to work with Helene and her team, whether it's in Minnesota, our Hazelden Betty Ford Children's Program in Minnesota, or Colorado, or here at the Center, what are we asking the boys and girls to do? Well trust us; we're safe adults.

0:05:12 William Moyers

0:05:13 Jerry Moe
And—and talk to us, and tell us how you feel. And the miracle—and I'm always amazed by this William—the miracle is boys and girls do that. They're desperate to do that. And that's when the changes begin to take place.

0:05:27 William Moyers
So how does that change actually occur though? You have—when you experience it, when you witness it, the young people come in that first day, they must be apprehensive or nervous or silent or not certain what they're doing there. How do you work them through that process, Helene?

0:05:44 Helene Photias
Well we—we walk slowly. And we let them lead.

0:05:47 William Moyers
Ah, you walk slowly and you let them lead. [smiles, nods]

0:05:49 Helene Photias

0:05:49 William Moyers

0:05:50 Helene Photias
You know every child's completely different, coming with a different set of circumstances, and feelings and abilities. We meet them where they're at and we guide them. So, a first day really might be just about playing, and engaging, and helping them really build some bonds with the other children. And like Jerry mentions, starting to realize 'I'm not the only one.'

0:06:12 William Moyers

0:06:13 Helene Photias
And once you start to realize you're not the only one, you start to realize well maybe it's okay to talk about this as well. And that's when we start to give them some tools. That will allow them at the own time, their own pace, and their own ability to be able to either talk about what's going on. And we use other tools as well. If they're not comfortable talking, perhaps they start to feel comfortable with drawing about it instead or writing about it.

0:06:37 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. [nods]

0:06:38 Helene Photias
And we'll simply ask them, 'How's addiction been in your family? What's really going on?' And they'll—they'll start to do this amazing work through drawing and writing.

0:06:48 Jerry Moe
And the key is building relationship.

0:06:50 William Moyers

0:06:51 Jerry Moe
Seven hours a day with boys and girls.

0:06:53 William Moyers
Seven hours!

0:06:54 Jerry Moe
And we never take a break.

0:06:55 William Moyers
I was gonna say you must be exhausted by the end of the day!

0:06:58 Jerry Moe
Well, we are. [Moyers chuckles off-camera]

0:06:59 Jerry Moe
But—but also, exhilarated.

0:07:01 William Moyers
Of course.

0:07:01 Jerry Moe
To watch changes take place. You know boys and girls don't care about how much you know until they know about how much you care. So we build relationships. And if you think about it, it's not just a Children's Program. I mean children's programs are awesome but it's really a child-centered family program that we're doing.

0:07:18 William Moyers
Oh. [nods]

0:07:19 Jerry Moe
Because the adults benefit just as much from the boys and girls. So, if it's not an all-day process, you can't build that relationship. You can't get them to begin to trust and—and the staff love kids so much and they're dedicated, and they bring passion and—and compassion, and that relationship is the key for them to begin to move forward.

0:07:40 William Moyers
I'll never forget—I know it's a serious topic when a—when addiction comes calling in the family, when addiction presents itself in—in terms of its impact upon the child, it's—there can be nothing more serious than that. But my first experience with the Children's Program here at the Betty Ford Center was when I walking across the campus one fine summer day or maybe it was winter time, but it's always nice out here, and I could hear this incredible exuberance coming from the pool. They were having fun, the children were all in the pool having fun. So fun is a component of this very serious approach. Yes, Helene?

0:08:14 Helene Photias
Absolutely. You know we're climbing into a child's world. And really that's about having fun and just being a kid.

0:08:19 William Moyers
Ohh. [nodding]

0:08:20 Helene Photias
So all of our components. They really involve some type of fun, playfulness. And we really bring it down to a—a child's level. Whether that's through language or even quite, you know, just sitting on a floor with a child as well. You know, literally just getting to their level and—and becoming one—a child with them, having fun. Exactly.

0:08:43 William Moyers
For a child to experience the Hazelden Betty Ford Children's Program, do they have to have a parent who is actually in treatment at that moment? Or has been in treatment?

0:08:54 Jerry Moe
No. The program is really open to all boys and girls. And William if you think about it, ten percent of people who have a substance use disorder ever make it to treatment. So if this program were only for children of patients, 90 percent of those boys and girls we would never see. And so, open to all boys and girls as long as there's that family history of addiction. Seven to twelve-year-olds because we wanna reach them before they take that first drink.

0:09:21 William Moyers

0:09:21 Jerry Moe
Or that first drug which creates addiction. For so many of them when they have that biological predisposition coupled with psychological hurt and pain. So, open to all boys and girls. We have community groups that take place right on the campus of Center City. Or the Betty Ford Center. Or our program in Aurora, Colorado, right outside of Denver. But we also do school programs.

0:09:42 William Moyers
Tell me more about those school programs. How do you get into the schools?

0:09:46 Helene Photias
Yeah. Our school programs are really important because like Jerry said, we want to make sure we get to the children that may not have a chance to get here. Whether the parents are in treatment or not. So, we work very closely with the communities, with the districts, with the principals at the schools, and—and—and most importantly is working with the school counselors. They're really the ones who identify what's going on with a child while at school. 'Cause most children who are having a problem with addiction in the home will also be affected at school.

0:10:16 William Moyers

0:10:17 Helene Photias
They might not be studying as well, might not be able to engage in just playtime. At having fun with other kids. So what we wanna do is with the help of those school counselors be able to get in there when they're identified. One of those nurturing adults will allow us to come by signing that release for us to come there. And, then we spend four amazing days at the school. We're literally on the campus—

0:10:41 William Moyers

0:10:41 Helene Photias
Playing with the kids at recess time, having lunch with them again, building that bond. From the very get-go. And using a lot of those same tools that allow us to climb into their world. And teach them some skills about resilience.

0:10:55 Jerry Moe
I was in a school program two weeks ago and I don't get to do very many programs anymore.

0:10:59 William Moyers
Which you're so busy running it—as a National Director, I mean you're the National Director.

0:11:00 Jerry Moe
Well, well—but I'll tell you with Helene Photias as Director of Operations, uh, what she does, amazing.

0:11:08 William Moyers
She does the hard work.

0:11:09 Jerry Moe
Amazing. Nine boys and girls in an elementary school.

0:11:13 William Moyers
Well so hold on—before you—so just nine in the whole school? How did—how did those nine get into that program in that school?

0:11:19 Jerry Moe
School counselor and the Principal—

0:11:20 William Moyers
Ahh. Okay.

0:11:22 Jerry Moe
Initially determine which boys and girls would benefit.

0:11:23 William Moyers
I see. You don't go and just pick 'em or do you—

0:11:26 Jerry Moe
No. No, no, no. These are very carefully thought out. But I'll tell ya as teachers who don't' wanna release their children for anything, they gotta help them with their academics. Once they begin to see boys and girls who've been in the Children's Program go back into the classroom, oh boy do they have a few more referrals. Because kids go back in there—

0:11:42 William Moyers
Ha. Yes, yes.

0:11:43 Jerry Moe
They're calm and they're sharing their feelings and they're not disruptive. And they just do so much better in school. So nine boys and girls. Only one was living with a parent. We had five of the boys and girls in foster care. The others were being raised by grandparents. So these are boys and girls that could never get to the Center. No one would ever bring them here and yet, being able to learn that it's not their fault and they're not alone, and that there are people who care about them. And then the way the program has been designed is that the school counselor will follow up as necessary with the boys and girls. And we will go back to the school usually at the end of the year to do a Stage Two Program. Where we do a follow-up program for boys and girls who've been with us.

0:12:27 William Moyers

0:12:28 Helene Photias
And that's so wonderful. What we really get to see when we go back is this transformation. With many of the children. You know, you imagine at first, when we go there, they're apprehensive.

0:12:38 William Moyers

0:12:39 Helene Photias
They're not sure whether they should open up or not. And when we go back a few months later to do this Stage Two, which is really like a booster shot if you think about it, right?

0:12:48 William Moyers

0:12:48 Helene Photias
Just some more supplemental information or revisit to some other things that we had done with them before.  But you really see this change in them. They're more willing to open up. They're used to the activities. They know us well. And the great thing that we also notice is that they're created these bonds with the other kids. Where they first thought there's no one else like me. I am alone. And now even realizing at a place where the—you know they go to school to do math and science, it's also a place that once they find a safe person, which may be a Principal, a teacher, a yard duty, that they build this confidence in being able to go to someone and say hey, you know what, I've been affected by something and I really need to talk.

0:13:27 William Moyers
Hmm. [nods]

0:13:28 Helene Photias
And that's what they get to do. And the Stage Two is a great opportunity. Whether it's at the school or at our sites.

0:13:34 William Moyers

0:13:35 Helene Photias
That we bring those children back to stay connected. Which is such a huge piece of what we do.

0:13:39 William Moyers
Staying connected. You know I know from doing these podcasts that we've had a lot of loyal listeners and viewers and we get a lot of re—reaction to these podcasts. But I can guarantee that we're gonna get a tremendous response to this one. Both because you all are so passionate and knowledgeable, but you're so passionate and knowledgeable on a vital subject. Children. Children recovering from their parents' addiction. I know we're gonna get a lot of response and people are gonna wanna know how do they get into the program, what does it cost, what's the process for doing that. Jerry?

0:14:12 Jerry Moe
No child is ever turned away.

0:14:14 William Moyers

0:14:15 Jerry Moe
Due to an inability to pay.

0:14:16 William Moyers

0:14:16 Jerry Moe
This is something Mrs. Ford, that was her edict, right from the beginning.

0:14:21 William Moyers
Everybody gets access.

0:14:23 Jerry Moe
Everybody gets access. Now you're—if you're able to pay something, we'll certainly be glad to take your money 'cause you're getting this transformative program—

0:14:30 William Moyers

0:14:30 Jerry Moe
That makes such a difference. But we raise money all year round so we can make sure that we have those funds necessary to continue with our operations.

0:14:39 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. And when—when children come to the program, where do they stay, how are their needs taken care of while they're here, Helene?

0:14:47 Helene Photias
Right. So, the most of them when we're at a site, they'll stay at a local hotel with their—with their adult or caregiver. And then they just come to our site every day like it would be a school day. We start early in the morning, we end in the afternoon. And they're usually ready afterwards. They're tired from working—working hard, playing hard.

0:15:06 Jerry Moe
We're tired. We're tired! [chuckles]

0:15:08 Helene Photias
It's really been a great day. And you know I will say one thing that I notice most is when ked—kids come in the first day, they are scared.

0:15:15 William Moyers
Of course.

0:15:15 Helene Photias
They are not sure of who we are and what we're gonna do. And by that last day, there are so many emotions—

0:15:21 Jerry Moe

0:15:22 Helene Photias
I'm sad, I don't wanna leave, I finally feel comfortable, I've been heard, I've made great friends. You know it is transformative for them. And we're so glad to be part of that.

0:15:32 William Moyers
Helene Photias and Jerry Moe, thank you so much for being a vital component of our mission at Hazelden Betty Ford to help children overcome addiction. I know that many people will be inspired by what they've heard from you today. And hopefully they'll be able to find a safe harbor in what we offer here. So, thank you both for being with us today.

0:15:51 Jerry Moe
Can I offer one last thing?

0:15:53 William Moyers
Always, Jerry! Always.

0:15:54 Jerry Moe
Thank you, William, thanks for indulging me. So there's a lot of grown-ups who are watching this today. There's parents, there's grandparents. Maybe even foster parents. Maybe older siblings who've gone through treatment wondering about repairing a relationship with a younger sibling.

0:16:08 William Moyers

0:16:09 Jerry Moe
What I'd like to tell them is the greatest gift they can ever give to their children or their grandchildren is their own recovery.

0:16:16 William Moyers

0:16:17 Jerry Moe
Whether it's from alcoholism, drug addiction, or as a family member, that is huge to give that to a child. Talk about changing the family legacy.

0:16:25 William Moyers

0:16:26 Jerry Moe
But the second greatest gift is to give those children a chance to do their own healing.

0:16:32 William Moyers

0:16:33 Jerry Moe
And so the Children's Program we're always looking for more—more boys and girls to serve.

0:16:37 William Moyers
When a child grows up with addiction, when a child grows up into recovery, what a wonderful message that you all have given us today. Thank you very much. And on behalf of Helene Photias and Jerry Moe, I'm your host William Moyers and we thank you for joining us uh on this podcast. Let's Talk, a series of podcasts on the issues that matter to us and matter to that next generation. Please join us again.

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