The parent child relationship is an intimate one, and as a clinician that works with families impacted by sex addiction, no matter the age of the child it can be upsetting and yet also it can bring immense clarity and understanding for a child. Disclosure to children about a sex addiction can be scary, confusing, and hard to navigate. In my work with parent(s) wanting to disclose about a sex addiction to their children there a number of points that we explore as a preparation for the disclosure.
It should be noted that the age and developmental stage of the child needs to be considered throughout the entire process. Additionally if there are multiple children the difference in their ability to understand the issue due to their developmental stages. For instance language used for a 15-year old and 8-year old would be very different, what may be disclosed would be different, and questions the children may have could be different. The following are also points that we process when disclosing to an adult child, thus the term “child” additionally refers to an adult child of a sex addict.
I encourage you to work through the following points with a therapist:
- Does the child already know something? Whether it be from a passive disclosure by parents, having discovered something, or even being a secret holder. It is not uncommon for children within the household to over hear conversations or fighting. Adult children might have heard passive comments at family events. If it is known that the child knows something, it is imperative to validate their experiences and provide clarity.
- What changes have they observed? Children are incredibly observant, and they often are aware of changes that have happened in their environment. If they are in the household they may notice that their parents are gone at the same time every week (maybe going to a meeting or therapy), or are now carrying certain books with them (recovery textbooks), and so even if there has not been information disclosed they may be aware of changes in their environment. Children will often tell me that although they did not know what was going on, they observed their Mom crying more, their parents talking less, or their Dad being more despondent.
- What are the goals for disclosing to a child? It’s important that the best interest of the child be held as the priority. Thus, it is imperative for the parent(s) to really be honest with themself about how this disclosure would serve the child’s best interest.
- What would the parent(s) like to disclose? No matter the age of the child, my experience is that they do not need the gritty details a partner might. This is also a point where the age of the child is incredibly important to consider. When thinking about what would may be disclosed, keep in mind the goals (point 3) that were set for the disclosure and work from there. If both parents are involved in the disclosure, I encourage that both parents be on the same page about what they would like to disclose and what information they would like to keep for the parents or “adults only.” During this point, whether the child is an adult or minor, it is important to remember familial boundaries, in that it is okay and actually important for the parental subsystem to maintain boundaries that separate them from the children. This includes appropriately holding information just within the parental system. While the role of disclosures is often to bring clarity to experiences and events, validate the reality of the child, and maybe alleviate some of the family secrets, it does not mean that children need to know everything. This will vary for each family depending on the acting out behaviors, the impact of those behaviors, and any changes happening in the family as a result.
- Choose the language to be used. What language is used during a disclosure (and following conversations) can be really important for consistency, clarity, and therefore understanding. Sometimes parents can be on the same page about what they want to disclose, and then once they get into disclosing it to the child, they realize they do not have the same words or descriptors of events. This can be both confusing and anxiety provoking for the parents and child. So talking through what words the parents would like to use when discussing certain information is very important and can make the process go easier. Words and phrases need to be thought through about how to describe the addiction, the impact, how each parent felt, and what will be happening as a result. For instance with young children something might be said like “Daddy had made a promise to Mommy that he broke, and as a result Daddy is doing a lot of work on how to be a better husband to Mommy, and trying to help Mommy know that she can trust him again.” Or for an older teenager something like “I made a commitment to your mom of fidelity and truth. I broke that commitment, by cheating on her and as a result we have been working through the impact of that.” I rarely suggest the use of the term “sex addict” unless it is an adult child and there is clear discussion about specific recovery work that is taking place.
- Is there going to be changes in the household or family structure that need explaining? Such as is there a separation happening, will either of the parents be gone regularly for a meeting or therapy, or will one of the parents be leaving to an intensive.
In setting up the process of disclosing to a child, I suggest consideration of the following.
- I usually have both parents prepare a letter with the intention of reading it to their child within a therapeutic setting. If the couple are able to work with a family therapist that has experience in working with families impacted by sex addiction it is a huge plus. I often have the addict read their letter, and then we allow time for processing. I then ask the child if they would like to hear from the partner. The asking is key because it gives the child some agency in the whole mumble jumble of what is being disclosed. If the child says “yes,” there is time available, and it seems appropriate, then the partner reads their letter. Otherwise I offer another session to just focus on the experience of the partner. It is important that the partner’s experience be included because sometimes initially children are more impacted by the partner’s change in behavior rather than the addict’s. A disclosure helps them make sense of things like ‘why mom was always crying, why she stopped picking us up at school’ etc.
- Is there support set up for the child? It doesn’t seem appropriate that there to be a disclosure to a child with no follow up planned. So either is that child in their own individual therapy, is there going to be follow-up sessions set-up for the weeks ahead, or is there other support in place for that child. I often suggest that parents prepare their child by telling them that they have something important they would like to discuss with them in a therapeutic setting, and that after they discuss these things with them in therapy, they are going to offer support to that child whether it be by therapy etc. If it is a young child exact details of the aftercare may not need to be given, but it is still important that they have an understanding about what the plan will be. For example “we want to talk to you about something important but it is kind of difficult for us adults to talk about. So we have asked someone to help us figure out how to talk about it. Afterwards we might go back a few more times until we all feel like we’ve talked through all the difficult things”. In my experience, and I think with any of us that receive big news no matter the news, we need some time to process it. Thus giving the child the opportunity to hear a disclosure, and then come back with questions and thoughts about it is both respectful to the child’s process and to the disclosure.
- If possible, having both parents involved in the disclosure process can offer a sense of security and safety to a child when hearing information that may be destabilizing. The caveat to this is if both parents are able to come to an agreement on the aforementioned points, are able to be amiable, and the understanding of coming together is for the child. The parents do not have to be in relationship together, but rather if they are able to convey a sense of partnership in wanting the best for the child then that can be an incredible gift of grounding.
No matter the age, in my experience I find that a lot of children start putting together their own story of what happened between their parents based on things they have overheard, observed, and changes that have occurred. I observed incredible family healing and growth through appropriate disclosures to children, and one that is done with care. If possible I suggest that the family be in family therapy or the children in their own therapy because for kids (again depending on the age) it isn’t until after the disclosure that they may start coming up with more questions etc. This also pertains to adult children of sex addicts, whom I have found equally benefit from an appropriate disclosure because it helped them make sense of things they may otherwise have been wondering about or making up their own stories about.
As a reiteration during a disclosure to children (no matter the age) it is important that systemic boundaries between the parent and child are upheld. Thus sometimes the addict or the partner wants the child to know absolutely everything, and that can be a boundary violation for the child, parentify them, enmesh etc. Doing a significant amount of pre work between the parent(s) on what’s appropriate, whose needs are being met with what information is being disclosed, and a comfortable disclosure process will better set the disclosure up as an experience that can be healing for the child.
As a result of my work with families impacted by sex addiction and working with the unique needs of each family in the process of disclosure and healing, I have developed customizable retreats in Bali and intensives in Los Angeles. These are opportunities for families to restore trust, heal from the betrayals, break dysfunctional patterns, and develop healthy ways to communicate. For more information visit www.numiretreats.com.