Relationship Connection: My husband’s an addict, what do I tell my kids?

© User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0

Question

I just discovered that my husband has a pornography addiction and I’m wondering about how I should handle this with my children.

Should I tell them about what their father does? If so, what do I tell them and when? Will they need special counseling? Should a counselor be involved when I tell them?  What if they are devastated? What if they don’t want to talk about it?  Will they become so curious about pornography that they will be more apt to participate in it? What special needs will they have? What signs do I look for? Are they in danger from their father?

As you can tell, I have no idea how to proceed.

Answer

The impact of addiction on a family, regardless of the type of addiction, is something that’s difficult to keep secret. Granted, the details surrounding the nature of the addiction may never surface, but the collateral damage of strained relationships, lack of connection, and other consequences are difficult to hide from children living in the home.They know something is different, even though they might not know why.

I’d like to outline several considerations you should discuss with your husband before you proceed. However, remember that you’re the expert on your child’s temperament, personality, and current level of stability. Whatever decisions you make in this regard, always put the needs of the children before the needs of the adults. They are counting on you to protect them.

The ages of your children will determine how much you share, if you share anything at all. Children younger than 12 have difficulty with abstract concepts like addiction, so it’s best to focus on the things they are directly experiencing. For example, you might talk with them about how much arguing there has been in the home lately and help them understand it has nothing to do with their behavior.

Older children may benefit from more of a general discussion on addiction, if it’s something they’re mature enough to handle. However, your children may already know something serious is happening. In one study, 67 percent of children already knew about their parent’s addiction before disclosure.

If your children already know something about the addiction, then find out from them what they already know. Don’t lie to them or minimize the seriousness of what they have already discovered. Make sure you don’t punish them for sharing what they know.

Regardless of how they found out, recognize that children will often do whatever they need to do so they can feel safe and secure in their home. While the details of the addiction are not necessary to share, it is critical for them to know they’re not crazy or making things up in their heads.

It’s also important to recognize that what you tell one child may be shared with a younger sibling who isn’t developmentally prepared to handle the information. Make sure you carefully consider how much you share with older children so you don’t put them in a situation where they become so overwhelmed by the information that it spills over to younger siblings.

The discovery of an addiction often brings on so much intense emotion that the shocked partner can inadvertently share information with their children that puts them in a dilemma. If this happens – or if you’ve already done this – don’t ignore what was said, but instead, approach the child and own the mistake. Do your best to explain in age-appropriate language the nature of what’s happening.

If your children don’t know anything about the addiction, then you might consider what Stefanie Carnes, author of “Mending a Shattered Heart,” calls a “softened disclosure.” This is the process of staggering the disclosure over time, respecting the developmental growth of the child. The parent can acknowledge the changes in the emotional climate of the family and then share whatever will be most helpful to the child at that time. As the child grows up and either has more questions, or would benefit from more information, the parent can include more details.

Children are sensitive and pick up on emotions, body language, and discussions. Because children are egocentric, they will naturally believe that anything that feels tense in the family is because of them, or involves them. They need to know it’s not because of them.

It’s best if your husband takes accountability for causing the tension in the home by saying something like, “Dad did some things that have hurt mom’s feelings and he’s working to make things better.” Again, older kids might benefit from more details and accountability, but that entirely depends on the factors I outlined earlier.

If you’ve overreacted and overwhelmed your children, then make sure to take accountability for your actions, even though you might want to blame your husband’s behavior for your reaction. Your kids only need to know they’ll be safe with you, so keep it simple and straightforward as you repair your relationships with them.

If you and your husband are having difficulty knowing how to talk with your children about this, then I recommend you work with a counselor so you can both take a unified approach.

If your husband ultimately doesn’t want to say anything or take any accountability for the impact he’s having on your family, then it will be up to you to decide what to share and how to share it based on the recommendations I have outlined.

Even though your husband has kept secrets from you about his pornography use, it does not automatically mean that he’s a danger to your children. In fact, one of the biggest dangers to children when a parent has an addiction is the lack of attention, the constant tension, and other dynamics that disrupts the stability of their relationships and environment.

Recognize that your couples recovery process should include a full disclosure of all of his acting-out behaviors. It should also include a thorough assessment by a competent therapist trained in working with sexual addictions to make sure there are no concerns about his level of safety in the home.

As you can see, the decision to disclose to children is not a simple one and can be an agonizing part of an already difficult situation. As you put the emotional needs of your children first and work to get adequate support for yourself and your marriage, you can better navigate the maze of decisions you face as you both work to put your family back together.

Stay connected!

Related posts

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

Twitter: @geoffsteurer

Facebook: facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2014, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!

11 Comments

  • Brian March 12, 2014 at 9:01 am

    I saw a family devastated by the disclosure of a father’s porn addiction to his children by his wife. He was working through the problem successfully but the full disclosure led to rifts in the family that have never healed.

    Children and adolescents have a much more difficult time forgiving addictions by their “on-a pedestal” parents when they learn about it. I would advise the questioner to lean towards not disclosing to the children because of the potential irreversible or difficult-to-reverse rifts it can cause to the family. I would advise the questioner to focus on helping her spouse recover from the addiction.

  • Bub March 12, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    “Well kids, your daddy is addicted to porn”

    “What’s porn mommy?”

    “Well porn is…uhm…”

  • Welcome to Utah March 12, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    The dude is a porn addict? Well, welcome to Utah, the nation’s leader in internet porn use. You only need to talk with divorced women in Utah to learn about their former husbands’ porn addition. Shocking is that some of those hubbies have upper positions in the church. Yeah, pretend there is no porn addiction in southern utah, just as there is no drug problem and no domestic abuse. Bury your heads in the sand, deny the obvious, pretend it isn’t so. That’s what you are best at. Got a porno addict as your spouse? Well, you picked that person (probably for his or her ‘hotness’). So deal with it.

    • Brian March 13, 2014 at 10:25 am

      The myth that Utah is the nation’s leader in porn use is completely unsubstantiated. It comes from the CEO of a single online porn company that said Utah was their most popular state. But he never released any statistics or data to back up the claim, and never said the order of the other 49 states. It could have been a marketing ploy to draw attention to the company, or it could have been to discredit Utah (the claim was made during the height of the Prop 8 battle in California when many were trying to discredit Utah and Mormons). So repeat it all you want, but until you can point to a source with credibility and detail you’re just lying to promote your own agenda.

      • Welcome to Utah March 13, 2014 at 12:12 pm

        There you go, proving that along with Utahans hunger for porn, they also demonstrate that deep in denial behavior and point fingers elsewhere. I think the hunger for porn is a cultural thing since their prophets and church leaders had scores of women and young girls to sate their sexual hunger. Even women participate in so-called sex toy parties where these objects are displayed, explained and then sales are made in the back room. Finally, we look a the Utah women culture, one with the highest rate of breast augmentation (to look sexually appealing to the porn addict men?), and who too frequently wear tight leggings in public to reveal every curve and crack and camel toe. You see logos printed across the backside to draw your attention there. Word on the street, too, is these people have extra-marital affairs, despite their claim of being conservative church people. I know you will deny all this, because denial and placing blame is what people here do the best. Remember the denial and false blame of Mountain Meadow Massacre? It’s a trait passed down through generations.

        • Bub March 13, 2014 at 1:21 pm

          The mormon religion here in UT is all about putting on appearances. That wholesome facade they are taught to put on is funny, because they can be as freaky as any sex addict when it comes to their true feelings…

          • Welcome to Utah March 14, 2014 at 8:27 am

            Yup. Some mormon women I’ve met had some freaky ideas that are counter to the conservative celibate picture members of their religion pretend to portray.

  • KanabCowgirl March 12, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    This came to me firsthand from one of the families that this porn crap affected. The dad had porn mags (thought they were hidden). 1 of the kids found them and looked @ them. Think first grader. That kid has had a lifetime of porn addiction that she/he tries to deny.
    My point in saying this is get those babies as far away from that filth as quickly as possible and Never reveal to them their biological’s problem.

    • Bub March 12, 2014 at 10:51 pm

      Yeah, I really don’t see a point in telling the kids. It’ll just peak their curiosity.

      Geoff Steurer’s replys are always able to put my brain to sleep and zone me out though, for good or bad… they’re so drawn out and boringly contrived.

  • Simone March 17, 2014 at 10:22 am

    I’m sorry but keeping a few old playboys in the bedroom closet does not qualify as a lifetime of porn addiction. Also, did the person you got this from know that her husband had the mags prior to the children getting a hold of them? If she was really so concerned that her children would find them, why didn’t she throw them out herself? I think she approved of the mags being there then tried to save face when it came out at the weekly Rumor, i mean, Relief Society meeting after little Johnny or Jane hid one in their backpack, brought it to school and showed it off to friends and teachers,

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.