Health Agenda

Mental Health

Co-parenting with an alcoholic partner

If your partner or ex-partner is living with an alcohol-use disorder, or recovering from one, everyday life can become a challenge.

One of the biggest effects it can have is on the way you parent your children. In addition to working out safe and secure ways for children to spend time with a parent who's living with addiction, the main focus for any family is to protect and nurture the child’s mental health and wellbeing.

So where do you start when it comes to supporting them through this tough time?

Talk about it

While they may often look as if they have their head in the clouds – particularly when you’re trying to get them to put their shoes on or finish their dinner – kids have a far greater understanding than we often give them credit for, even at a very young age.

This is especially true when things at home don’t feel the same or there’s conflict. You may think that you’re managing to deal with the tough stuff once they’re in bed, but chances are they’ve picked up something is off.

“Kids are cluey,” says Dr Vicky Phan, an addiction psychiatrist at Turning Point Eastern Treatment Services and a lecturer at Monash University. “They understand more than we think they do and retain a lot of information. The key when talking to kids about hard subjects is to check in to see if they’re okay and comfortable to keep talking.”

If you’re talking to your children about what’s happening at home and you get the sense they’ve had enough, say something like, “let’s stop talking about this now and do something else. If you have any questions or want to talk again later, just let me know.”

Explaining addiction to children

If you’re co-parenting with a partner or ex who is managing an alcohol addiction, it’s important to let your children know why they are behaving differently or are not currently at home.

Your choice of language will depend heavily on the age of your child. The older they are, the more facts they may be able to understand, or questions they may ask. But whatever the age, the important part is having the conversation and letting them know what’s going on.

Dr Phan says, “Talking to young children might sound something like, ‘lots of people drink and don’t have problems. But for some people it’s really hard to stop, even when bad things happen. That’s called an alcohol addiction. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s an illness or sickness that people can recover from with the right treatment.’”

The risks of denial

We instinctively want to shield our children from the bad stuff, but talking to them about alcohol addiction will help them understand what has changed at home and why some routines and behaviours are different.

And there’s a danger that comes with not addressing the elephant in the room.

According to Dr Phan “[talking to your children about addiction is] a very sensitive and intimate decision for families to make. But kids are often aware when there’s something going on or if there’s a change in a parent. If they’re not spoken to, then they often worry, and they might catastrophise.”

Australia’s Alcohol and Drug Foundation provides tips for talking to children about alcohol and other drugs.

Create new structures and boundaries

Children respond well to routine. As well as making life feel predictable and stable, it can also help them feel safe.

Co-parenting with an alcoholic partner may mean your children’s usual routines are disrupted and plans may have to change at the last minute. Preparing your children for this, and explaining the reasons why, can help ease their worries about any changes.

“Let your children know that while you may not be under the same roof, both parents love them and are there for them,” Dr Phan says. “And while they may be with one parent on [a particular] day, have some safety buffers in place so that if things are really rough, you can re-evaluate where the child is that day.”

Modelling good or bad behaviour

When a parent is struggling with addiction, children may witness some behaviours that make them feel sad or scared, or make them question what’s “normal”.

“Talking to your children about some of the changes in behaviours they may see is important in reassuring them that this is part of the addiction, and not who their parent is now as a person,” Dr Phan says.

You can help your child to separate the person they love from the addiction, and the behaviour that comes with it, by explaining that certain actions occur when that person drinks, but it’s not who they are all the time, and it’s not permanent.

Equally, modelling healthy behaviour is essential to make sure kids feel healthy and safe, too.

“Parents can have a really big influence on children’s health and drinking behaviours,” Dr Phan says. “So, if you model good behaviours, they can know how to make positive choices.”

Good behaviours include having a healthy diet, not drinking in front of your children and having regular bedtimes and routines.

Dealing with big feelings

How children react to the changes around them can vary widely and will depend on a variety of cognitive, environmental and socio-cultural factors.

“Some kids may get angry or embarrassed,” Dr Phan says. “Others will feel sad or anxious, and may even try to take on a parenting-type role at home. Others feel guilt or shame and don’t want to talk about what’s happening. Some may just feel confused.”

To help your children cope with this challenge in their lives, Dr Phan recommends:

  • continually letting them know you’re there when they want to talk
  • modelling good behaviours
  • providing them with a secure, consistent and loving relationship.

Eligible HCF members have access to Calm Kid Central^, an online educational and support program to help kids aged 4–11 learn to act bravely and confidently, behave in positive ways, develop good friendships and manage tough life situations.

If your children are aged 12-25, Headspace is a national organisation that helps young people manage their mental health. In addition to more than 100 centres across Australia, Headspace offer an online and telephone counselling service.

Help with your own mental health

While it’s every parent’s desire to protect and help children through tough times, it’s important that you’re looking after your own mental health, so that you can support theirs.

If you need extra support, Head to Health can help you find digital mental health services, including apps, forums and information hubs. Your GP can also recommend local services.

If you’re worried about your mental wellbeing and have a mental healthcare plan, GP2U is a great place to start. You may also be able to access bulk-billed online GP services with your current provider. If Medicare does not cover online GP services, HCF members have access to online GP consultations through GP2U for free until at least 31 December 2021. No other private health fund partners with GP2U.

We're trying to make it as easy and fast as possible for you to access the mental wellbeing support you need. PSYCH2U mental wellbeing and navigation services are unique to HCF, giving eligible HCF members* access to video consultations with psychologists, psychiatrists and other allied health professionals.

Getting help with addiction

If someone you know would like to change their drinking habits, there are resources to support you taking positive steps for your health and wellbeing.  

Reset drinking habits with the Daybreak app⁺, Hello Sunday Morning’s online behaviour change program giving you access to 24/7 digital support. The program connects you anonymously with a like-minded online community trying to change their relationship with alcohol.

The Daybreak app is fully subsidised by the Australian Department of Health, which means all Australians get free access.

HCF members may also have access to additional mental health support. For more information contact HCF’s Health and Wellbeing Team at wellbeing@hcf.com.au

Download the Daybreak app on the App Store or Google Play.

Where to find more help for alcohol support, counselling and information:  

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by Kerry McCarthy
June 2021

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^To access Calm Kid Central you must have hospital or extras cover for 12 months with a child aged 4-11 on your policy, excludes Accident Only cover and Overseas Visitors Health Cover.

*Must have HCF gold level hospital cover for 12 months. Other eligibility criteria apply

⁺You should make your own enquiries to determine whether this service is suitable for you. If you decide to use this service, it'll be on the basis that HCF won't be responsible, and you won't hold HCF responsible, for any liability that may arise from that use.