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Teaching My Daughters to Think and Feel for Themselves

Monday, May 13th, 2013

The other day a friend said to me, “It seems as if all the people I knew in high school who used drugs were the ones who had trouble coping with their feelings.”

As a person in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, I agree with her observation.

I had a great amount of anxiety as a child and as a teenager. My parents were often angry at each other. We frequently ate dinner in silence and, although we didn’t acknowledge it, the tension was high. I didn’t understand how to sort out my anxiety and my feelings became too much to bear. Just thinking about it 25 years later (14 in recovery) brings knots to my stomach.

I didn’t want to be at home with my family. As a result I started going out every night at an early age, even on weeknights, just to get away.

At 14 years old, when I had my first drink, the anxiety went away — albeit temporarily — and I thought I had finally found the answer to my problem. After that, all I wanted to do was drink again.

Now, with children of my own and being in recovery and knowing what I know about drugs and alcohol, I think a lot about the concept of coping.

I often see parents using distraction as a method to calm down their children. But what are we really telling our kids if each time they are upset about something we say, “Oh, let’s go over here, and let’s look at this really fun book!” Or “Here let’s see what’s in the fridge?” This method prevents children from learning how to experience emotions appropriately. We’re setting them up for a lifetime of bottled-up emotions; we’re teaching them to cover up their feelings, rather than to express themselves. My mother’s idea of comforting herself was through shopping and sweets. Naturally, my brother and I picked up similar habits. And believe me, I thoroughly enjoyed the shopping, chocolate and Coca-Cola.

I didn’t have a safe place to express myself and never learned how to process feelings. When I felt bad and anxious it was so painful and so overwhelming.

In early recovery when I no longer had drugs and alcohol to cover my feelings,  it was very difficult to deal with my feelings of sadness and despair. I became very depressed; I would cry endlessly. I didn’t have the ability to get passed my pain and release my emotions.

With the help of the 12 steps, therapy and meditation I have learned how to cope better. Today, when I get sad about something, my reaction is appropriate to the situation at hand.

Nevertheless, parents today never want to see their children sad. We fear that they won’t be able to handle adversity. I fall into that trap even though I consider myself to be a pretty conscious mother. Recently, my 4 year old had a playdate with a young girl who subsequently made her cry twice in the little time she was at our house. My instinct was to ban the girl from our home, and I hoped that my daughter would never want to play with her again at school. I was adamant about it. I didn’t want anyone to hurt my little girl.

But then I thought, “Wait a minute, is this the right way to go?”

I recently watched a video called the Opiate Effect. It is a short film about the Oxycodone problem in Vermont. In the film, Dr. Bob Bick (Director of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services at the Howard Center) says, “If we encourage young people to think, to THINK and FEEL from the earliest age as opposed to believing that we can think for them or feel for them, we will be in a much better position…for young people to make decisions which ultimately will affect the rest of their lives.”

Thinking and feeling for myself was something I did not know how to do until several years into my recovery. Thinking, but foremost FEELING for themselves is something I deeply would like my children to learn. And if I just step out of the way, not necessarily interfering but instead simply giving them gentle guidance along the way, I’m hoping it will be achieved.

So, I’m taking a different approach. If my daughter is angry or sad, I ask her what is going on and try to get her to talk about it. Sometimes I’ll just hold her without saying anything and let her cry until she is done. I never try to distract her with TV, food or shopping like I see so many others do, and like my own parents did.

To me it is clear that teenagers who have learned to cover up their feelings with video games or shopping or food will more easily say yes when someone offers them a joint at a party. And if they are predisposed, and have a lot of unresolved or pent-up emotions and the joint offers them relief, then they will likely want to do it again. And then who knows what will happen.

As they say, I am trying to just take it one step at a time and one day at a time encourage my two little girls to figure out life, thinking and feeling on their own, and hopefully it will make a difference.   Of course, I am just a parent in recovery. I am not an expert nor a PhD, and these are just my observations.

I would really like to hear from parents who have had or currently have children who are suffering from drug and alcohol abuse issues and hear what they have to say on this topic. Does any of this matter? Please comment below and let me know what you did or didn’t do.



Posted by  |  Filed under Addiction, Coping, Enabling, Family History, parenting, Recovery, Self-reflection, Substance Abuse, Writing About Addiction

10 Comments on “Teaching My Daughters to Think and Feel for Themselves”

Wilma says:
May 13th, 2013 at 11:54 pm

Wow. So well written and frank. Great piece.

Becky says:
May 14th, 2013 at 4:36 pm

You have such a good point. I wish my mother would have taught me how to deal with my feelings too. Instead, she would buy me something extravagant or feed me. As a result, I have struggled with compulsive shopping and compulsive eating. What I didn’t know until I got into recovery was that she never learned how to feel her feelings either, so she wasn’t able to teach me.
Your little ones are so blessed to have a mommy in recovery. You are breaking the cycle and modeling healthy behavior. Great blog post!

Pernilla Burke says:
May 14th, 2013 at 7:43 pm

Thank you Wilma for your nice comment.

Becky, that’s the gift of recovery to be able to realize that your mother and my mother did the best they could and didn’t know any better. My mom wasn’t able to teach me either…Thanks for your kind comment.


Kristy says:
May 15th, 2013 at 3:24 pm

My daughter is 20 and is an opiate addict. She was 6 months clean after inpatient treatment, and has recently relapsed.

She may have a different opinion or recollection, but I believe I tried to talk to her and get her to share her feelings. I remember to this day her first heartbreak from a boy, and going into her room to talk to her and she closed up. She always did – even now, I try to talk to her about things that hurt or upset her, and she doesn’t want to talk about it. If I press, she gets frustrated.

Pernilla Burke says:
May 15th, 2013 at 3:40 pm

Thanks for sharing Kristy, addiction is a disease with no one solutions and no one road map. What I shared in my post was an observation on my journey and some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Unfortunately, as you say, even though you try to teach them to feel like you did, and to talk about it openly some just don’t want to anyway. And, of course, even if she did want to share her feelings, would it have changed the course of her life so far? There is no way to know, all we have to do is to hope that she will find recovery soon again like I did.
You are in my prayers,

Tom says:
May 15th, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Your post brought back vivid memories of same kind of tensions at my family’s dinner table, and my underlying anger and fear. My reactions to hide and be quiet and be as invisible as possible didn’t help me, but allayed the anxiety of the moment. I understand what you’re saying and have tried to do similar things with my son as he has grown up. Thank you for what you have shared and for taking the time to connect with other imperfect souls.

Pernilla Burke says:
May 16th, 2013 at 11:31 pm

Tom- We are all perfectly imperfect as the yogi’s would say. Thanks for sharing. Such a weird circumstance really to have to sit at a table and that that would be the thing I feared the most growing up. It took me well into my 30′s to not completely freak out if there ever was silence while eating with others. I would panic and start talking manically. How do you deal with silence?

About Rehabs says:
May 17th, 2013 at 6:19 pm

This is a fabulous point and not one that I’ve seen addressed so directly before. This is definitely something that many people in rehab need to learn how to do. It would be an interesting study to do to see if teaching the youth of today to cope with their feelings could reduce addictions.

Elsa, throughtheunknowable says:
May 17th, 2013 at 6:45 pm

You make such a vital point. Our emotions are friends, giving information not orders. Sharing them is necessary for intimacy, without which we can’t have a full life. I often could not help my child, but I could love her until the day she died, and have every day since.

Pernilla Burke says:
May 18th, 2013 at 10:48 pm

Dear About rehabs- doing a study would be such an interesting and powerful thing. Thanks for your thoughts.

Dear Elsa, my heart ached reading your post. What you said is beautiful and Love is the only thing that helps us get through the day sometimes. Thank you for sharing so very much.


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