An episode of the “Changing the Conversation” podcast
Joanne Nicholson and host Katie Volk discuss strategies and challenges for parenting while in recovery. This episode was sponsored by the New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center Network (MHTTC).
August 17, 2020
Erika Simon, Producer: [00:01] Hello, and welcome to Changing the Conversation. Before we get started with our new episode, we want to acknowledge that as our communities respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, this is a difficult time for everyone, especially for people who are marginalized and those providing health and human services. We are deeply thankful to all the health and human service providers and community leaders who are working tirelessly to keep people safe and well and to help folks who are sick to recover. We appreciate you beyond measure.
Erika: [00:33] We are sharing some COVID-19-related resources for supporting people experiencing challenges with substance use, mental health, recovery, homelessness, and housing on our webpage at c4innovates.com/news, and on our social media channels on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Please email us at email@example.com if we can support you or your programs in any way. All of us at C4 wish health and strength to you, your families and friends, and the people you work with.
Katie Volk, Host: [01:10] Hello and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Katie Volk. Today, we begin a series on recovery and resilience, sponsored by the New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center—the New England MHTTC. Our topic today is parenting while in recovery. My guest is Joanne Nicholson. Joanne is a professor at the Institute for Behavioral Health at The Heller School at Brandeis University. She is a clinical and research psychologist calling in from Wells, Maine. Welcome, Joanne.
Joanne Nicholson, Guest: [01:44] Thanks. Happy to be here.
Katie: [01:45] So Joanne, I know you’ve been doing work around parenting and recovery for a while now, tell us a little bit about that.
Joanne: [01:51] Well, first of all, I’m a parent myself, and so it’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, but I’ve been working in the area of parents and families for 40 years now, and have approached the topic and the issues from several different perspectives and positions. I am a clinician, I am a researcher, I have worked with families in family therapy, I have conducted research with parents, for parents to inform programs and policies that affect parents and families. And I count many parents among my friends. It’s a lifelong pursuit.
Katie: [02:38] Certainly. One of the things I think when we think about parenting and recovery, a lot of the conversation turns to the challenges, which certainly are multitude. But one of the things that I know you and I have talked about is that part of being a responsive, nurturing parent and part of being in recovery often involves similar skillsets.
Joanne: [03:00] It’s interesting. It’s interesting for you to point to that, particularly during this time of the COVID pandemic, when everyone is feeling so stressed. I mean, there are a lot of lessons to be learned about parenting and recovery, and parenting during recovery or in recovery. I think that in general, people want to do as well as they can as parents and be as well as they can as parents.
Joanne: [03:30] And so, taking those steps towards recovery, recognizing that you might have a problem or a challenge that you want to address, seeking help, pursuing that path. And recovery is a tough journey, with ups and downs, all of those are not dissimilar, frankly, from the experiences of parenting persisting in the face of lots of challenges, whether that’s challenges brought on by your own behavior, or by your children’s behavior, or by a global pandemic, certainly the goal of doing better, and feeling better, and organizing yourself around the motivation to achieve that, those are common themes in recovery, as well as in parenting.
Katie: [04:22] Certainly, I know for myself, both for my own mental wellbeing and for my parenting, mindfulness is really a key part of that, that I can tell when I haven’t practiced mindfulness. And I can tell when I do, it makes a difference in how I feel. And I would guess that if you could ask my children, it would make a difference for them as well.
Joanne: [04:41] I think it’s really important that you have recognized that that is something that helps you. I mean, a piece of the recovery journey and a piece of parenting in general is recognizing the times when you are stressed, when you do need help finding things that help you feel better, and then being able to do those ahead of time, it’s really the goal, isn’t it? Being able to have a regular routine or to anticipate those times during the day that will be most stressful and then setting yourself up to cope with that in a healthy way. I mean, that’s what parenting is all about as well as recovery.
Katie: [05:24] Certainly. Our own self-care, I think, is so important as parents and as for when you’re in recovery as well. And of course, parenting doesn’t happen in a vacuum, sometimes it’s not just you and a child, there’s a whole family context around that, and that can be both helpful for recovery, and it can also be more of a challenge. And I know that’s something that you’ve run into in your work as well.
Joanne: [05:49] Exactly. I mean, I think it is important. And you would think that more people would realize this. So much of our treatment and intervention work is organized around individuals, the individual adult, when in fact, recovery doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And as a professional, if you haven’t spoken with a person about their family context, about their status as a parent, their roles, their responsibilities, all of those woven together provide the daily context, the day-to-day fabric of our lives in which parenting and recovery both happen. It’s where triggers may come up, it’s where we may find supports in unusual places.
Joanne: [06:37] Our pet dog may be a very important support animal to us, I almost said person. It’s also interesting to think about the norms or the expectations that families have about what’s appropriate, or what’s not appropriate, or what’s in or outside the realm of reasonable. And in our own experiences of being parented, what did our parents do when they were stressed? Did they reach for a bottle of beer? I know my parents didn’t do mindfulness, but family is where we learn, that’s where our first role models are for how to cope, how to feel better, what makes us feel worse, and ultimately provides the context for recovery. And that means supports as well as things that undermine our recovery, it means benchmarks for progress, it provides a context for setting goals, it provides us perhaps access to other family members who are supportive or not about our efforts to recover, about our efforts to be good parents.
Katie: [07:49] And I think you see so much both stigma and de-stigmatizing behavior in all of that. At least in my experience, when people say, actually I’m in recovery from X, Y, and Z, and here’s my experience, you see that opens a door for other parents to say, “Oh, actually I am too, and I don’t talk about it with anybody.” And you see the opposite, the families will say, “Well, we don’t talk about her problems,” or “We don’t talk about his challenges,” or “She doesn’t drink, but it’s not something we’re going to talk about right now.” And you can feel that stigma, and you can also feel those bonds form. I’ve seen it go both ways.
Joanne: [08:28] Exactly. I mean, the opportunities for blame, shame, guilt, feeling bad, feeling like a failure, both in recovery and in the context of parenthood, goodness knows none of us is a perfect parent. And yet the opportunities for others to make judgments about us or for us to make assumptions about what other people are thinking about us, or how they perceive us is huge.
Joanne: [08:58] And you made the point, Katie, that families can be supportive or not, they can be open in talking about these issues, or that may be a taboo subject in a family. All of those things can affect the course of recovery and the course of family life. And it actually leads me to think about the ways in which parents in recovery have opportunity to teach their children, to treat their children in different ways at different stages to help them do better and feel better themselves.
Katie: [09:39] Well, I’m so glad you mentioned that because that was going to be my next question is that, as you’re thinking about parenting kids at different ages and stages, and how you talk with them about these experiences, I wonder if you can think of any examples of parents that you’ve worked with who’ve been able to figure that out at different ages and stages.
Joanne: [10:01] That’s really an important question. And I could provide a very lengthy answer, but kids of different ages and different stages both require different things and make sense of things in different ways. And so, being available to a toddler is a much different kind of set of demands than being available to a teenager who maybe doesn’t want you to be available in the first place. And so understanding that children of different ages and stages both need different things and understand, or comprehend, or make sense of things in different ways is really important.
Joanne: [10:46] For example, a young child who developmentally should be the center of parents’ universe, but who often thinks of themselves as the center of the universe, may feel responsible, or guilty, or may think it’s their fault, may think that a parent’s use of substances or floundering in recovery is their fault, the child’s fault. The flip side of that is that kids can often think they have the power to make change happen. And that if only they were better, if only they got better grades, if only they made their bed in the morning, if only they picked up the dishes after dinner, maybe their parents wouldn’t drink or wouldn’t feel the need to do drugs or whatever the parent’s issue might be.
Joanne: [11:50] On the other hand, a much older child may have a completely different perspective on things, and may be better able to understand more about the context in which a parent is using substances, or may in fact, hold the parent quite responsible for “behaving badly” who are drinking too much, who are drugging too much, but certainly change over time underscores and underlies both recovery and parenting.
Katie: [12:24] Certainly, certainly. And I think, some stages, some of us are really good at parenting at one age versus another. And recognizing that and being able to roll with that. Oh, man.
Joanne: [12:35] Exactly. And the expectations that parents put upon themselves, the demands that parents put upon themselves, many parents, I mean, I’m not here to tell you that all parents are good parents or that every parent in recovery is able to be the best parent they can be. There are times when all of us who are parents are not doing so well.
Joanne: [13:04] As you point out, maybe we’re not very good with toddlers, but we’re much better at sitting with teenagers and listening to them, and their angst about the state of the world. It is a tough row to hoe because I think the only thing worse than acknowledging, in terms of stigma, you mentioned the issue of stigma before, the only thing worse than disclosing that you have a behavioral health condition, or an addiction, or you’re dependent on one substance or another, is failing as a parent. And I think people judge themselves and others judge them as parents. And it’s incredibly painful to feel that you might have failed to be the kind of parent that you hope to be. So the opportunity for guilt, blame, shame abound in each domain and overlapping domain brings cumulative opportunity to feel blame, or shame, or guilt.
Katie: [14:13] Yeah, and like we’ve talked about them, the stigma, I think of all of that and the weight of all of that can prevent people from really being able to connect in an authentic way and be able to experience some community and healing, et cetera.
Joanne: [14:31] Exactly. And whether that means connecting with your child in an authentic way, or your partner, or your own parent, or your neighbor, or your healthcare professional. There are a lot of barriers for parents in recovery. Well, there are a lot of barriers to parents entering recovery and then speed bumps along the way that can set parents off track.
Katie: [15:01] Many of our listeners are professionals working in the community, and so what tips might you have for how professionals can partner effectively with parents?
Joanne: [15:14] I think the first and most important thing you can do as a professional, or as a person, or as a parent, is to question your own assumptions, to really take a moment or two or many to reflect on your own experiences of substances, recovery, parenting, family life, your community, your neighborhood, your faith community, and really consider carefully the assumptions that are made about parents, about good parents, and “bad parents,” and about substance use, and mental health conditions, and recovery, and treatment. There are certainly cultural considerations, expectations, interpretations of things.
Joanne: [16:11] And so, the first thing I always say to professionals when they ask me this question is, “So what assumptions do you have about whether people in recovery can parent, can parent well, should be parents, should be “allowed to be parents?”” That’s the place to start, is to really understand what you bring to the relationship, what you bring to the table if you’re sitting with someone who is approaching, entering, or actively in recovery.
Katie: [16:45] That’s really helpful. I think to think about what we bring, and what we don’t bring, and what assumptions we do have…
Joanne: [16:51] Exactly.
Katie: [16:52] … our own work. Yes,
Joanne: [16:53] Yes. Parents live busy lives, people live busy lives, and there’s not always opportunity, which may be one of the reasons why your mindfulness has been so helpful to you, that you can sit and take a moment to reflect and sit still for a minute to think about these things.
Katie: [17:14] And sometimes mindfulness looks like spending an extra minute in the shower, or brushing your teeth for longer, or just taking a walk down the driveway and back, or up the street and back. It doesn’t have to be an intensive yoga meditation or something like that, it’s just that practicing that pause is just so key.
Joanne: [17:34] Exactly. In our work with parents, so many of them feel judged and feel as if they’re not respected. And once you disclose that you a problem, by definition, you’re exposing the fact that you’re not the best parent you think you could be. To find a professional who is respectful, who is non-judgmental, who can sit, as you point out, who can sit still for that moment and hear what you have to say and not rush to judgment, that’s also a very important thing. I’ve heard it called “respectful curiosity.” To be interested and curious about, and with the person you’re sitting with in a respectful kind of way, without assuming, without making judgments, without even having expectations about what their motivation might be for pursuing recovery or not pursuing recovery in the moment. And so, being able to sit still, and be respectful, and curious, but non-judgmental, are really key aspects of, I think, a solid professional relationship as well.
Katie: [18:57] I love that concept of “respectful curiosity,” that’s just a wonderful phrase to come back to. Our series is all about recovery and resilience. And so, what’s one thing that you’ve learned about resilience over the years?
Joanne: [19:13] I think one thing I’ve learned about resilience is that it comes in the most surprising way in the most surprising places. People you would think, who have been really downtrodden, and they had lots of terrible things happen to them, can be incredibly strong and resilient. And other people you think have had pretty good lives, and not so much bad as happened, may not be quite as resilient. And whether that means that resilience comes from, someone called it, “exercising your struggle muscle,” that if you have opportunity to exercise your “struggle muscle,” that you may end up being more resilient. But I guess the bottom line for me is that resilience can be surprising and come in unexpected ways from unexpected places.
Katie: [20:09] And I also think one of the most beautiful things about resilience being surprising is that when parents show resilience, kids learn that as well. They start to internalize some of those resiliency skills.
Joanne: [20:22] Exactly. And for parents to point out when a child is being resilient, even in a surprising way, is a great step towards building resilience in children too.
Katie: [20:36] Yeah. And it’s just anything we can do to strengthen those connections helps caregivers, and it helps children. Joanne, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today, it’s been a pleasure.
Joanne: [20:48] And thank you for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity to chat with you about this.
Katie: [20:52] And to our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
Erika: [20:56] Visit c4innovates.com, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode is sponsored by New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center, New England MHTTC, and was produced by Erica Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlin. Our hosts are Jeff Olivet, Kristen Paquette, Regina Cannon, and Katie Volk. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
Access additional “Changing the Conversation” podcast episodes.