What to do when you’re worried your ex’s substance abuse might impact your kids
Being a Solo Mom who shares parenting time or responsibilities with an ex-partner can be challenging under the best of circumstances. It is especially difficult, though, when you have knowledge or suspicion about your ex’s substance abuse history and are concerned that your ex might be abusing substances while taking care of the kids.
Through interactions with therapy clients, family members, and friends, I have had numerous conversations with mothers who are trying to navigate this situation. One divorced mom described it this way:
“It’s a constant worry. The court order stipulates that the kids go to their father’s for overnight visits twice a month. He insists that he’s clean and sober, and honestly, I haven’t seen any signs of drinking or drug use in a long time. But I know how bad he used to get, and I’m not there to keep an eye on things anymore, so it scares the hell out of me.”
Another mom told me that not being “there to keep an eye on things” was her goal in getting out of her relationship in the first place. “I don’t know how many years I spent trying to get him to quit abusing painkillers. I thought I could save him and I just needed to figure out how. Meanwhile, I completely lost focus on my own life. My counselor told me nobody can make an addict stop. So I left him to save myself, and I’ve been slowly piecing my life together. But now my teenage son is asking to live with him, which feels like it has disaster written all over it. Still, he is his father. What am I going to do?”
In a third situation, a mom told me she was willing to risk being held in contempt of court in order to keep her four-year-old daughter from the father who drove her home from a recent visit while he was under the influence. “He keeps calling and telling me he’ll take me to court if I don’t bring her over on the schedule that’s in the parenting plan. But he wasn’t drinking like this when the parenting plan was developed, and no way am I going to put her in his care again right now. So I talked to a lawyer and have just filed for an ex parte (emergency) court hearing for a modification of the plan. If he wants to take me to court in the meantime, well, that’s what we’ll do.”
As these different scenarios show, there is no-one-size-fits-all approach to this parenting dilemma. Child safety and well-being, keeping healthy boundaries with an ex-partner, legal rights and responsibilities, and avoiding unnecessary conflict are some of the many concerns that Solo Moms must tease out when they find themselves in this situation.
With solo parenting in general and this parenting challenge in particular, it’s important to seek information, help, and support to guide you in your decision-making process. There are three major areas of information and support that Solo Moms will almost certainly need when they’re concerned about how an ex’s substance abuse impacts his parenting.
- Legal. Family law varies from state to state, and court orders vary wildly case by case. You will need expert advice about how best to protect your children in the short and long term. This does not need to be inherently adversarial; if, for instance, your ex is in recovery from addiction and doing well, the subject of his or her addiction may not need to come up initially, if it needs to come up at all. But a lawyer can help you think about what steps you need to take, now or in the future, to address the presence or possibility of your ex’s current or future substance abuse as it relates to parenting arrangements.
- Substance abuse. You need to know as much as you can about substance abuse in general and substance abuse in the family. As a starting place, a family therapist with substance abuse expertise can help you consider the question of risk, assess whether there has already been impact on the children, and guide you in talking with your kids about addiction in age-appropriate terms. If they suggest child or adolescent therapy, they can work directly with your child or children or make a referral to someone who can. They can also help you find an individual therapist who best meets your personal needs. You want someone with substance abuse expertise to do the individual work with you, too, even if you do not personally have a substance abuse problem, since knowledge of the ways substance abuse impacts relationships and families will be an important part of supporting you through this time period. Remember, too, that addiction specialists aren’t the only people who can knowledgeably guide and support you. The 12-step model self-help group Al-Anon is a free, widely available support group for people struggling with a loved one’s addiction, including some who have left relationships with the addict/alcoholic but are still struggling with the addiction dynamics. For more information, visit www.al-anon.org.
- Child-focused support. While you obviously don’t want to badmouth your ex to anyone, it is very helpful to have adults besides you who are paying attention to your child’s needs for information, resources, or emotional support regarding parental addiction. Possible sources of support might include your child’s pediatrician, a developmental or adolescent specialist, your child’s teacher or caregiver, and extended family if they are knowledgeable and comfortable with offering this kind of support.
It may also be important and even necessary to involve child protective services, especially in an emergency situation. In addition to obvious safety reasons for doing this, some Solo Moms I’ve known have been shocked to learn that they can be found negligent for failing to protect their child in an instance when they knew about parental substance abuse and failed to take appropriate action.
Of course, the fact that a person once had a pattern of substance abuse does not automatically make them an unsafe parent. Millions of individuals in recovery provide safe and conscientious parenting. But if you are a Solo Mom who is scared because you believe your ex might be abusing substances while your children are in his or her care, it’s legitimate to be concerned and begin making decisions about how best to address the situation. Remember, you may be a Solo Mom, but you don’t have to do it alone.
Image via Shutterstock.com
Susan Lemere is a Solo Mom of two, as well as a therapist, a writer, and an artist coach.
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