Parenting: ‘How do I help my niece who is struggling because of her mother’s addiction?’ | #parenting

On this week’s ‘Parenting’ segment on the Moncrieff show, one listener sought advice about how to help her niece whose mother is an alcoholic and keeps pushing people away

Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist specialising in Child & Adult Psychotherapy, joined Moncrieff to answer this and other listeners’ questions.

The question:

“I think my niece is struggling to form connection to people as a result of her mother’s addiction. She is being raised mostly by her dad as a result of her mother’s illness, and we as a family have been supporting them as best we can. However, I’ve noticed my niece is pushing people away at the moment.

“She’s always been shy and insecure, but lately she doesn’t want to spend time with anyone and brushes away people’s efforts to be friendly toward her. She doesn’t have many friends, and she can be aggressive and hostile towards anyone her age who makes an effort in the playground.

“I’ve tried to convince her that people are just being nice and I can see she wants to be their friend, but I’m fairly sure a defence mechanism kicks in and she is rejecting them before they can reject her. She’s 10. What can I do to help ease her social insecurity and awkwardness?”

Parenting: ‘How do I help my niece who is struggling because of her mother’s addiction?’

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Joanna’s response:

“I notice that the letter said she is being raised mostly by her Dad with the support of his family – which is fantastic – but when you say ‘mostly’ by her Dad, my question is ‘Is her Mum actively still in her life in a caregiving role? How is Mum spoken about in Dad’s home and the other family? And what is this little girl’s understanding of her Mum’s illness?’ 

“Because so often when it comes to things like addiction – anything like that – children are protected with the best will in the world from the adults in their lives who say, ‘This is too complex for little kids to understand. We’ll just say ‘Mummy’s not well’ or ‘Mummy is having a hard time.’’ 

“Quite vague language like that and it can leave children struggling to make meaning of ‘Why is it I don’t live with Mum?’ or ‘Why does Mum behave in a way that might be confusing?’… It’s very painful to feel that your parent chose addiction over you – and that’s no comment on the complexity of addiction. It’s a child’s perspective on it. 

“So she may need help with the story of Mum’s struggle and Mum’s illness so that she can make meaning of it. Because in the absence of that truth, children knit their own truth. They create a narrative to make meaning and to understand things. 

“And I wonder if this child has ever received therapy and if not could she? Or if she did and it was a number of years ago, bear in mind she’s 10 now and it’s a new developmental stage – that middle childhood, preteen stage – and she may benefit from a return to a space where she can emotionally exhale all of those complex feelings.

“Where she can be sad and confused and angry and she can let all of that out without needing to protect a parent and say, ‘I’m fine, don’t worry about me.’ 

“Because when this aunt or uncle is writing in asking, ‘What can I do to ease her social insecurity and awkwardness?’ You know what you can’t, you can’t just drag someone kicking and screaming from a negative sense of self to a positive one. You have to take time to build a bridge that allows her to cross over and that is based on trust… and there can be no playful connection with friends in the absence of emotional or relational safety. 

“So you have to invest in starting small, no judgement if she struggles on the playground or if she rejects a child’s advances that later you go, ‘Oh I noticed this child came over and it didn’t feel safe for you to play today and you let them know that you didn’t want to play, maybe the next time we come it might feel safe but I’m not judging, I’m just naming what I saw in a way that is accepting and empathic.’ 

“Because you have to be consistent and reliable because the one thing that in the face of the illness of addiction is that that parent cannot be reliable, consistent and predictable because the addiction doesn’t allow it. 

“And that’s what children need most of all. So I think as family members, keep supporting her Dad, keep supporting her. Be calm, consistent, predictable, reliable and be very mindful of how Mum is or isn’t spoken about. 

“Sometimes in an effort not to say anything bad about a parent, we say nothing at all and that can be as bad. 

“Because it gives her that queue that it isn’t okay to talk about her Mum here and she needs to know she can talk about her. 

“So I think create that normality and I would strongly consider therapy in this situation… she’s still a very young girl.”

Main image: A child and adult. 

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