Parental Addiction: What Mentalization Is and How It Can Improve the Parent-Child Relationship

How to improve your child relationship in recoveryParenting in and of itself is a difficult road to navigate at times, and parents who are recovering from addiction may find themselves wondering if they’ll ever regain that connection with their children again. Previous research has emphasized the pain that children and other family members go through when a parent has a substance use disorder (SUD); John Bachman, a psychologist that specializes in addictive behaviors, told the Chicago Tribune in 2018,

“With kids growing up in families where one or more members are struggling with addiction, the issue is the inattention to the child’s needs that the drug-addicted parent demonstrates.”

If you’re a parent who is recovering and ready to strengthen that bond again with your child, know that it’s not too late. It will take a lot of time for your child to regain trust in you – but with hard work and dedication, reparenting can become strengthened again. Researchers from Yale University published a study titled “Substance Abuse and Addiction” in 2018 that broke down some amazing tools for healing the parent-child bond during recovery. One of the biggest interventions they listed was mentalization – which is an attachment-formed approach to reconnecting with a young child. By definition, mentalization is,

“…The process by which we make sense of each other and ourselves, implicitly and explicitly, in terms of subjective states [emotions] and mental processes.”

With mentalization, a parent must recognize the many elements of healing and addiction recovery, as well as those that help re-strengthen the bond between a parent and infant or young child. Mentalization may include self-care actions, such as finally caring for oneself and one’s family – which many in recovery view as a critical step towards navigating healing and restoration. Other elements of mentalization are important, such as:

  • Maintaining the perspective that barriers will arise and that they can get through these hurdles with support and resources
  • In therapy, parents can create more room in their mind for their young child – despite negative emotions, cravings or withdrawal sensations that can lessen that room
  • Concrete support provided by those in treatment – through therapists, healthcare teams and peers alike – can make a huge difference in fostering the parent-child relationship
  • A parent can mentalize putting on their own oxygen mask first – a metaphor that promotes self-care in order to better help their child

Cumberland Heights is a nonprofit alcohol and drug-addiction treatment center located on the banks of the Cumberland river in Nashville, Tennessee. On a sprawling 177-acre campus, we are made up of 2 12-Step immersion campuses, 12 outpatient recovery centers and 4 sober living homes. We believe that each person has a unique story to tell – and that’s why we always put the patient first.