In 2003, I found out my husband had a serious pornography problem. Soon after, I was diagnosed with major depression. We were in ministry at the time: overseas missionaries. The combination of Andy’s porn problem and my mental illness meant that our entire lives were thrown into upheaval. We moved back to the US in a state of severe crisis with our four children in tow. Our oldest child was just entering high school and our youngest was in kindergarten.
There was no hiding the reality of our family crisis from them, and we had to decide: what should we tell our children about our addiction and mental illness?
I thought it would be a good idea to say as little as possible, smooth it over as much as possible, and move on as soon as possible.
Of course, if I had been sick with pneumonia, appendicitis, or breast cancer, I would never have hesitated to talk to my kids about that. But, like many people, I felt a great deal of shame around mental illness and addiction, and I just didn’t want to talk about it.
But Andy wanted to tell our kids the truth about his struggle with pornography, how it impacted me, and what we were doing to get well together. He told the older two at the time, and then waited to tell the younger two when they got a bit older.
When he told me that he was planning to talk to the kids about all this, I thought it was the worst idea I’d ever heard. I thought telling the kids would just hurt them more, at a time when it seemed to me that they’d had way more than enough. But he felt strongly that he should tell them. And he was right. Genius, in fact.
Those conversations were difficult. Excruciatingly painful. But absolutely the best thing he could have done, and it’s made a believer out of me, when it comes to talking to kids about tough stuff. Here’s how I’ve seen it work in our family.
Telling the kids means that we’re not hiding things from them.
They know what’s going on. They don’t have to make up stuff to explain the emotions in the house. Our kids are free to be angry with us, but they don’t have to blame themselves.
Telling the kids means that they aren’t responsible to fix the family.
This is an adult problem, the adults are taking responsibility, and the adults are doing what needs to be done to fix it. Our kids can be mad at us for bad choices or lack of self-care, but they don’t have to fix the family.
Telling the kids means that we admit that we are human and imperfect.
It would be nice if we were perfect, and they never had to deal with this. But the perfect ship has sailed. So we tell the truth and we deal.
Telling the kids means that when they’re struggling, they know it’s OK to tell the truth and ask for help.
Our kids are learning how to cope with life in a healthy ways, even when it’s tough. Accidental exposure to pornography is almost a given at some point. Because our kids know what Andy’s dealt with, they can come to him and say, “Dad, you need to block this one website, cuz it’s giving me grief.”
Andy’s bravery has taught me to be open about my own struggles with anxiety and depression, which means that our kids are more likely recognize what’s going on in their own lives when mental health issues crop up. Instead of toughing it out alone, they call us and share their struggles and seek the help they need.
The big lesson to me is this: when we are not perfect, God can still take care of our kids. In fact, when we share our real struggles with our kids, that builds the kind of connection and community that sustains all of us in tough times.