Sex Addiction Disclosure to Children: The Parents’ Perspective
By M. Deborah Corley and Jennifer P. Schneider
Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 2004, in press
This qualitative study investigates factors related to disclosure to children by parents who are self-identified as a sex addict or partner of a sex addict. Fifty-seven individuals (addicts and partners) completed an anonymous survey about their experiences disclosing about the sexual addiction to their children. Data were analyzed using grounded-theory methodology. Emergent themes included circumstances surrounding disclosure, reasons not to disclose, types of information disclosed, perceived responses of the children, changes people would make to disclosures, and special issues surrounding sexual misconduct/offending and sex offender registration. Preliminary implications are provided for therapists working with families in which sex addiction or offending exists.
Recent research has indicated that disclosure of sexual secrets is one of the most difficult and important therapeutic tasks for sexual addicts and their partners (Schneider, Corley, and Irons, 1998). Involving children in therapy has also been recommended (Corley and Alvarez, 1996), including thoughtful and well planned disclosure to children on an age-appropriate basis (Corley and Schneider, 2002). However, disclosure to children remains one of the least researched areas of treatment of sex addicts or sex offenders. Discussing sexuality in an open fashion is difficult at best for most parents; it is also reported as even more difficult when the discussion is about sexual addiction or sexual offending behavior (Black, C., Dillon, D., & Carnes, S., 2003; Corley and Schneider, 2002; Longo, R., Brown, S., & Orcutt, D., 2002). Only recently has research suggested that children want information and frequently know more than parents think they know (Black et al., 2003).
Disclosing to children family secrets of all types is one of the most difficult tasks parents encounter. Traditionally, the typical solution has been simply to avoid sensitive subjects with children. Family therapy literature, however, is replete with discussions of the harmful consequences to children of not telling. For example, Lerner (1993, p.147) wrote, “The negative effects of secrecy on children may stay underground or years, even decades, until the child reaches a key anniversary age or a particular stage in the family life cycle.” Children may suspect or know the secret that parents believe they are hiding, but they may only be able to express their discomfort by disruptive behavior. As Imber-Black described in The Secret Life of Families (1998), a child’s knowledge of a secret may distort the family power dynamics, alienate a child from one or both parents, and isolate him or her from siblings. Lerner (1993, p. 151) stated, ”In the shadow of secrecy, children are especially vulnerable to acting out or developing symptoms.” (p. 151). In describing families of sex addicts, Earle and Earle (1995, p.118) wrote:
Years ago, Carl Jung (1969, quoted in Black et al., 2003) recommended disclosure when he wrote:
The most important gift a parent can give a child is to tell them about their dark side. Telling children about your struggles helps them developmentally to have a realistic picture of what it means to be human.
Yet precipitous disclosure has its own hazards. The challenge for parents is to consider carefully the context of the disclosure, its contents, timing, who should be present, and how to deal with the emotional responses of the children.
Sex is a difficult subject for parents to discuss with children. It may be harder for an addict to disclose his or her sexual acting out to the child than to the spouse or partner. Factors which dissuade parents from disclosure to children include shame, anger, fear of alienating the children, fear that the children might be harmed by the information, and concern that they might tell others. Based on interviews of recovering sex addicts and coaddicts, Schneider and Schneider (1991) recommended age-appropriate disclosure. They wrote:
From speaking with the parents, these authors concluded that children as young as 8 or 10 are likely to be aware of what is going on in the home and deserve some explanation about the nature of the problem and of the meetings that their parents so frequently attend. They wrote, “Evasiveness with children is likely to continue the legacy of secrecy, which promotes addiction.” (p.174)
Corley & Schneider (2002) reported that sometimes a child who uses a parent’s computer finds an Internet pornography file or emails from a sexual “chat” room and is faced with confronting the parent, telling the other parent, or holding on to the secret over time. When adolescents reach puberty, this secret-keeping can turn into intense rage; some teens even threaten to blackmail the addict parent.
Based on clinical experience and on interviews with older children after involvement in family therapy, Corley and Schneider (2002) listed what kids don’t want to know. This includes the specific details of the parent’s acting out, how angry the partner is at the addict, and how good or bad sex is between the parents.
What kids do want to know depends on their age. It is not necessary or appropriate to disclose to very young children. Preschool children (ages 3-5) have often been witness to fighting or have heard addiction discussed and don’t know what is happening. They want to know: Are you going to die or leave me? Am I in trouble? Do you love me? They also need guidelines about their genital touching and curiosity about the bodies, a subject about which sex-addicted families often worry.
Early elementary-school age children want to know: Is the fighting my fault? Will something bad (like divorce) happen? Why do you seem different now from before recovery?
Children ages 9-13 ask: Am I normal? Will I get this addiction because I have sexual feelings or have masturbated? What will happen to me if you get divorced?
Teen and young adult children want to know: How could you do this to Mom/Dad (the partner of the addict)? To the family? How does this specifically relate to me? (You’ve ruined my life!)
We advised age-appropriate disclosure to children and recommended careful preparation for the disclosure.
In 2003, Black, Dillon, and Carnes published the results of an evidence-based study, based on a survey of 89 adolescent and adult-age children who had experienced disclosure from a sex-addicted parent. Their findings from the children’s perspective were very similar to what others had reported from interviewing parents. Black’s group found that prior to disclosure, most of the children (60 out of 89) knew of their parent’s behavior or suspected it. Although the parents had undoubtedly wanted to protect their children from pain, what really happened was that the children were left holding unwanted secrets, sometimes for years. Although most of the respondents said that eventually they were glad they were told, many reported feeling angry at the time. Their anger was primarily over having their lives turned upside down. Some became fearful of a parent who they now thought might be a pervert or a child molester. Others tried to take care of their parents emotionally. Some of the children who had suspected or known about the acting out reported feeling immediate validation, confusion, anger, and mixed messages from their parents.
Black, et al (2003) suggested four reasons to disclose to children:
- To validate what the children already know.
- To explain the situation to them thoughtfully before they find out from others.
- To break the generational cycle of addiction that is often present in families
- For the children’s safety, if they are at risk of being exposed to sexual behavior by the addicted parent.
Recently, we designed a qualitative study to gather information related to the experience of parents who disclosed or were trying to make a decision about disclosure to their child(ren) about their sexual addiction or sexual offending behaviors. We also elicited parents’ thoughts on the best timing and content of disclosure, under what circumstances not to tell, what they would change in hind-sight, involvement in family therapy, helpful resources, and the impact of sexual addiction on their child(ren)’s behavior. This article presents the results of that study.
Participants for a focus group to establish questions for final survey were a sample of convenience. They included individuals from a former research project on disclosure who had indicated on a separate form their interest in an in- depth interview. Participants for the larger study were clients of professional members of the National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity (NCSAC), participants at regional conferences and 12 step support group meetings, and visitors at an Internet web site. Participant criteria included: (a) self identification as a sex addict or partner of sex addict, and (b) biological parent or step parent.
Focus group: Several couples were interviewed as potential participants, but had not disclosed to their children for a variety of reasons. Six couples who had disclosed were interviewed signing an informed consent form. Most couples were interviewed separately. Each member of the couple was asked a series of open-ended questions after an initial demographics form was completed. A set of survey questions was generated from the answers and comments shared by the focus group couples. The couples were also asked how to best solicit the information from other volunteers. The group stated that personal interviews were too time-consuming and suggested written surveys with separate versions for the addict and partner.
Accordingly, separate surveys were generated for the addict and the partner (see appendix 2 and 3). Cover letters with instructions and associated risks were developed and packets of consent letters, surveys and return envelopes were sent to professional members of NCSAC with a request letter and criteria for involvement in the study. Similar packets were made available at a 12-step recovery conference as well as through a website address. Participants returned completed surveys in preaddressed envelopes with instructions not to put their name on the survey or envelope. Surveys were returned to researchers over a period of one year.
Data were coded and analyzed using the open, axial, and selective coding procedures outlined by Strauss and Corbin (1990) in their grounded-theory method. Conceptual working labels were assigned to themes, which were grouped into higher-order categories representing different domains of experience. Percentages between groups were calculated on demographic information.
The process of obtaining participants was more difficult for this survey than for any of our previous studies (on cybersex addicts and partners, disclosure between the addict and partner, and recovery from sex addiction). Many people who were approached for participation reported they had not yet disclosed. People who had not disclosed were also invited to complete the survey and a total of 22 did so. We were able to obtain 35 surveys describing disclosure for a total of 57 participants.
Age and gender:
The disclosure group (61% of all respondents) consisted of 22 self-identified sex addicts (21 males and 1 female, mean age of 51) and 13 partners (all female, mean age 45.5). Of the group who did not disclose (22, or 39% of all respondents) there were 18 addicts (15 men, 3 women, mean age 44) and 4 partners (all female, mean age 39). Age of addict respondents ranged from 26 to 68 and partner respondents ranged from 33 to 64. The respondents who disclosed were on average older than those who didn’t.
Of the disclosing group, all partners and all but one addict reported being heterosexual. Of the non-disclosing group, all 4 partners reported being heterosexual, whereas 22% of addict respondents (4 of 18) reported being bisexual or homosexual, making sexual orientation an important issue in the non-disclosing group.
Of the disclosing group, 29% of the addicts and 25% of partners were divorced or separated. Among the non-disclosing group, 28% of addicts reported being divorced or separated. All the non-disclosing partners were still married.
The respondents were generally a highly educated group. Of the 40 addicts, 14, or 35%, were doctors or lawyers, and most of the others also held highly skilled jobs. Of the disclosure group, only one of the addicts reported being unemployed and he indicated he was a student. Among all the partners, 25% were homemakers; the others were in management, medical professions, artist and writer. Of the non-disclosing group, the professions listed were similar to that of the disclosing group.
Involvement in 12 step groups:
Of the disclosure group, 83% addict respondents (18 of 21) and 66% partner respondents (8 of 12) attended 12 step groups for sexual addiction and coaddiction. These are support groups modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon, which are self-help programs for alcoholics and their families.
Number of children in age category:
Several respondents reported that the reason they had not disclosed to their children was that the children were too young. The distribution of children’s ages in the disclosing and non-disclosing groups is shown below. As is evident, a larger percentage of the non-disclosing group than the disclosing group had children under age 16.
Table 1: Number of children
|Age of children||Disclosing group||Non-disclosing|
|5 – 10||9||7|
Reasons not to disclose
Most respondents who chose not to disclose, delayed disclosure, or who disclosed with trepidation, did so out of fear – of the partner’s reactions, of the effects on the children, and of the results for the parent-child relationship.
The common emerging themes that prevented parents from disclosing to their children are summarized in Table 2:
Table 2: Respondents’ Reasons Not to Disclose to Children
- Fear of Loss of Relationship with Partner or Child
- Has not disclosed to partner
- Relationship with partner too fragile
- Spouse might use information in custody battle
- Partner has threatened to leave if disclosure to child occurs
- Fear of hurting child
- The children are too young
- How the child views his/her own sexuality
- Likelihood of child’s acting out
- Fear of children’s negative response to parent
- Loss of respect or love for, or trust in a parent
- Anger at parent
- Child’s shame about parent’s homosexuality
- Parent doesn’t feel ready
- Needs to first resolve own anger, pain, reactivity
- Wants to wait until longer in recovery
- Wants to wait until has more certainty about the marital relationship
Here are some quotations reflecting concerns about the partner’s reactions:
I disclosed, but only about the last affair. My greatest concern about additional disclosure is my spouse’s rage.
A physician who has had affairs, used pornography with compulsive masturbation, and has now been attending daily 12-step meetings for sex addicts (S meetings) for 3 months, wrote"
If I ever disclose to my children, using the term “sex addict,” my wife would use it to take me to the cleaners in a divorce and I would lose everything.
Other responses reflect fears that the child will respond negatively to the parent. Several respondents spoke of their shame about their behavior (especially if the acting out was same-sex), and their fears that their children would no longer love or respect them. One divorced addict, a female dentist, in recovery for one year after a series of multiple affairs, had a 12-year old child. She wrote she doesn’t plan to disclose to her daughter because, “Her father said horrible things about me. It has taken her a long time to trust me.”
Another addict, whose sexual acting out was with other men, related:
My children were between 12 and 17 years old when they first heard from us that I was attending an S program. Then about 15 years ago I disclosed in a very general way to my sons who were at that time young adults. I told them that if they had further questions I would answer those. Last month my 33 year old son, in front of his girlfriend, finally asked me why I am in an S program. I asked him if he were sure he wanted me to answer in front of his girlfriend, and he said yes. I then said I would get him a brochure from the program and read them the statement of the problem. He said, “No, I don’t want a brochure, I want your story.” So I said, “I am a sex addict and my disease was manifested in compulsive masturbation, abusive sex to my wife, and promiscuity – predominantly gay. “ I then shut up. After a few moments of silence he looked at me and began to cry and said, “Dad, I want to tell you how much I respect what you have done over the years with your recovery.” And that was that. It was certainly a very scary moment.
The next day he called. I said, “That was a tough night we had last night. He said, “It’s all right – I’m now back in denial.” A few months later when we met again he suddenly brought up the subject. He spoke about all the strange guys he remembers that I brought home and that he thought it was dangerous to bring those kind of people around him when he was young. I agreed with him and told him that it was abusive, and that I was wrong, and I asked for his forgiveness.”
Another addict, in recovery for 6 months, explained:
My wife and I agree that our son doesn’t need to know about my homosexual acting out. My greatest concern about disclosure is that he’ll hate me and be ashamed of me.
According to one spouse of a sex addict:
My greatest fear was the children’s anger at me for not doing something right or to make the situation different.
Other respondents expressed concerns about the effect on the child’s development:
Before disclosure, our greatest concern was the negative impact on the girls and how it might affect their views on their own sexuality.
Still other responses implied that the parent was not ready yet. For example, an addict with 3 months’ recovery wrote:
We lost our savings due to my purchasing porn on the Internet. My wife is still very mad. I’m not sure our marriage will last. I’ll wait to tell our teenagers until I know about our future.
In some cases the family situation was so complex that extensive professional intervention will undoubtedly be necessary for resolution. A young married woman in recovery for 2 years, explained:
I was always a flirt and had lots of casual sex before marriage. My parents separated when I was a baby, and I never knew my dad. After my marriage, my father came back into my life and we ended up having an affair that resulted in a son. My husband forced us to agree that no one else would know of this or he’d leave me. My father is now gone so there is no chance for my son to know him. One day my son will discover this and be so hurt and angry. I would be too, but I love my husband and my dad. I’m pretty sick, but I’m getting better.
For some addicts who had been in recovery for years and had still not disclosed, their responses suggested that they needed to take more seriously the “rigorous honesty” recommended in 12-step recovery, and become more accountable. For example, an attorney who reported a dozen years in recovery programs for sex and alcohol addictions, but with recurrent relapses, reported:
I’ve had anonymous sex with male partners. I told my three teenagers only that I’m an addict. They think it is for alcohol. My therapist is pressing me to disclose to my oldest son. I’m worried about his drug use and my therapist says he’s at risk for sex addiction as well. My concern is I’m just beginning to be important in my children’s lives again and I fear they will reject me. My fiancee doesn’t know the details, only that I’m an addict.
Some addicts reported not disclosing on the basis of protecting their family: A married attorney with young children, in recovery for over one year, had formerly had casual sexual encounters with many women but hasn’t disclosed to his wife. He wrote:
I don’t plan to disclose to anyone. My children are too young now anyway, and I don’t want to hurt my wife or kids. She wouldn’t understand about sex addiction.
Circumstances of disclosure to children
Some disclosures to children are forced by circumstances, and the parents have very little time to reflect on their fears or concerns. But when disclosure is a choice, the positive reasons for doing so include validating what the child already knows, disclosing before others tell, hope of breaking the cycle of addiction, and for the child’s safety (Black et al, 2003). Respondents reported a variety of circumstances of disclosure to their children, ranging from forced disclosure (because of arrest, threats by others to reveal, or insistence by the partner), to a well-planned event in a therapeutic environment.
Table 3 summarizes the themes emerging around disclosing to children.
Table 3: Circumstances of disclosure to children
- Impulsive disclosure
- Forced disclosure
- Planned disclosure
- One or both parents involved
- With therapist or encouraged by therapist
- Limited, age appropriate information shared
Impulsive, unplanned disclosure out of anger
A recovering sex addict recalled:
The kids [who were 5-12 years old at the time] were told the day I admitted to my wife I was having an affair. We were separated at the time and they did not know who was at fault. She demanded immediate disclosure to all the kids to clear her reputation. The kids reacted with anger, questions, and sadness. Now they understood why Mom and Dad were separated. Since then on several occasions I’ve discussed addictions in general with my teen-age daughter, telling her there are various kinds of addiction problems, and that our family has a history of drug, alcohol, and sex addictions. If I’d had a choice, I would have delayed, and not done it during a coaddict rage. I’d want to disclose in a calm, loving, Christian forum. I’d tell the kids only a minimum – just the bare facts of the pieces they understand.
A 39-year old married woman, mother of 3 pre-teen children, has been attending a 12-step program for spouses of sex addicts for some months. She wrote:
I didn’t say anything to my children when I first found out my husband was having an affair and had spent so much money on pornography. But after a polygraph test forced him to come clean and admit he’d continued to lie, I sat the children down and told them exactly what he had done, that he did not deserve to have them or me. They were silent at first and then started to cry. I was out of control. Since then we struggle every day.. I do not trust him and I do not care. I want the children to know he is evil when he does this and it is the price he has to pay for his behavior. We did not do anything to deserve his acting out. Now I mostly talk to my oldest child about it, and probably inappropriately. I can’t help myself sometimes when I am so mad at my husband. I think he is still acting out. He went to a group for a while and we went to marital therapy, but the therapist told him that I was punishing him by withholding sex so we stopped going to therapy.
If I had it to do over again, I probably wouldn’t have told my 4-year old that his father had fucked a whore or spent their college money on pornography so he could beat off instead of earning a living. That was a little over the edge.
Would I recommend telling children? They deserve to know their father is a liar and a cheat.
This case is an unfortunate example of an extremely inappropriate, damaging disclosure for any child to witness. The motivation for the disclosure was admittedly one of contempt for the addict and served no purpose in helping the children to understand why the parents were fighting or separating.
Immediately after confrontation by my wife for an “acting out” incident, I was required to schedule a meeting with our 20- and 22 year old daughters. The next day we all met in our home. My wife said, “Your father has something to tell you.” I spoke only in general terms. I admitted that I was a sex addict, had done things to seriously undermine our marriage, and that I was very sorry for what I had done to them. Their reaction was shock and many tears. Since then I’ve had several brief discussions with each daughter about how I’m currently doing, why I need several meetings weekly, and my experience with a week-long sex addiction workshop. Their only response was pleased to know Dad was getting help and getting better.
A 52 year old married woman, in recovery for many years (but who had never been involved in a 12-step group) , did not choose to disclose to her children, but was “outed” by someone else:
My husband’s ex-wife told all 3 of their children that we were having an affair and that he left her for me. This happened when the youngest were 5 or 6 years old. Over the years that story grew, and the oldest, who is 26, has been rageful and judgmental for years and has no relationship with us. The two younger ones were given more information from us but not specifics. The youngest is now extremely distant, while the middle one is more accepting. We’ve had a great deal of discussion with the child who lived with us about sexual addiction in general. He struggled with his own sex addiction and we discussed options with him when we discovered it.
Below is an example of a forced disclosure by the partner alone, precipitated by the addict’s arrest, which occurred immediately after the partner herself first learned of the behavior, and in the absence of any information about the disorder.
I myself was unaware of the problem until my husband was arrested one night and then I had to tell our 4 children, which I did the next day, individually, based on their age. Our oldest, age 13, was angry and didn’t believe or really comprehend. Our 10-year old son became very angry and nearly put his foot through the dashboard, I didn’t give the 9 year old any more information than he asked for. I didn’t understand the addictive nature of the behavior at that time, and I know that our initial conversations didn’t expose the severity of the problem. The 5-year old wasn’t told anything until a few months later, when her father actually went to prison. Then I told her Daddy was sick and had to go away for a while. As I learned and understood more I shared more with the children. What I shared depended on their questions and what they seemed ready to hear. I tried to always be truthful and answer questions honestly without dumping too much on them.
The father, who also responded to the survey, added that the children were “angry and upset at the loss of not having Dad around home.”
Planned disclosure by one or both parents
Below is an example of a disclosure done very early, and by the partner alone, without the addict’s participation or presence. She disclosed to both children, but spoke to each one in age-appropriate terms.
Within one month after discovery of my husband’s behaviors, I told my older son, who was 11 at the time, that his father was addicted to pornography and that it was harmful to relationships because pornography objectifies women. I told him about it at home without anyone else present. I told my daughter, who was 7 that we were having problems that Daddy and Mommy needed help, that we were getting it. My son was tearful and scared, afraid we would separate. He was able to ask me questions about sex, pornography, and addiction. My daughter tried to cheer everyone else up, a budding codependent, but later was able to discuss her feelings of fear. I told the children different things because I thought the little one was too young to understand, but I talked to her about it when she turned 10.
My son apparently blocked out the disclosure of his father’s sexual addiction, and three years later claimed he didn’t know about it.
A middle-aged divorced man disclosed alone to his children a dozen years ago, when they were 14, 11, and 7 years old.
Shortly after I started recovery, I told my children I was a sex addict and that I was in recovery. I talked with all them together in my apartment. Their response was minimal. Since then I’ve begun mentioning my recovery casually in conversation with them. I’ve introduced two of the three to my sponsor when the opportunity presented itself. I’ve also spoken with my middle son about his own sex addiction, and we’ve talked about the 12 step program and recovery in more detail.
A recovering addict, now separated from his wife, wrote:
Once my wife found out I had an affair I was asked to leave the house. After looking for a way to address my problem I went to an inpatient program. My wife’s and my marriage counselor got together with my wife and two sons and told them I had a sexual addiction. Their response was anger and disgust along with embarrassment. Since then I’ve talked to the kids about this only on a very limited basis. . . I would like to have told them myself! They did not understand it at all when told.
A 38-year old divorced male, in recovery from sex addiction for over 2 years, recalled:
About a year after my sex addiction recovery began, my wife told her daughter about her S-Anon attendance. She directed her daughter to ask me -- her addict step-father -- to get my story. I disclosed my addiction, some basics about sex addiction, and my acting out behaviors. Her response was very low key – “Thanks for telling me” – and little else. My wife and I separated soon after, and I’ve only been alone with her once since, so we haven’t talked about this any more.
Below is an example of a planned early disclosure which included all family members. Limited information was given, and since the children were all teens, they were given the same information at the same time.
After my husband went to sex addiction treatment, they recommended disclosure. All of us, including our daughters, who were ages 17, 16, and 14, went to our lake house one weekend soon after he came home. My husband disclosed his addiction and said his behaviors were masturbation and pornography. It was very upsetting for the oldest daughter, while the other two were quiet. The biggest surprise was that two of our daughters had suspected what they call “cheating.” Their suspicions came from their own observations. They had never shared these thoughts with each other or me, but they did tell a close friend. After that we didn’t talk about the sexual addiction, but we often talked about the alcoholism.
An addict, still married, in recovery over 4 years, described how he and his wife planned a disclosure to their two older children.
My wife and I obtained information on disclosure from the web, books, and meeting with therapist and then we planned how and what to say. We chose a date to tell by. I told the 17 and 15 year olds that morning to be home at night to talk about something personal about me. That evening, when everyone was home except our 12 year old, who was away, I disclosed with my wife’s support. I told them about the offense that led to my arrest, impact to my victim, my struggles with porn and masturbation, damage I had done to my wife, and the hurt I felt. Also explained to the kids that they had nothing to do with my acting out or sex offense.
They were shocked!! They listened, and didn’t ask too many questions then. The day after disclosure, our 17-year old wrote me a letter telling me she loved me, was very surprised by what I told her, still respected me, and was glad I told her since it helped her understand why certain things had happened in the past (e.g. I couldn’t attend her sporting events, be alone with her friends in the room, etc.). . . We all agreed to tell our 12-year old when the time comes, as a family, maybe when she turns 15 or 16.
Since then I’ve spoken several times with my girls. Usually about how they’re feeling about my disclosure, questions they have about my acting out, impact on my marriage, plans to disclose to other family members. Our older girl is much more curious and vocal about her concerns and questions; the 15-year old is quieter (which is normal for her) and usually won’t ask unless I bring it up.
This was an example of a well-planned and executed disclosure, with follow-ups and plans for disclosing to the youngest child.
Disclosure in a planned session (with therapist present or encouraged by therapist)
A physician who is now separated from his wife, recalled:
Before the disclosure my children had witnessed anger and rage, but knew nothing about my sex addiction. I went to inpatient treatment after I was caught with a prostitute and arrested. My wife chose not to be involved. I disclosed during a family session with a therapist and my two teenage children. My son was so angry – he got up in the session and started screaming at me, then he started crying. My daughter cried through most of it. I don’t know if they were more upset because their mother and I were getting a divorce or if it was because the information about my arrest and sex addiction were hard to hear. My son was mad because I’d betrayed his mother. By the end of the session they were able to accept my apology. It helped that I had practiced and did not get defensive; I just felt their pain and took responsibility by being accountable. I wouldn’t have done it any differently. Now, as the kids have gotten older, we talk more openly about the costs of sex addiction. They were already very aware of drugs and alcohol. They remain open to talking more about feelings now.
A spouse, not involved in recovery work, but “working things out” in her marriage, wrote:
Disclosure took place during my husband’s treatment, and included both of us, our 14-year old daughter, and the therapist. My daughter was tearful, but we had talked about it some before Family Week. She is very mature but said she did not understand why he did what he did. She had missed her Dad so much and I think he sounded so sincere to her – it was hard for her to be mad. Later she got mad at me because I was being so negative. Sex addiction is an open subject like many others in our home. At first I was really angry and tried to control everything, but I got a handle on that.
Another health professional recalled events of about 6 years ago:
My children learned some information when I lost my job after sexual misconduct with a patient, but a formal disclosure took place only after I came home from inpatient treatment. I was prepared by my treatment team and had role-played this several times. It would have been nice had they been able to do this at the treatment center but finances did not permit. My wife was present at the disclosure along with our kids, ages 8-15, but it was my responsibility to disclose. Actually, our kids had seen my wife and me argue so much before I went to treatment, that the formal disclosure was sort of anticlimactic. Making amends was the best part for me. My son was kind of numb – I think that’s because he was already using marijuana by then. My smallest child was just so happy to see me that what I said didn’t really sink in except when I said I had failed them all, and the two younger kids started to cry. All the kids were told the same thing initially, but later I gave my son more detailed information because I didn’t want him to get involved in the same addiction.
Now I have several sponsers so sex addiction is a common topic at our house. We couldn’t sweep it under the carpet. We do try to talk about things that are important to our children about fun things. It has helped us get clear about sexual values in our home.
The health professional’s wife recalled those times:
When my husband was first discovered I wanted to divorce him, and I told the children, who were then 11-18 years old, inappropriate information. But therapists and our faith-recovery community helped us. It was in the papers – there was so much shame for all of us, especially the children. We’ve worked to get them to talk about it. Our marriage is getting better – it helps the more we all talk about feelings.
Our children were prepared in advance for the formal disclosure after he came home from inpatient treatment. The 18-year year old had a letter for him confronting him about what he had done that had impacted her life. Our oldest son seemed to disappear during the process. The kids avoided discussing it for months. My husband made recovery his job because he had none, and the kids got sick of hearing about it. Now my husband has his license back and is working again and we’ve started a new life. Our kids tell others about sex addiction but they don’t dwell on what their father did; it’s still painful and shameful for them. Sometimes they want to talk; other times they say, “Do we have to talk about this again?”
The therapist at the treatment center gave me good advice, and told me to repeatedly tell the kids this is not their fault and be willing to let them go at their own speed and to take care of myself.
Parents’ description of children’s reactions to disclosure
Most children’s initial reactions to disclosure of a parent’s sexual acting out was perceived as negative. Table 4 summarizes the types of reactions described by respondents:
Table 4: Children’s reactions to the disclosure
- Shock, disbelief
- Fear and sadness
- Worried that parents would divorce or separate
- Wondered what would happen to them if divorce happened
- Were tearful
- Expressed Anger
- Supporting the partner by being mad at addict
- Angry about impact on their (the child’s) life
- Some acted out in dangerous or addictive ways
- Validation of their suspicions or knowledge
- Some appeared to understand, but in fact blocked out the information and months or years later were surprised when told again
- Some tried to cheer everyone else up or comfort one or both parents.
- Some praised the addict for getting help, supported the partner in her actions.
Below the mother of older children described the aftermath of a disclosure that was forced by a young adult’s suspicions. It resulted in the entire family getting into treatment. Premature disclosure by the addict led to additional traumatic events, but eventually the family adjusted.
My young adult daughter became increasingly suspicious and began asking questions. When she and I were alone in the car one day, she asked me outright if Dad had had affairs, and I answered yes. This was the catalyst to us getting into recovery. Two months later, my 22-year old son noticed some 12-step books lying around and asked questions. We set up an appointment with our therapist to have a controlled disclosure, but then my husband inappropriately pulled him aside and dumped it on him when they were alone in a car. My 13-year old son was told soon thereafter in a planned disclosure by his father in the therapist’s office with the entire family present.
My daughter’s reaction was crying, angry. She wanted more information. She needed lots of time and emotion for weeks and weeks. She wouldn’t talk to [her] dad – she wanted to be with me all the time. My 22-year old son told his father he didn’t want any more information, but he wanted me to give him more information. Two days later my husband missed an important family appointment, and in response my son slit his wrist. It was a major event – ambulance, emergency room. . . When my 13-year old son was told, he cried, and said, “It feels like my family is falling apart.” He asked no questions.
Now we are open at home and my son hears talk about addiction and about our counseling and 12-step groups. I often ask him if he has questions, and he always says no. My older children ask me specific questions about the addiction and broad questions about how their dad is doing. My husband is still not open and comfortable talking with the kids, but they do both speak with him about 12-step groups.
Another example of problematic behavior stimulated by the disclosure:
When they were alone, my husband told our younger son, then aged 28, about his drinking and his exhibitionism. My son’s reaction was shock, disbelief and disillusionment, especially about the drinking relapse since my son was active in SADD [Students Against Drunk Driving] in his high school years. We haven’t seen our son since then, several years ago.
A married 53 year old male has been in recovery from sex addiction for two years. He wrote:
I am an exhibitionist. I would expose myself to my daughters’ friends. My children are adults, and they knew about what I did from their friends. When they were small, I had to go to court twice for exposing myself after being arrested, but they did not find out about this until later in life. The last time I got caught, two years ago, they told me to get help or else. My daughters, my sons-in-law and my wife made me come clean on what I was doing. They all told me they loved me and to please get help. I contacted an S-program, went to a meeting, felt good about it, and I’m still going. Now I talk with my wife about the addiction weekly if not daily. With the children, it is more when they ask me a question. Whatever the question, I answer it.
A 55-year -year old physician, whose acting out had included internet pornography and prostitution, disclosed to his 3 children, ages 10-19 years old, a short time after disclosure to his wife, who then asked him to leave. The disclosure took place in the home, with all family members present.
I told them I had violated my wife’s trust and that we would be separating. I told them I would be in therapy to resolve the problem. Only the youngest said anything. On the verge of tears, he asked how long I would be gone. They were otherwise shocked and speechless.
He recommends disclosure “as soon as a problem is evident. That means if there is time away from the family for meetings or therapy, or if separation makes it apparent that something unusual is happening.”
His wife wrote:
Before my husband left home, we sat our 3 children down and he told them that he had hurt me deeply by seeing other women and that I’d asked him to leave. The kids were speechless! The youngest cried, the 13-year old said he was sad, and the 20-year old was angry at us. We’ve never actually talked about sex addiction, just that he saw other women. [The husband is active in an “S” program] I believe we did it the right way. We were honest, without going into details. Details are not necessary and can be damaging to the children and coaddict. . . I’m unsure about telling children about the sex addiction. The word “addiction” may be frightening and confusing to a pre-teen and teenager. The 20-year old can better understand since she has an eating disorder.
According to a 50 year old man who had been addicted to prostitutes and pornographic materials, but was actively working a recovery program for over a year, the initial disclosure to the children was done in anger by the spouse alone. He reported both children had a very negative response. However, the continued disclosure by the addict and his evident progress in recovery changed the children’s perception of him.
Within weeks of learning of my sexual behaviors, my wife disclosed in a state of anger to our 16- and 24-year old children together. They reacted with anger, resentment, and a sense of betrayal. My kids’ first reaction was to side totally with my wife, who started divorce proceedings. They totally disowned me.
I got help from my brother, who is a minister and has been through a 12-step S program. He got me involved in recovery work. I told my children that recovery would be a life-long process, that I would always be in recovery. At first their response was unforgiving and skeptical. This changed as they saw a change in me. Now they are actively helping me, even when I slip. They have supported me back to the right path.
Asked how he would have managed the disclosure differently, this man replied:
Maybe a non-angry truthful full disclosure. However, the way God did it made me confront my addiction immediately and brought my family back to me within 6 months, in a better relationship than I had with them for years.
A man who had a history of anonymous sex with multiple male partners did a full but appropriate disclosure (all the main elements of the behavior, but no “gory details”) to his two children aged 21 and 18 during a family session at an inpatient facility. He wrote:
They reacted with disgust “Don’t touch me!” “Everything you’ve told me all my life about sexual purity has been a lie!” “who or what can I trust?” The children sought support from our pastor at the church. The older one discussed with me recently what he was going to tell his fiancee. The younger seldom talks about it.
A physician who was sent to inpatient treatment because of sexual misconduct involving voyeurism with patients, disclosed during family session with his wife and 14 year old daughter present. He reported:
My daughter had some information already, because there had been a small article in the newspaper about my being ordered by the medical board to treatment. She cried and said it was hard to understand. She later wrote me a letter (encouraged by the therapist), that described her feelings. I didn’t go into detail, so she was mostly happy to hear that I would be more attentive to her and her mother and that I realized I had messed up. She later went with us to therapy and that helped her open up, but she was pretty overwhelmed when I disclosed in treatment. How we talk about it regularly – any time it comes up on TV we try to talk more. We’ve also talked about other kids her age who she thinks might have an addiction problem. She is still embarrassed to talk about it, but I’ve heard her talking to her friends in a general way about how anyone can become addicted to anything.
Changes respondents would make to their disclosures
Most respondents who described planned disclosures were satisfied with the process. They had invested time and energy in advance, and had thought through what they would say. For example, the partner of a man who had affairs, and who participated in a planned disclosure of very limited information, with both parents present, said she wouldn’t change anything. “I think they are all grateful to have not had too much information.”
Respondents whose disclosure was coerced by others or by circumstances, or who themselves disclosed out of anger, wished they could have done it differently. For example, the attorney who was coerced into immediate disclosure to his daughters wished he could have waited until he was more aware of the consequences of his behavior.
I would have expressed my deep regret for how my addiction impacted them, and expressed a willingness to answer any questions that they might have and to set our relationship right.
The woman addict whose step-children were initially told by their mother when they were very young, wrote:
I would have hoped to sit down with all three and given them solid information rather than always feeling behind the wall of shame and secrecy to protect them and myself from their mother’s hurt and betrayal.
A partner who told her children only one month after she learned of the acting out wrote:
I would try to get myself more under control as not to scare my son with my pain and tears. I’m in favor of telling the children early, but after the initial shock and rage.
The mother of two teenagers who were told by one parent each, on separate occasions, said she would have insisted on both parents being present at each disclosure. A wife who was forced to disclose following a separation said:
In one family, the daughter’s suspicions precipitated immediate disclosure to her, followed by separate disclosure to two sons. The mother wrote:
Our disclosure to our children was a little premature because our adult kids were figuring it out. I wish we had had a few more months. I would have told them all in a family meeting with the therapist. I wouldn’t have let them feed off of me alone – it would have been more controlled. My husband told my oldest son way too much: It was totally horrible and then my son slit his wrist. It was all chaos – wrong!!”
Would parents recommend disclosure
All of the addicts who disclosed to their children recommended telling. A 48 year old man in recovery, whose addiction had involved anonymous sexual encounters and whose children are all now in their 20’s, wrote:
Living in honest relationship with my children is one of my most important goals. Loss of this relationship is one of my biggest fears and an important reason for me to stay sober. Each child is different in the amount of honesty and disclosure they want. Children need an outlet – someone to share their feelings and the impact on their life and feelings. This can’t be the addict or coaddict. In our family’s case it was a teacher they respected, a pastor at our church’s youth group.
He thinks the disclosure was done under “ideal” circumstances and wouldn’t have done it differently. He does recommend telling children, because:
We’re as sick as our secrets. As the Big Book of AA suggests, when you are committed to the recovery way of life and are seeking support you need to break the cycle of lying. You don’t want to live in recovery with the same pattern of covering up and lying that you did in your addiction.
Other comments by addicts who recommended disclosure but with reservations, included, “Be careful of how much detail you get into.” “I recommend disclosure in intact families – in step-relationships, it depends.” “Absolutely, but information would depend on age.” “I would disclose, but don’t go into detail about what you did.” “Only after participating in counseling, rehab, and 12-steps, so I could be more emotionally stronger to deal with the situation. Unconditional honesty is demanded to live in recovery, but many circumstances must be weighed before disclosure.”
Among the 7 partners who participated in disclosure to their children, 5 favored disclosure unconditionally, while the 2 others had conditions. These were that the children be old enough (perhaps 15 or more) and that the addict be willing to do recovery work. One of those who recommended disclosure and explained why wrote:
After disclosure, my husband became more involved with our children. Recovery has been good for him. The children have gotten very informed about sex addiction and talk openly about it with their friends ----not so much about their dad but just about addiction.
Another woman said:
Children sense when something is wrong and I think more damage is done to them by pretending nothing is wrong when it is obvious something is wrong. Children have a tendency to blame themselves for what is going on and only by talking with them honestly can you be sure they know it is not their fault.
According to another partner:
No matter what their age, children know that something is wrong. The type of information should be tailored to the age of the child. I also think it is better to tell one child at a time so that the child is more likely to ask questions and you can present information in a way that’s best for that particular child.
A woman whose children were adults at the time of disclosure wrote:
They need to know, but probably already do, on some level. I think their values need to be readjusted after growing up in a family “before sobriety.”
When to disclose
A study on the timing of disclosure of secrets by sex addicts to their partners (Schneider, Corley, and Irons, R.R. ) concluded that disclosure has the best outcome when it is done early, but after the extent of the information to be given and the circumstances of disclosure are planned. In the current study, when parents were asked about the best time to disclose to their children, they were generally in agreement with this view. Some of their comments are below.
A convicted sex offender wrote:
I think it depends on the addict’s own recovery progress and the age of the children. If the addict is staying sober and is motivated to recover, and the kids are at minimum teenagers, it’s the right time. If the public is notified of a sex offender, the addict should disclose before the public is informed. The child should hear about the addiction from the parent and not through other sources.
This from a partner:
From the beginning the child should at least be told something is wrong. They already sense that most likely. As the addict and coaddict progress in recovery, they can reveal more about their progress and the ways they are healing. I think that the emphasis and example set by the couple actively working on healing themselves and their relationship is the most positive thing for the children involved.
As soon as the parents are strong enough to be positive about the direction they are going, so that they can convey hope. It needs to be explained that because it is an addiction, failure is a possibility – but they can know their parents are dedicated to their recoveries.
An addict who found help through religion suggested:
Tell them as soon as you are committed to start. Then even if they hate you, if you’re truly trying and showing even minimal improvement, they can track it through your behavior. My children have seen such a change that both have become Christians, faithfully go to church, read the Bible and religious books without any verbal encouragement from me.
Several themes emerged in parents’ perspective on the best time to disclose to the children. These are listed in the table below:
Table 5: Parents’ Recommendations Regarding Timing of Disclosure to Children
- Children’s factors:
- When the children are old enough – mid-teens or older was a typical age.
- When the parents can answer the question, “Are you getting a divorce?”
- Immediately, since children probably suspect something anyway.
- When there is likelihood of children learning about the behavior from other sources, tell them immediately.
- Addict factors:
- Soon after recovery has begun, in some cases that means as soon as the addict ends his/her denial and accepts responsibility.
- When the addict can convey hope.
- After some time in recovery, so that the addict is less likely to reveal too much or too little.
- After some time in recovery, so that the addict can demonstrate (s)he has changed and is living a sober lifestyle.
- Partner factors
- When the partner is having difficulty being an effective parent: the children then need an explanation.
- When the partner can convey hope.
- Early on, but after the partner’s initial shock and rage have lessened.
Although the recommendations of different respondents vary, the themes running through Table 5 are that disclosure should be age-appropriate, that it’s important for children to learn about the sexual behaviors from the parents before they are told by other sources, and that disclosure should take place when the parents can be calm, can assure the children about their own future, and when the parents can convey hope that they are working on a positive resolution to the problems.
The same recommendations were echoed by respondents when asked about when and how not to disclose. They advised addicts not to just dump all the information on the child, but rather to be selective about the content of the disclosure depending on the child’s age and maturity and the nature of the behavior. They also advised against disclosure while still in denial about the severity of the problem. Otherwise, the disclosing person would be likely to minimize the problem and falsely reassure the child, who would subsequently have difficulty trusting the parent when more information emerges. Based on sad experience, respondents also advised partners not to disclose out of shock, anger, or desire for revenge. In such situations, the children often feel pitted by one parent against the other, and become torn about their loyalty to both parents.
Disclosure of relapse
Relapse is a well-recognized feature of addictive disorders. Accodingly, it is desirable for parents to plan for disclosures in the event of a relapse. Couples need to decide for themselves under what circumstances, and how much, the addict will disclose a relapse to the spouse, and also under what circumstances, and what, the children should be told. Children benefit from stability in the home; unless they will be directly affected, it’s a good idea to leave them out of the couple’s distress over slips and relapses.
Below are the experiences of some respondents with this issue. A dentist with several years’ recovery from sex addiction explained:
I had an agreement with my wife about what I would disclose. My wife was sick of hearing about my struggles for so long. We decided not to tell our kids anything unless I had a full-blown relapse and my wife would have decided to leave.
A 50-year old man, now separated from his wife, was for many years addicted to compulsive masturbation and pornography. Within 30 days of first learning about the problem, his wife disclosed his behavior to their 13-year old daughter.
This was during a time of stress between us. My wife told my daughter I was addicted to masturbation and lust. My daughter’s reaction was silence. She acted like she understood, and left the room. Over time she responded more to the emotional chaos created by my continued disclosure of addictive behaviors which my wife insisted on knowing. Over the next 12 years this came up numerous times. It was brought up more to say that I was causing the problems that my daughter was having great difficulty enduring. My daughter told us she didn’t want to deal with it – it was my problem. She wanted us to divorce so that the chaos in her life would end.
The child in this family was adversely influenced more by the family dysfunction than by the disclosure of the father’s recurrent sexually addictive behaviors.
Special issues for sex offenders
When a person engages in illegal sexual behaviors, the entire family may face added consequences of the behavior, such as unwanted publicity, added shame, removal of the offender from the home (sometimes for years of incarceration), loss of income, and listing on a sex-offender registry. The parents cannot protect the children from learning about the crime, but they can mitigate the damage to the children by immediate disclosure in an age-appropriate way and that emphasizes the ongoing relationship with both parents. This is not an easy task, as it requires the cooperation of both parents. Below are descriptions of several families who dealt with their situation in a positive way. The wife of an incarcerated sex offender wrote:
Our daughter was only 11 when my husband was arrested. She was told only that her dad had broken the law; then at treatment he and I agreed that he would tell her that he had broken the law and had broken our marital vows and hurt me and her and he was sorry. His therapist had helped us explain about the possibility of his gong to jail to pay the price for breaking the law. They made a plan of how our daughter and he would pray together at the same time every night and he would write her every day and she would do the same. This was a way to stay connected despite the incarceration. He started this in treatment and then resumed it when serving his sentence. This helped her so much.
She accepted his explanation and that he was in treatment to learn how not to break the law again. She wrote him a letter that said she was glad he got on the right road and that he had to “keep his hand out of the cookie jar.” That gives you some idea about her response to the explanation.
Since then we haven’t had much discussion about sex addiction. Her father is still in jail and the focus is on staying connected and healthy. Although she’s two years older, she still misses him so much. I do try to talk about how important it is to talk about feelings and learn to cope so you don’t turn to acting out like her father did when he did not know how to cope with his problems. She doesn’t seem to judge him. That may change as she gets older.
It’s been hard for us. Our income disappeared. Without savings and stocks that really paid off, we would not have been able to survive. We are still doing okay, and I work part time. It is horrible for my daughter not to have her father accessible. What has helped her are the therapists, our friends and my church, and her school counselor.
Yes, I would recommend telling children, depending on their maturity as soon as they can understand about right and wrong.
A married attorney who was arrested for involvement with child pornography on the Internet (one of his several acting-out behaviors), recalled after several years in recovery:
Disclosure took place during inpatient therapy – it seemed like a requirement by the treatment team. The children, aged 10, 13, and 15 at the time, knew there was a problem anyway due to the arrest. My wife was present along with the kids. I disclosed after having written an amends letter to my children. Since they were all going to have to deal with the prison sentence, we talked to all of them in general terms, then we talked to the older two separately, letting them ask specific questions. The therapist had already worked with the children and they read me their anger letters and they also cried. I told them I had lied to everyone, that I had broken my marriage vows by getting involved with prostitutes and that I did that instead of working on my problems with a counselor or good friend.
The kids cried when I talked about not being a good dad and when I said I was sorry. They were initially very angry but as we all talked, they said they knew I was unhappy and that they had been very worried about me and now were worried about their mom. They also talked about how hard the arrest had been, cried when talking about how kids and adults in the neighborhood, even teachers, had treated them. They said they were scared about what was going to happen when I went to jail but were better after we worked on how to stay connected to each other in therapy.
While I was in prison I mentioned the addiction often in my letters, but we did not talk about it when they came to visit. We focused on what they were doing and less on me. Since I was released, it is hard not to have something to deal with every day as I am on the sex offender registry. No matter how much we try to prepare them, they are scared: offender information is on TV every day, so we talk about it some then. Over time it is getting better; my wife is still bitter but tries not to show it to the kids.
At age 27, a junior high-school teacher, father of 3 daughters, was sent to prison for 12 years for having a sexual relationship with a 14-year old student. Years later, back at home, and working as an award-winning nature writer, he wrote:
Disclosing my crime and its details to my children was a long process over many years, beginning when they were very young. My oldest child was only 3 years old when I went to prison. In the beginning, my wife told her, “Daddy is sick. Prison will help him.” Her response was, “Can Daddy come home from prison when he’s better?” My wife and I felt the need to answer their questions truthfully as they asked them, at the level of their understanding. As they grew older, we continued to answer questions (I spoke with them during prison visits and phone conversations), including those about the nature of my illicit sexual relationship. The content involved early discussions of “Daddy taking something that did not belong to him,” to discussions of breaking promises, definitions of marriage and infidelity, and affairs.
After this teacher went to prison, his wife moved herself and their three small children into a rent-free converted two-car garage, went on welfare for several years while she obtained a college and graduate education, and focused on bringing up her children as normally as possible. Every week for many years, she brought the children to visit their father in prison. At one point, he was released on probation for a year and returned to the home, but a court decision sent him back to prison to serve the remainder of his term (not due to re-offending but to the victim’s family’s request). Fifteen years later the family is reunited. She wrote:
My husband’s case received a great deal of media attention. As a result, nothing could be kept a secret, nor could the children be sheltered completely from the dramatic life changes that followed. Their father had been an active part of their lives, so his absence plus the chaos was very hard on the kids. The youngest at the time (2 years old – I was pregnant with the third) was walking up to every adult male, arms raised and asking for “Daddy, Daddy.”
Under less chaotic situations I would think it wiser with small children to resolve some preliminary issues and have some better idea of the fallout before disclosing. However, there was no choice. I told the girls that Mom was very sad and that their Dad was very sad too because he had been bad and had taken things that did not belong to him (such as a 14-year old girl, but we didn’t get into that until much later). Initially they didn’t ask what would happen to them; it was more, when will I see Daddy again, will I be grown up when I see him again.
As they grew older, we discussed the behaviors many times. Several themes were worked into our discussions: that none of this was their fault, that their daddy did love them, and that when adults make mistakes it is more serious than when children make mistakes (in response to their concerns that when they were bad they would go to jail). I don’t think that children need to be told every detail, but they need to know enough that they don’t learn of the conduct from someone else, and that they can be taught to guard themselves from following similar paths.
At times one girl would ask a specific question on a subject that we hadn’t previously discussed. After I answered her, I’d deliberately bring this up to the entire family within a few days.
The legal consequences of my husband’s crime had more of an impact on our family than the sexual acting out itself. They not only lost a parent for 12 years, but also lost their home, financial stability, and suffered severe emotional hardship. The legal consequences kept the original acting out behavior continually present and required continual explanation – to friends, to new principals, new pastors, and so on. After a while I just wanted to say, “Who cares why he is in prison – He is just there. Deal with it!” But of course, we all had to go through the “story” and then get the looks and the changed relationship.
I emphatically believe that children should be told. They know something is wrong, even as toddlers. As teenagers they can use the situation to act out themselves. Unless the parents are forthright about the issues, who is responsible for the problem, who is responsible for dealing the it, chances are that the children will guess, often blame themselves, and try to fix what they can’t fix. Family secrets tend to repeat themselves in generation after generation.
The children should be told as soon as the addict is reasonably able to tell them. It’s OK not to have all the answers, it’s OK not to know what’s going to happen next. What is important is that the communication, the dialogue, is begun, that the addict takes responsibility for the behavior and that the children are reassured that they are loved and important to both parents regardless of what happens to the marriage.
I asked the girls for a list of what they thought a counselor should think about in counseling a family with similar problems. They said
- Information must be age appropriate
- Deal less with the addict’s behavior and more with the consequences
- Focus on the relationship and not on what happened; work on rebuilding the relationship, because “He’s still my Dad.”
- Talk about the future – what will it be like, what will be different
- Expand the support system of “safe” adults to talk things out with. They commented that they always knew they would be taken care of, because I had such a long list of people who would be there for them if I wasn’t.
The daughter who was born around the time her father began his prison term, now a talented published poet at age 15, wrote:
Perhaps the hardest part about having him in prison, besides the seemingly endless visits out to that place, was trying to fit in with my peers. Most people never suspected that my father was a convict. It has always been difficult for me to explain his situation to my close friends. I have trouble answering questions like “what did he do?” I used to say what my mom told me when I was little – he ran away and took things that didn’t belong to him. After a while I told them he committed adultery, molested a minor, whatever. Usually my mom ended up telling their parents the story.
I know I was a lot luckier than other children who see their fathers only in prison -- My mom was careful to give us relatively normal lives. But those years left a big impact on me. I spent twelve years of my life – all the way up to eighth grade - without a father. If it hadn’t been for the one year he was out on probation, I wouldn’t even know what a father was. I hated having to go into the prison for visits. I hated the way we were treated there, hated the way my father was treated. I deal with this by talking about it with my family, and sometimes by writing about it just like my father does.
In reply to a question about what has been most helpful to the addict and the children, the attorney who went to prison for involvement with child pornography on the Internet wrote:
The therapist at the treatment center helped a lot as well as our therapist in our home town. My wife has attended Al Anon and other groups. There is so little available, and there is nothing for families about being on the sex offender registry. It is a crime how my children are victimized by the process. I had to rely on the principles of the Program to get me through every day in prison, and after release my S groups [12-step programs for sex addicts ] have been great. Church and our faith is the most important resource.
After I was released from prison I was able to move home and be with my children, but the impact of my being on the sex offender registry is horrible for them and my wife. I feel sick about it every day but try to do what I can and then let it go. I wish there was something that could be done to improve the situation for offenders with children. There has to be a middle ground of protecting the public by letting people know while not victimizing the offender’s children for the mistakes of the offender.
The study is subject to the limits of qualitative research in general, including a small sample size. The findings are not meant to generalize to all cases of sex addiction or infidelity in couples, but rather to generate hypotheses about the process and stimulate further research and discussion about the best ways to help families through these types of crises.
It is important to note that this study is of parents’ perception. Because of the limitations of conducting any research with minors about sexuality, retrospective experiences by older children and parents remain the primary avenues to explore these issues in order to assist families to create a healthy process for healing and educating their children. In this study, all of the addicts and most of the partners of the disclosing group recommended disclosure to children both because the children had a right to know why there were signs of disruption in the family and because of their desire for their own continued recovery based on honesty. Some also commented about wanting to stop the cycle of addictive behaviors in their families. Most reported that they would not have changed anything about the disclosure. Because the sample was one of convenience and was generated from therapist and 12-step recovery-oriented activities, most respondents were involved in 12-step recovery activities and disclosures had been encouraged or facilitated by therapists.
Despite many positive comments about the eventual outcome of the disclosure, most children, like most partners, had a negative reaction to the information at the time of disclosure. When efforts were made to continue dialogue and to discuss lots of topics, the outcome was reported as mostly positive.
However, it is important to note that in some cases children were extremely upset to the point of self harm. In one example the parent reported that an older child left home and has not reunited with the family after some years. It is unlikely in any family that a single disclosure would stimulate a family cut-off but disclosure may be the catalyst for someone to take action when they have been very unhappy or unsettled for some time. As a whole the sample was highly educated and had professional careers. One could speculate that they had more access to treatment and therapy, thereby providing a level of support for actual disclosure. Older participants also tended to disclose more than younger participants.
As reflected in the age differences of the children of the non-disclosing group versus the disclosing group, age was clearly a reason for not disclosing. Over 50% of the non-disclosing group’s children were aged 10 or younger, while only 30% of the disclosing group had children that young. Several of the disclosing group began the discussion with their younger children differently than with their older children: the disclosure was more about the addict admitting to not being present for important events or letting the child know that the parents were working on learning how to be better parents, rather than anything about sex addiction specifically or even addiction in general. However, most disclosers reported planning to disclose more as the children matured.
In many cases the children already suspected something or actually knew about the sexually addictive behaviors. The disclosure was a validation of their suspicions. This was especially true for addicts whose primary mode of acting out was on the Internet. This information supports the research by Black and her colleagues (2003) and our clinical experiences.
In the non-disclosing group, almost one quarter of the group identified as being gay or bisexual. Given the level of homophobia that exists in the general population, the mislabeling of same-sex experiences of sex addicts as sex offending behaviors by some of the public and uninformed professionals, and the internalized homophobia experienced by many gay or bisexual individuals during the “coming out” phase (Longo et al, 2002; Ross & Kauth, 2002), it is reasonable to hypothesize that orientation would make disclosure even more difficult.
Several participants hesitated to disclose to a child that they were gay or bisexual for fear that the child would think of them as a “pervert” or that the child could not understand.
The process of disclosure itself usually generated some response by the child. This ranged from shock, anger and fear to calm, dissociated, and accepting. In our earlier work, we found a similar response by adult partners when they are first disclosed to (Corley & Schneider, 2002). It is not surprising that some children who already wanted to take on a parental role in the family would either align with the partner against the addict and try to comfort the parent rather than seek comfort themselves or try to smooth things over so that no further disruption happens in the family.
Although some impulsive or forced disclosures eventually had a good outcome, they were more likely to cause ongoing difficulties for the parent-child relationship than when the disclosure was planned. When one parent, or another adult, disclosed out of anger or pain rather than to help the children, the likelihood of a negative outcome was increased. A guiding principle of disclosure should be to do what is in the child’s best interest, not to meet the needs of the adult.
The responses from those families of sex offenders -- and the process of disclosure over time that these families reported -- were representative of well planned and sensitive disclosures. They also were descriptive of how the criminal justice system may care about one type of victim but simultaneously victimize children of offenders. Further research is warranted about the impact of incarceration on children of offenders incarcerated and then released under the sex offender registry regulations.
Over 50% of the non-disclosing group had children aged 10 or younger compared to only 30% of the disclosing group. The average age of non-disclosing group was also younger. This suggests that younger people are less likely to disclose, perhaps because of a shorter time in recovery combined with a younger age of children. Sexual orientation was also significantly different in the non-disclosing group compared to the disclosing group with almost a quarter of the non-disclosing group identifying themselves as bisexual or gay.
Themes generated from the respondents of the non-disclosing group about why they did not respond clustered around fear. These included fear of loss of relationship with the partner or child, fear of hurting the child especially if the child was young, fear of the child’s negative reaction to the parent, and not feeling prepared or far enough along in recovery to undertake this disclosure.
Themes generated from respondents of the disclosing group clustered around unplanned impulsive disclosures done in anger, forced disclosures, planned disclosures with one or both parents, (with and without therapists), and special needs of families of the sex offender. Unplanned and forced disclosures resulted in very upset children and were often done out of anger and retaliation against the addict or in some cases because someone else was going to disclose or had already done so and the disclosures were part of “damage control” of sorts. Planned disclosures were well thought out, children’s age and maturity was considered when determining how much information to share, and the focus was on accountability rather than details of sexual addiction. It is noteworthy that few people talked about sex addiction per se, but more about how the addict had hurt the family, had remorse for his or her actions, and planned to change through recovery.
Some respondents reported that the child already knew something of what had gone on. All of the addicts and most of the partners of the disclosing group were pleased with the disclosure and would recommend disclosure to children despite the wide range of negative emotional responses from the children at the initial disclosure. Their recommendations included giving general rather than specific information in an age-appropriate way. Most were glad to have had the help of a therapist and a recovery support system.
Implications for Therapists
Disclosing to children is clearly a process, not a one-time event. As the children get older, they need to be given more information. The stories also show very different outcomes. The way disclosure is done can have a big impact on the children’s eventual feelings about the parents.
The circumstances of the disclosure are determined in some cases by the need for immediate action (if others know about the addiction or if there was an arrest), by the number and ages of the children, and by the presence or absence of both parents in the home. When there is the opportunity for some planning, the disclosure works best if both parents are in favor of it, have decided in advance what to tell and what not to tell, and are both present. As with disclosure to the partner, it is best for the addict to speak in generalities and avoid details. We also recommend that each parent speak about their own experience and feelings, not blame the other parent, and reassure the children that they are loved and that whatever happened is not their fault. How much information to reveal depends on the child’s age and maturity. When there are several children, whether to speak to them individually or together depends in part on their ages.
The book Disclosing Secrets: When, to Whom, & How Much to Reveal (Corley and Schneider, 2002) devotes one chapter to the nuts and bolts of how and when to tell the kids. In it, we suggest that small children do not need an explanation about addiction. An apology for not being around is appropriate, but mostly they need good parenting. Because there is some evidence of genetic predisposition for addiction, discussing addiction with older children is appropriate, and disclosure is one way to do this.
As we wrote in Disclosing Secrets, disclosure to children is not just a matter of having one little talk and it’s over. Rather, it becomes an ongoing process requiring many discussions. Encourage the couple to think through what values they want to guide themselves and their family. Ask them to consider what they will do if they find their daughter on the Internet chatting with some guy several years older than she and they find out it’s she who is trying to talk him into meeting for sex. Or if they find their 12-year old son downloading pornography or the Internet, or find a copy of Penthouse or hard core sexual material under his mattress.
Disclosure is but the first of many opportunities to talk about sexual health, healthy relationships, and developing into a responsible, authentic person. Two excellent resources by Debra Haffner on talking with children about healthy sexuality are From Diapers to Dating and Beyond the Big Talk. Remind the couple that their job is to “keep coming back,” offering to talk, and listening. If they have integrity about what they say and do with their children, they can survive almost anything.
Finally, remember that disclosure is a process, so parents should be prepared to discuss healthy sexuality as well as addiction or co-addiction and recovery repeatedly as time goes by.
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This research was supported in part by a grant from the American Foundation for Addiction Research. We want to acknowledge the assistance of Linda Hudson, MA, LPC, President of Creative Integrations, for her assistance in obtaining the grant and recruiting subjects for this research.