Should Parents Who Are Sex Addicts Tell Their Children?

Professional guidelines about disclosure

Posted Jun 01, 2011

Every couple of months a steady stream of marital infidelities among our celebrities and politicians seems to dominate news reports. Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, and Tiger Woods are among the most recent, and many of us feel a great deal of empathy for the children of these fallen stars. We imagine how shocking it must be for them, and hope that there are people in their lives who can help them to navigate through the stormy sea of grief. What rarely makes it into the news is the reality of sexual addiction among ordinary adults who are also parents - parents in treatment, facing the real consequences of their behavior, struggling to end their secret lives and make amends to their families. Should they tell the kids? If so, when and how?

I've just returned from an intensive training for certified sex addiction therapists offered by the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP)  Our primary instructor was Stefanie Carnes, Ph.D. author of Mending a Shattered Heart: A Guide for Partners of Sex Addicts, and consultant to Gentle Path, a sex addiction treatment center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi Stefanie and her father, Patrick J. Carnes, Ph.D., internationally-recognized specialist in the field, author of Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sex Addiction, and co-author of In the Shadow of the Net: Breaking Free from Online Sexual Behavior, along with their colleagues, have spearheaded research and done a considerable amount of work to educate therapists and the general public about these issues I'm grateful to be able to share with you some of the material on disclosure to children which was part of the IITAP training I received last week.

The general consensus of professionals in the sex addiction treatment field is that yes, the children should be told. A family is only as sick as its darkest secrets. But at the same time they point out that the decision to tell needs to be made on a case by case basis, taking into consideration the child's health status, developmental maturity, family dynamics, and sibling constellation. It's also important to examine the reasons for making disclosure at a particular time. Optimally it happens because the addict is at a stage of recovery which enables him or her to articulate a softened disclosure. The addict is accountable/out of denial, and can convey hope, and demonstrate that he or she has already made some behavioral changes. Also, the addict's partner is past the initial shock and/or rage, may be having difficulty being an effective parent, needs to explain, and can do so without getting emotionally reactive. The most painful disclosures are forced, because of scenarios like that the sexual addiction is getting ready to be told on the news, or because the child has found out.

Disclosure should come from the addict in an appropriate way, without specifics and without making a visual image. If possible, the spouse should also be present. Keep in mind that disclosure should be made in developmentally appropriate sharing, guided by the child's desire to know, therapy should be provided for the child, and she or he should be assured about the recovery process.  The addict and spouse should teach their children about healthy sexuality and provide consistency in their lives - with information and with routines/parental involvement.

How will children react to the news?  Typically, they will react in one or more of the following ways: shock, disbelief, fear and sadness, tearfulness, expressed anger, validation of their suspicions or knowledge, understanding at first but then blocking out the information and being surprised when told again later, attempts to comfort their parents, and praise for the addict parent for seeking recovery. Couples in sex addiction recovery typically are involved in their own individual therapy, marital therapy, group therapy, and 12-step programs. Professional guidance is also important through the process of telling the children and helping them to integrate this crisis in their lives.

Coincidently, while I was at CSAT training last week Maurita Corcoran, mother of four and author of the recently released memoir A House Interrupted, the story of recovering from her husband's sex addiction, was interviewed by Dr. Drew on TV, along with her pediatrician husband, Ben.  They did an impressive job of talking about their experiences of addiction and recovery, and their speaking out is a tremendous service to others - both sex addicts and their partners, and also those of us who aren't, but need to understand more about the dynamics. Like it or not, sexual addiction is a rapidly growing problem, and predicted to be the next tsunami of mental health. More on that in a later blog...