Parenting responsibilities and fear of losing custody of one’s children are major reasons why many people never enter treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction. When you’re divorced, navigating these already-difficult barriers to addiction treatment can be even more complicated. One big sticking point: how to give up custody to your ex when you go to rehab.

The dilemma can pose a thicket of anxious concerns:

  • How do I relinquish my children to my ex— especially when I’m afraid that going to treatment will rob me of my custody rights?
  • What if my kids discover they prefer living with my ex while I’m away in treatment?
  • How do I help my kids adjust to my absence when I’m away in treatment?
  • How do I prepare myself emotionally for this time of separation from my children?

Preparing yourself in advance can help assuage such worries about custody. Consider these tips to help make the transition into rehab easier for any divorced parent struggling with an addiction.

Choose an inpatient rehab facility that offers a family program.

Many rehab facilities offer family programs that recognize the need for ongoing support to and communication with your children. These family programs can run the gamut in the services they provide:

  • Some treatment providers encourage the participation of children and other close relatives in family- and/or play-therapy with their loved one (while their loved one is in rehab).
  • Other programs may offer on-site childcare and/or special child visitation hours that allow clients to see their children while they’re in rehab.
  • Still other family programs promise to work with extended family members (such as an ex-spouse) to arrange for additional childcare, living accommodations and education about addiction for affected minors.

It’s critically important to inquire about the specifics of a prospective program and choose the one that will best serve your needs.

Consider outpatient rehab.

While inpatient rehab is usually the best treatment approach for a drug or alcohol addiction—because of the higher level of support that a residential program offers—an outpatient program that allows you to return home at the end of the day and be available to your children may be a viable alternative for those whose addiction is less severe. If your drug or alcohol habit is relatively new and you’ve never sought treatment before, outpatient care may be sufficient at helping you achieve long-term sobriety. The silver lining of this route is that you won’t have to give up full (or almost full) custody to your ex while you’re in rehab.

Know what your custody rights are, including during rehab.

If you’re not sure what your rights are, consult this guide to custody rights for single parents. Addiction is a disease that, like many other chronic diseases, can benefit from treatment. You are entitled to pursue treatment without the loss of parental rights— unless a court has already ordered you to undergo rehab or found you guilty of child abuse or neglect as the result of your drug or alcohol use. In these circumstances, completing rehab and demonstrating a successful remission will be your best prospect of restoring visitation or custody rights.

Going to rehab now rather than postponing it is also the best way to keep your existing custody rights. After all, the longer an addiction goes untreated, the more it can spiral into a situation where you are no longer able to fulfill your parenting responsibilities.

Remember that going to rehab is helping you become a better parent.

Ideally, the recovery tools that you acquire in rehab aren’t just going to help you overcome addiction triggers and achieve successful abstinence from drugs or alcohol. They are also going to make you a better mom or dad, by teaching you how to:

  • Cope better with life stressors
  • Communicate more effectively
  • Organize your time
  • Live a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle
  • Be emotionally present (both to yourself and your children)

These lessons can, in turn, enrich your co-parenting skills in the wake of divorce. Instead of viewing rehab as just one more opportunity to beat yourself up about how you’ve fallen short as a parent, keep your focus on the fact that you’re making a very real, positive investment in your relationship with your children — because you are.

Be appropriately honest with your children about your disease and why you need treatment.

Kids are smart. They also have active imaginations. In the absence of information, they can leap to assumptions about why you’ve left, which ultimately can hurt their psyche or damage your parent-child relationship. Honesty with your children is, therefore, the best policy, although the degree to which you get into the nitty-gritty will depend on their age. Answer their questions at an age-appropriate level as directly as possible. Seek to reassure them wherever possible that you love them, will be back in a healthier state and are already looking forward to your life together after rehab.

Arrange to stay in touch with your children when you’re away.

Many inpatient rehab programs strive to limit in-person family visits but will accommodate a weekly phone call with your loved ones. Before you enter rehab, schedule a weekly time when your kids can count on hearing from you via Skype or FaceTime and follow through with the commitment. Those regular interactions will be mutually encouraging and a good incentive to stick with rehab.

Bring photos and other reminders of your children with you to rehab.

Like the weekly check-ins by phone that you schedule with your kids, these visual reminders (photos, cards, artwork or other handmade memorabilia) can be powerful visual cues to return to when cravings hit and you’re tempted to relapse. They are a concrete reminder of:

  • what drugs and alcohol can rob you of and that you can’t stand to lose
  • your biggest motivation to get clean
  • why you came to rehab in the first place
  • your incentive to go home sober

Ultimately, rehab is a beneficial — and necessary — step to put your life back in order and strengthen or rebuild your relationship with your children. Even if you’re hesitant about relying on your ex to take care of them while you’re away, know that preparing yourself and your kids in advance can help dissolve your fear.

About the Author: Anna Ciulla is the Chief Clinical Officer at Beach House Center for Recovery. She oversees the supervision and delivery of client care. She has more than 20 years of experience helping individuals and families affected by addiction and co-occurring disorders find recovery. Anna also developed and facilitates Beach House’s Two-Day Intensive Family Workshop, which uses therapy and education to equip clients and their families for the work of long-term recovery. Learn more about Beach House’s other programs here.