You’re Worried Your Ex Drinks Too Much When Caring For the Kids—What Can You Do?

Many parents enjoy alcohol responsibly. But when a caregiver drinks too much, it can create serious risks for children.

Child on swingPhoto: Shutterstock

You’re in control of your own drinking behaviour and, if you suspect you may drink too much when caring for your kids, you can take steps to reduce your drinking or get help. But if you’re worried that your ex drinks too much during their parenting time, what can you do?

If you’re on good terms and you’re both reasonable, you might be able to talk to them about your concerns. But telling someone you’re concerned they may have a drinking problem can be a challenge even in the best of circumstances, let alone when the dynamic is complicated by separation and divorce. Al-Anon, an organization that supports people who are worried about someone with a drinking problem, has resources that may be able to help.

Holding handsPhoto: Shutterstock

If your ex is open to it, post-separation couples counselling may help you raise your concerns and address them. Seeing a counsellor on your own may help you work through your concerns and develop a plan. Counselling for the kids may also be a good idea to help them express and work through any worries they may be having.

If you’re not comfortable talking to your ex about their drinking or you’ve tried and it wasn’t successful, you could try family mediation. There are organizations that can help you learn about family mediation and connect with a family mediator. The Ontario Association of Family Mediators and Family Mediation Canada are two examples.

You may need to seek legal advice about your options. The Canadian Bar Association’s Find-A-Lawyer tool can help you find a lawyer in your area who specializes in family law. Your provincial law society may have a service that can connect you with a lawyer for a free initial consultation.

If you suspect that your ex’s drinking is placing your children at risk of abuse or neglect, you may have a duty to report your concerns to your local child protection agency. A list of contact information for child protection agencies and related resources in each province and territory is available here.

Your kids may also be worried about their parent’s drinking. To help you understand the questions your kids might have and how to talk to them,  the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s publication, When a Parent Drinks Too Much Alcohol – What Kids Want to Know has helpful advice.

Depending on the severity of the problem and your ex’s receptivity, you may be able to resolve your concerns relatively amicably and your family can move on. In more difficult cases, you may end up wanting an agreement or court order that says your ex is not to drink when caring for the kids or that, until they have addressed their drinking problem, they have reduced parenting time or that their parenting time must be supervised. These situations can obviously be very difficult for everyone and can become highly acrimonious. They also present the problem of figuring out how you will know if your ex is keeping their promise not to drink before and during their parenting time or, if they’ve gone for treatment, that they aren’t relapsing.

You may be tempted to ask that your ex go for alcohol testing to prove that they’re not drinking. Urine tests, blood tests, and hair tests have all been common forms of testing in these situations, but all have significant drawbacks. Urine tests and blood tests can only detect alcohol that has been recently consumed, so drinking can go undetected. To solve this problem, the tests have to be done several times per week, which can be expensive and impractical. To prevent efforts to defeat urine tests, they have to be supervised, which for many people is uncomfortable and demeaning. Hair tests only provide average concentrations of alcohol over months, so do not give a clear picture of a person’s actual drinking behaviour.

There are two alcohol testing technologies that are perfectly suited to these challenging situations. One is a remote breath testing device that the person carries with them and uses to provide a breath sample at scheduled times, such as before, during and after their parenting time. It takes their picture as they provide the breath sample and then uses its own cellular data SIM card to upload the photo and the breath test result. The system sends you a text or email to let you know whether the test was a pass or whether there was a problem such as a missed test, alcohol detected, or facial recognition mismatch.

Recovery Science HomePhoto: Alcohol Monitoring Systems, Inc.

The other technology is a continuous alcohol monitoring (CAM) ankle bracelet that tests the wearer’s perspiration vapour for alcohol every 30 minutes 24/7. With 48 tests per day, it provides a comprehensive record of the person’s drinking behaviour.  The test results are automatically uploaded at least once per day through a base station in the person’s home using a landline or internet connection.

Recovery Science constructionPhoto: Alcohol Monitoring Systems, Inc.

Recovery Science Corporation makes both technologies available through its alcohol monitoring programs for family law, which are specifically designed for situations involving alcohol and parenting. They help people choose which technology and reporting protocol is best suited to their situation, to support the goal of resolving alcohol-related issues in ways that both parents see as practical, fair, and respectful.

As an example, instead of having supervised access and going for supervised urine tests, the parent whose drinking is a concern may be able to have unsupervised access with breath testing before, during and after each visit. Several months of regular breath testing or wearing the CAM bracelet can also help support a parent’s efforts to get sober. And it can help them do something that is otherwise very difficult for them to do – prove convincingly that they’re not drinking.

Conflict between separated parents about excessive alcohol consumption can be very difficult and stressful. Seeking help and developing a way forward that is objective, fair and respectful can help calm the situation and lead to better outcomes for parents and, most importantly, for the children.

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