Talking to Children About Addiction

Talking to Children About Addiction

Addiction is a hard topic to discuss. For both addicts and those close to them, it’s tough to explain the struggle to family members, friends, or employers. When talking to children about addiction, it can be impossible to find the words to help them understand. For children of addicts, siblings of addicts, or even grandchildren of addicts, the process can be difficult for them to understand. When explaining such a difficult topic, it’s important to take the child’s age into account, be honest with them, focus on support and communication, and foresee the issues that many children tend to develop while being close to addiction.

For children of addicts, siblings of addicts, or even grandchildren of addicts, the process can be difficult for them to understand. When explaining such a difficult topic, it’s important to take the child’s age into account, be honest with them, focus on support and communication, and foresee the issues that many children tend to develop while being close to addiction.

Talking to Children About Addiction

Taking Age into Account

Obviously there are certain topics that are difficult for children to understand and addiction is even difficult for adults to understand sometimes. When discussing a child’s parent, sibling, or family member struggling with addiction, it’s important to consider the child’s age and cognitive ability to understand such a complex issue. For younger children, the discussion about addiction might be best described as feeling sick. The older the child is the more details about addiction you can share, but be careful to not be too confusing. Your language and attitude is also important. Depending on how close the child is to addiction, they may already feel sad or angry about their absent family member – help them to understand their feelings and their family member’s feelings without encouraging a negative connotation.

Honesty

One of the most difficult aspects to explaining addiction to children is the importance of honesty. Those struggling with addiction themselves tend to feel embarrassed or ashamed of their substance abuse issues, even if they are recovered or in the process of recovery. However, even though it’s not necessary to share the inner details of every aspect of addiction, it is important to be as honest as possible. The child has to feel like they are able to trust someone in regards to the addict in their life. Addicts have to be able to take responsibility for their mistakes, especially to their children.

Children of alcoholics and children of addicts exhibit many of the same symptoms and may have trust issues with the entire subject of substance abuse in general. If the addict will be in treatment for a while and away from home, it’s important to tell them that and why. If the addict in their life is not yet seeking sobriety, it’s important to be honest about their status. It’s natural to want to protect them from certain information or certain pain that may come from knowledge pertaining to addiction – but helping them to understand addiction and being honest about the realities of addiction is much more beneficial to them.

Support and Communication

Experiencing addiction, having a family member struggle with addiction, and being a child of an addict are all difficult circumstances to be a part of. Addiction has many sides and affects each side differently. Don’t be afraid to ask for support when you’re given the task of explaining this difficult disease. Visit an Al-Anon meeting, speak with a counselor, or do some research online for the answers to any questions you have. You may be able to seek these answers with the child you’re discussing addiction with as well as a way to explain the addiction process to them. Show them that they aren’t alone in dealing with addiction and they have a support system.

Discussing hard topics with children is difficult and you can use

The Seven C’s

The National Association for Children of Alcoholics encourages that children know the seven C’s of addiction in order to help them with handling the addiction around them. Many children tend to blame themselves for many issues that their parents or loved ones face. The seven C’s help them understand it’s not their fault, they can’t fix it, and how important self-care is.

  • I didn’t cause it
  • I can’t cure it
  • I can’t control it
  • I can care for myself
  • By communicating my feelings
  • Making healthy choices
  • And celebrating myself

These points are important for children because it points out the issues commonly experienced by children in this position. Guilt is common, helplessness is common, poor self-worth is common, and these seven C’s address those issues.

It’s hard for children of all ages to really understand why their loved one is addicted to a substance. With such a delicate topic and such a sensitive mind, explaining these things to a child is a tough burden to carry. Fortunately, children understand a lot more than we give them credit for. Adults tend to be very protective of children, which is why there’s a belief that some things should be kept from them. This can be true in some instances – but the saying, “honesty is the best policy,” applies to children a lot more than we are comfortable with. Release the stigma of addiction and involve children in the difficult aspects of this problem in an appropriate way. Remember to consider their age, be honest, show them support, encourage open communication, and offer skills to cope. The explanation is hard, but it’s important.  


About the Author: Chelsy Ranard

Chelsy is a writer from Montana who is now living in Boise, Idaho. She graduated with her journalism degree from the University of Montana in 2012. She is a recovered addict who is passionate about addiction recovery advocacy. Follow Chelsy on Twitter.

8 Comments

Megan

Good read.
My husband and I have a 13 y.o. daughter and 8 y.o. son. They love their Dad and he loves us- in their eyes he’s the “fun” parent. He has multiple addictions- gambling, drugs, and drinking. He is active with the kids, but he starts drinking as soon as he gets off work. He will help with their basic needs, but as for taking kids to their practices, buying things for them or anything extra, I do it all because he’s checked out. He will sit in his chair all evening; drink, play games on the iPad or watch TV. He rarely goes to church with us, kids games, or family outings. They get disappointed when he backs out of things or chooses not to participate, but he doesn’t see it being an issue, because he is physically here. To me he’s a functional addict and he’s not setting a good example of what a father should look like. Im struggling how to explain to the kids when he is physically here but not emotionally- they see that he drinks a lot, but they don’t see the drugs or gambling.

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Kimberly m

Great article
I am raising my 5yr old grandson for past 4 yrs he doesn’t even remember his mom n my son his dad is also meth addicted, he is starting to show hurt from his dad’s addiction as of now I’ve only explained his dad has a sickness but I’m feeling need I should explain this more to my grandson, I have full custody and I do not allow his parents around him due to their addiction, could u refer me to some material to help explain addiction to him, he also has medical conditions from his mother using meth during pregnancy n also posts from abuse from mother, I want to always reassure him it isn’t his fault n he is loved from me.

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Dee

How do you explain that a person didn’t cause it, can’t cure it and can’t control it? My daughter is 19-yrs old. Everyone tells her I did this to myself and I won’t stop. One other thing please, is it proven that addiction is hereditary or has something to do with genetics? Thank you so much and congratulations on your recovery!

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Benjamin

This article is so important for parents and caretakers to read. I think being able to discuss addiction in an age appropriate manner will be best as we cannot approach the topic the same with an 8 year old compared to a 13 year old. But number 1, it is important to always reaffirm that it is never their fault. I think approaching it like any other medical condition or disease, like if someone is sick, they need help to get better. Addiction is a disease and the brain needs to heal with therapy and medication. Most kids understands being sick and needing a doctors help. Now if the kids are affected emotionally, get them help right away. The Betty Ford Center in California has one of the most amazing Children’s programs in the world!

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JAM

Hello, great article. Can you recommend any books to help a 6 year old understand addiction. My sons father (who doesn’t live with us) is an addict and sometimes goes months without calling, promises he can’t keep, etc. My son is asking questions and I feel helpless.

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Gloria

Can you please tell me the appropriate age that a child should know of his parents addiction. Really need to know as I have a mother and father with 4 children and both of the parents have addictions the oldest is currently 8 going in to nine. Regards Gloria

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Gloria it’s always best to be honest with children. This doesn’t mean giving them all of the information you have, but giving them enough so that they can understand what is happening and so they can put what they are seeing in context. Explain what an addiction is – an illness. You can explain it in a way that they can understand – perhaps it’s when you know that something isn’t going to be a good idea, but you really want it anyway. Addiction is an illness that makes people want things that are bad for them, but they can’t stop wanting it. For children who don’t know what’s happening, the behaviours they see or the chaos they might see around them will only make them feel unsafe and frightened. Answer their questions honestly and explain what this means for them – who will be looking after them, that they are safe, who they can talk to etc. Give them whatever information they need to feel safe, but not so much that it scares them. The main thing children need to know is what it means for them, and that they will be okay because there are other people who are there for them.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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