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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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