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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Today was an ending and a beginning. My darling girl finished year 12. The final year at school is tough enough, but this year was seismic. Our teens have moved through this year with the most outstanding courage and grace and strength, and now it is time for them to rest and play. My gosh they deserve it. 

It is true that this is a time of celebration, but it can also be an intense time of self-reflection for our teens. (I can remember the same feelings when my gorgeous boy finished so many years ago!) My daughter has described it as, ‘I feel as though I’ve outgrown myself but my new self isn’t ready yet.’ This just makes so much sense. 

There is a beautifully fertile void that is waiting for whatever comes next for each of them, but that void is still a void. At different times it might feel exciting, overwhelming, or brutal in its emptiness.

We also have to remember that this is a time of letting go, and there might be grief that comes with that. Before they can grab on to their next big adventure, they have to let go of the guard rails. This means gently adjusting their hold on the world they have known for the last 12+ years, with its places and routines and people that have felt like home on so many days. There will be redirects and shiftings, and through it all the things that need to stay will stay, and the things that need to adjust will adjust. 

To my darling girl, your loved incredible friends, and the teens who make our world what it is - you are the beautiful  thinkers, the big feelers, the creators, the change makers, and the ones who will craft and grow a better world. However you might feel now, the lights are waiting to shine for you and because of you. The world beyond school is opening its arms to you. That opening might happen quickly, or gently, or smoothly or chaotically, but it will happen. This world needs every one of you - your voices, your spirits, your fire, your softness, your strength and your power. You are world-ready, and we are so glad you are here xxx
When our kids or teens are in high emotion, their words might sound anxious, angry, inconsolable, jealous, defiant. As messy as the words might be, they have a good reason for being there. Big feelings surge as a way to influence the environment to meet a need. Of course, sometimes the fallout from this can be nuclear.
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Wherever there is a big emotion, there will always be an important need behind it - safety, comfort, attention, food, rest, connection. The need will always be valid, even if the way they’re going about meeting it is a little rough. As with so many difficult parenting moments, there will be gold in the middle of the mess if we know where to look. 
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There will be times for shaping the behaviour into a healthier response, but in the middle of a big feeling is not one of those times. Big feelings are NOT a sign of dysfunction, bad kids or bad parenting. They are a part of being human, and they bring rich opportunities for wisdom, learning and growth. .
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Parenting isn’t about stopping the emotional storms, but about moving through the storm and reaching the other side in a way that preserves the opportunity for our kids and teens to learn and grow from the experience - and they will always learn best from experience. 
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To calm a big feeling, name what you see, ‘I can see you’re disappointed. I know how much you wanted that’, or, ‘I can see this feels big for you,’ or, ‘You’re angry at me about .. aren’t you. I understand that. I would be mad too if I had to […],’ or ‘It sounds like today has been a really hard day.’ 
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When we connect with the emotion, we help soothe the nervous system. The emotion has done its job, found support, and can start to ease. 
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When they ‘let go’ they’re letting us in on their deepest and most honest emotional selves. We don’t need to change that. What we need to do is meet them where they and gently guide them from there. When they feel seen and understood, their trust in us and their connection to us will deepen, opening the way for our influence.
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When they are at that line, deciding whether to retreat to safety or move forward into brave, there will be a part of them that will know they have what it takes to be brave. It might be pale, or quiet, or a little tumbled by the noise from anxiety, but it will be there. And it will be magical. Our job as their flight crew is to clear the way for this magical part of them to rise. ‘I can see this feels scary for you - and I know you can do this.’ 
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When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
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What can be easier is thinking about what other people might need. Asking this when they are calm can invite a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through similar. Don't worry if you just get a shrug, or a disheartened, 'I don't know'. They don't need to know, and neither do we. The question in itself might be enough to open a new way through any sense of 'stuckness' or helplessness they might be feeling.
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Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. But the learning comes from experience.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️

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