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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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things 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. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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