Tips for Talking with Children about Addiction and Overdose Loss

Tips for Talking with Children about Addiction and Overdose

We’ve all read about it and heard about it in the news. In 2016 the number of opioid overdose deaths in the United States topped 63,000. Not only does this number surpass the total killed by car accidents and firearms, it also surpasses the number of Americans who were killed in the 19 years of the Vietnam War. This epidemic has impacted the entire fabric of American life. Many who have died are young people and adults with children. So how do we talk about overdose death with children? What words should we use? How do we address a topic that brings up complicated feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, blame, worry, isolation, and anguish, as well as the big “why” questions and the desire to protect those we love?

There are really two parts to these questions. First, how do we talk about drugs and addiction and second, how do we talk about death by overdose. Another point to consider is children’s exposure to the loved one’s substance use. Some children who have lost a family member to overdose already know that life had been a struggle or had been “different”, that the person had been experiencing ongoing trauma and change. Other children are not aware that their loved one struggled with drug-related issues, so both the drugs and death are foreign experiences. Either way, the death of a loved one is a difficult and often overwhelming experience for children.

Explaining Addiction to Children: Points to Consider

Not everyone who dies a drug-related death has struggled with addiction (also known as substance use disorder (SUD)), but many have. If this is the case, it is important to acknowledge the addiction and how it may have already impacted the child’s life.

  • Addiction has multiple causes and is unique to each individual, but factors of genetics, personality, environment, exposure, and past trauma all play a role. In adult terms, it is a chronic relapsing condition, and in children’s terms it is an illness that impacts the brain and behavior—an illness that can be treated.
  • One helpful approach is to use the “gum” analogy with young children– that treating addiction is like getting sticky gum out of their hair—very difficult to do and requiring a lot of time and effort. Another helpful image is that of a fish stuck on a hook—wanting to get “unhooked” can be a frustrating and difficult task.
  • With children, offer as much clarity as possible around drugs of abuse versus medicine that the doctor prescribes for medical needs. For example, with a prescription drug overdose, one might say, “Joe used more of the medication than the doctor prescribed or was safe to use.” An addiction is an “invisible disease that causes a person to use more (alcohol or other drugs) than is safe and can be treated but sometimes can end in death.” The words “drug,” “medicine,” and even “substance” can be unclear. Clarify that not all medicine is addictive or bad for us, and that it is important to never take someone else’s prescribed medication. Teenagers can often understand the different meanings of the words, but you must keep it clear.
  • Addiction “highjacks” or controls the brain and can make people do or say hurtful things that they don’t really mean. In other words, try to separate the person from the disease. In addition, it is important to clearly state that the child did not cause the addiction, so as to separate the child from the cause.  
  • Children growing up in homes with a family member who struggles with addiction can experience a confusing array of emotions. They can both be very protective and loyal to their family member, but also resentful and hurt. Often, they are reluctant to open up due to the fear of sharing a long-held family secret or of feeling shame and embarrassment. It can be helpful to acknowledge this conflict, and that multiple feelings can be experienced at the same time.

The following “Seven Cs of Addiction”, from the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, is a helpful tool for your discussion of addiction with your child:

  • 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
  • By Celebrating myself.

Explaining Overdose Loss to Children

Now we address the challenge of explaining overdose death to children. There is no exact script, but there are some talking points that may help. The initial conversation is not the time to share all of the available information about the death. Instead, the beginning conversation lays the groundwork, allowing the child to react and ask questions while allowing the adult to support and draw out what the child is thinking and feeling. Some children may have heard the terms “overdose” or “drug-related death”, but many have not. Well-meaning adults are sometimes tempted to “protect” children and to avoid the truth when talking about overdose death. Children will inevitably discover the true cause of death of close family members and friends, and it is best to first hear this information from the adults they trust. Adults can reassure children in these moments and talk about their concerns.

 Below are guidelines we can use to address this sensitive topic:

  • Take care of yourself first:  Consider the airplane analogy — put on your own “oxygen” mask before placing one on your child.  Take a couple of deep breaths and give yourself time to collect your thoughts.
  • Think about the conversation in terms of building blocks:  Telling “the truth” does not mean sharing all the information at once. This foundation of truth can be built upon during future conversations.
  • Name your feelings but try to keep them in check: When we are processing difficult news, we will experience waves of feelings; after all, we are human. Name your feeling, e.g. “I am feeling very sad right now,” but stay as calm as possible and take breaks when needed.
  • Keep language clear: Try to use language that is appropriate to your child’s age, level of understanding, and previous knowledge of the situation.
  • Younger children need a concrete explanation of death and overdose: “Death means the body has stopped working” and “An overdose is when someone takes too much of a drug or the wrong drug, and it makes their body stop working.”
  • Talk about the person who died in a caring and respectful way: “Your Grandma died by an overdose, but this does not define who she was.”  Just as a period does not define a sentence, the cause of death does not define a person.  He or she is not “an overdose” but a person who died by an overdose.
  • Avoid assigning fault and blame: Underline that it is not anyone’s fault that this person died—and that the death is certainly not the child’s fault. Remember that in the course of normal development, children can experience “magical thinking” which sometimes leads them to see a death as their fault. 
  • Guide children in learning to share information appropriately: Children may need assistance in sharing with others what has happened. Let them know that sharing does not mean telling everything—it is not a lie to keep some things private. They may need guidance in answering questions from peers or community.

Children and teens need to make sense of the death and embrace their feelings as much as adults do. Be sure to remind the child that if they themselves ever struggle with their feelings, there is always help available. Avoid comments like, “Your loved one wouldn’t want you to be sad.”  These will only serve to shut down conversation. Instead, reassure them that it is okay to feel any emotion and share with you if they choose. Avoid trying to make sense of the loss for your child or teen with blanket statements like, “They are in a better place now.”  Instead, invite curiosity and questioning.  Even when we do not have the answers, it is reasonable to share that you do not know and ask, “What do you think?”

Help them identify the people around them who are available to talk with during tough times. Help them to identify what safe activities bring them a sense of comfort and control when they are distressed, such as drawing pictures of their feelings, petting their cat, or listening to favorite music.

Substance abuse and overdose losses are complicated topics, difficult even for sensitive and thoughtful parents. Please reach out to a mental health provider if you need additional support or if you have on-going concerns.  Remember, it is a sign of health to ask for guidance in times of need.


About the Authors: 

Sarah Montgomery LCSW-C is the Coordinator of Children and Family Programs at the Chesapeake Life Center at the Hospice of the Chesapeake. She has over 20 years clinical experience providing individual, family, and group counselling in a variety of settings including school-based, outpatient psychiatry and community-based organizations. She holds a BA from Williams College and an MSW from University of Maryland School of Social Work. Sarah has also co-written three books Helping Your Depressed Teenager (1994) and the Clinical Uses of Drawings (1996) and recently Supporting Children After a Suicide Loss: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers (2015) with Susan Coale LCSW-C.

 

 

Joy McCrady, MS, LGPC, NCC, is a bereavement counselor with the Chesapeake Life Center of Hospice of the Chesapeake. She offers family-centered grief support and works with clients throughout the lifespan who have experienced traumatic loss. She co-facilitates a support group for those who have lost a loved one to substance abuse as well as a group for grieving teens.

One Comment

Catherine C

My sons father just died of an overdose. My son lived with him, he was a lawyer, the best Dad. No one knew he was on drugs. Jack found him, thought he was sleeping and went to other room and came back later…..He is only 13. His Dad was EVERYTHING to him. Please, how do I help the most? I am in recovery. If it happened to me they would not be shocked. How will he get through this.

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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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