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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When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.
Sometimes we all just need space to talk to someone who will listen without giving advice, or problem solving, or lecturing. Someone who will let us talk, and who can handle our experiences and words and feelings without having to smooth out the wrinkles or tidy the frayed edges. 

Our kids need this too, but as their important adults, it can be hard to hush without needing to fix things, or gather up their experience and bundle it into a learning that will grow them. We do this because we love them, but it can also mean that they choose not to let us in for the wrong reasons. 

We can’t help them if we don’t know what’s happening in their world, and entry will be on their terms - even more as they get older. As they grow, they won’t trust us with the big things if we don’t give them the opportunity to learn that we can handle the little things (which might feel seismic to them). They won’t let us in to their world unless we make it safe for them to.

When my own kids were small, we had a rule that when I picked them up from school they could tell me anything, and when we drove into the driveway, the conversation would be finished if they wanted it to be. They only put this rule into play a few times, but it was enough for them to learn that it was safe to talk about anything, and for me to hear what was happening in that part of their world that happened without me. My gosh though, there were times that the end of the conversation would be jarring and breathtaking and so unfinished for me, but every time they would come back when they were ready and we would finish the chat. As it turned out, I had to trust them as much as I wanted them to trust me. But that’s how parenting is really isn’t it.

Of course there will always be lessons in their experiences we will want to hear straight up, but we also need them to learn that we are safe to come to.  We need them to know that there isn’t anything about them or their life we can’t handle, and when the world feels hard or uncertain, it’s safe here. By building safety, we build our connection and influence. It’s just how it seems to work.♥️
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#parenting #parenthood #mindfulparenting
Words can be hard sometimes. The right words can be orbital and unconquerable and hard to grab hold of. Feelings though - they’ll always make themselves known, with or without the ‘why’. 

Kids and teens are no different to the rest of us. Their feelings can feel bigger than words - unfathomable and messy and too much to be lassoed into language. If we tap into our own experience, we can sometimes (not all the time) get an idea of what they might need. 

It’s completely understandable that new things or hard things (such as going back to school) might drive thoughts of falls and fails and missteps. When this happens, it’s not so much the hard thing or the new thing that drives avoidance, but thoughts of failing or not being good enough. The more meaningful the ‘thing’ is, the more this is likely to happen. If you can look behind the words, and through to the intention - to avoid failure more than the new or difficult experience, it can be easier to give them what they need. 

Often, ‘I can’t’ means, ‘What if I can’t?’ or, ‘Do you think I can?’, or, ‘Will you still think I’m brave, strong, and capable of I fail?’ They need to know that the outcome won’t make any difference at all to how much you adore them, and how capable and exceptional you think they are. By focusing on process, (the courage to give it a go), we clear the runway so they can feel safer to crawl, then walk, then run, then fly. 

It takes time to reach full flight in anything, but in the meantime the stumbling can make even the strongest of hearts feel vulnerable. The more we focus on process over outcome (their courage to try over the result), and who they are over what they do (their courage, tenacity, curiosity over the outcome), the safer they will feel to try new things or hard things. We know they can do hard things, and the beauty and expansion comes first in the willingness to try. 
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparent
Never in the history of forever has there been such a  lavish opportunity for a year to be better than the last. Not to be grabby, but you know what I’d love this year? Less opportunities that come in the name of ‘resilience’. I’m ready for joy, or adventure, or connection, or gratitude, or courage - anything else but resilience really. Opportunities for resilience have a place, but 2020 has been relentless with its servings, and it’s time for an out breath. Here’s hoping 2021 will be a year that wraps its loving arms around us. I’m ready for that. x
The holidays are a wonderland of everything that can lead to hyped up, exhausted, cranky, excited, happy kids (and adults). Sometimes they’ll cycle through all of these within ten minutes. Sugar will constantly pry their little mouths wide open and jump inside, routines will laugh at you from a distance, there will be gatherings and parties, and everything will feel a little bit different to usual. And a bit like magic. 

Know that whatever happens, it’s all part of what the holidays are meant to look like. They aren’t meant to be pristine and orderly and exactly as planned. They were never meant to be that. Christmas is about people, your favourite ones, not tasks. If focusing on the people means some of the tasks fall down, let that be okay, because that’s what Christmas is. It’s about you and your people. It’s not about proving your parenting stamina, or that you’ve raised perfectly well-behaved humans, or that your family can polish up like the catalog ones any day of the week, or that you can create restaurant quality meals and decorate the table like you were born doing it. Christmas is messy and ridiculous and exhausting and there will be plenty of frayed edges. And plenty of magic. The magic will happen the way it always happens. Not with the decorations or the trimmings or the food or the polish, but by being with the ones you love, and the ones who love you right back.

When it all starts to feel too important, too necessary and too ‘un-let-go-able’, be guided by the bigger truth, which is that more than anything, you will all remember how you all felt – as in how happy they felt, how loved they felt were, how noticed they felt. They won’t care about the instagram-worthy meals on the table, the cleanliness of the floors, how many relatives they visited, or how impressed other grown-ups were with their clean faces and darling smiles. It’s easy to forget sometimes, that what matters most at Christmas isn’t the tasks, but the people – the ones who would give up pretty much anything just to have the day with you.

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