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Talking to Kids About Addiction

Written on September 22, 2021
Talking to Kids About Addiction

Talking to kids about addiction may feel daunting, but it’s necessary. A parent’s addiction can affect their children in several ways. Talking openly about the impact of substance abuse on kids is an important part of helping them to process, cope, and heal from the trauma they are experiencing. 

How Addiction Impacts Children

Substance use disorders can affect children in so many ways. Because addiction is inherently chaotic, unpredictable, and destabilizing, a child who grows up in its midst can develop insecurity that they will be cared for, a sense of groundlessness, and an insecure attachment style that can follow them into their relationships later in life. When chaos feels normal, those children may find themselves feeling drawn to risky situations in the future, such as their own addiction or an unstable relationship. Talking to kids about addiction in their lives is therefore extremely important. 

Because a parent who has a substance use disorder is frequently emotionally unavailable (and sometimes physically neglectful or abusive due to their intoxication), children of addicts can often feel abandoned and alone. Even in cases of “high-functioning” addiction, the absence of the parent’s attunement to the child’s emotions, such as noticing when they are sad, checked out, or stressed out, can greatly disrupt their emotional development. 

It is not uncommon for children to feel as though a parent’s addiction is their fault, and that it is therefore their job to fix it. This can lead to issues of codependency and perfectionism, among other things. The weight of this responsibility on such little shoulders can be highly traumatic and may lead them to believe that they have done something wrong or are inherently bad. It can greatly affect a child’s confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth. 

Whether or not the parent asks the child to keep his or her addiction a secret, a child may interpret the addiction as a shameful, secretive thing. This could lead them to feel guilt, shame, and isolation. 

Why Talking to Kids About Addiction is Important

Whether you are a parent in early recovery, or a parent, teacher, or relative who is caring for a child who has a parent with a substance use disorder, having a conversation with the child or children of an addict is difficult but necessary. Kids are intuitive and are aware that something is amiss, even if they aren’t quite sure what it is. Even if you don’t talk about it, they are still impacted by the addiction in their life; they still experience pain the pain and trauma of an unreliable, emotionally absent parent. 

When you withhold this truth or pretend that everything is fine, they can feel confused. They may learn to ignore their intuition, believe that addiction is a normal part of life, or think that the things that feel wrong are their fault and not the parents. 

Making a point to talk about what is happening, in age-appropriate ways, will help children to process the trauma the addiction may be causing them. It also teaches them the benefit of talking about their feelings as a healthy coping strategy and may make them more comfortable disclosing to a trusted adult what they are going through in the future. 

How to Talk to Children About Addiction

Before you begin this conversation, make sure you are adequately educated on the nature of addiction as well as on the way to approach the conversation that is appropriate to the age of the child.

Talking to Younger Children About Addiction

Younger children under 10 are more likely to blame themselves for the addiction, as they still view the world in a “me-centered” perspective.  

Some of the key things to convey to a younger child include:

  • The parent still loves them no matter what. 
  • The child did absolutely nothing wrong or nothing to cause/perpetuate the addiction, nor are they responsible for any consequences the addiction may have caused (going away to treatment, reckless behaviors, loss of custody). 
  • Reiterate the people they can talk to and tools they have to cope with their up and down feelings. Explain that it is normal to feel overwhelmed, angry, sad, or confused and not know why. Help set them up with tools to cope with these feelings, such as mindfulness, by having them see a therapist or school counselor. 

Talking to Tweens About Addiction

When you are talking to tweens about a parent’s addiction, it is important to give them a full picture of what is going on. If you are too vague, they may try to piece the story together themselves, which you don’t want to happen. The best way to do this is to invite them to ask questions and to answer them openly and honestly, all the while reiterating to them that their questions and their reasons for seeking them are valid. Refrain from sending any signals that their questions are making you embarrassed, impatient, or uncomfortable. 

It is important to validate their feelings, whatever they may be. Express to them that it is normal to have ups and downs and feel a wide array of different emotions, some of which may be confusing. As with younger children, it is a great idea to get them support in the way of therapy and to help guide them with healthy coping strategies and tools for processing their experience. 

Talking to Teens About Addiction

Many teens have an especially hard time talking to their parents about difficult feelings and may find it easier to process what they are experiencing with a therapist or school counselor. Therapists who work specifically with teens have expertise in building rapport and trust with teens, even those who may be particularly shut down. 

Developing a trusting and open relationship with teens is crucial. Children of addicts are more likely to suffer addiction themselves, and having an adult with whom they can talk openly can be a powerful preventative in engaging in risky behaviors with drugs or alcohol. 

Teens who are struggling emotionally also benefit from activities or hobbies that increase their self-esteem, connect them to like-minded peers, and give them safe alternatives to drug and alcohol use. Encouraging teens to pursue their passions and interests will help them cope with their parent’s addiction. 

Important Messages to Convey when Talking to Kids About Addiction

National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA) emphasizes four key points to include in a discussion with children about addiction:

1. Addiction is a Disease

Addiction can be extremely confusing for a child. Parents will act erratically and chaotically, doing things that don’t make sense to them. Some addicts may have angry outbursts or say mean things. Others may neglect their parental duties in a myriad of ways, such as failing to take care of a child’s physical or emotional needs. They may break promises or forget conversations they had with the children. 

Parents under the influence of drugs or alcohol may act in ways that are embarrassing to the child. The child may be sensitive to the smell of alcohol, the slurring of words, belligerence in front of their peers or teachers, or changes in appearance such as skin or dental problems. Children may feel a variety of ways as a result: embarrassed, guilty, ashamed, angry. It is important to validate that whatever they are feeling is normal. And it is also important to reinforce that their parent’s actions are bad choices because they have a disease, not because they are bad people.  

2. It is Not the Child’s Fault

While it may be easier for an adult to understand rationally that they are not to blame for another person’s addiction, a child has much less ability to see a situation in this light. Developmentally, they internalize what is going on around them. Most children in this situation will try to find a way to control and better what is happening, and when they fall short, they feel they are to blame. Their mind can frequently wander to all how they could have done something differently to mitigate what happened or is currently happening. 

Tweens and teens may even feel like they need to “babysit” their parents or be around to take responsibility when their parent is unable. They may also get the message that their actions are the reason the parent uses substances, and/or acts abusively or neglectfully. As outrageous as this is rational, it can be hard for a child or teenager not to internalize this messaging. For this reason, it is crucial to reiterate in your conversations that the child is in no way to blame for what is happening. 

3. The Child is Not Alone

Having an addicted parent can feel incredibly lonely and scary for a child. The parent may be intentionally isolating them as to keep the addiction a secret. Asking them to keep a shameful family secret can make them feel as though they are “other” and don’t belong. It is not uncommon for these kids to be convinced that no one understands what they are going through, and that they don’t have the freedom to process their experience with anyone else. 

Talking to kids about addiction is crucial to their healthy development and understanding of what is going on. Reminding kids that many others are going through the same can be helpful, as can providing them resources to connect with children in similar situations. Alateen and other support groups for children of addicts are available both virtually and in person in the Colorado area and beyond. 

It is also helpful to reassure them that you are always available to talk and that they don’t have to carry the burden of their parent’s addiction alone. 

4. It’s OK to Talk

Along those same lines, it is important to emphasize that not only is it OK to talk about their parent’s addiction, but it is essential in healing from the trauma of what they are going through. Professional therapy and support groups like Alateen are important in processing what is happening so that the child’s trauma does not become internalized and result in mental health issues later on. 

It can be helpful to reassure them that they do not have to protect or cover for their parents by lying or keeping secrets. The more experience they have with confiding in a person they trust, the more they will come to believe that this is a safe option for them. 

The Seven Cs

In addition to these talking points, NACoA suggests teaching children of alcoholics and addicts the “7 Cs”:

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. 

Finding the Right Time for Talking to Kids About Addiction

There will never feel like a perfect time to have the difficult conversation of talking to kids about addiction. Still, certain moments may be more conducive to a positive outcome. Start planning on your conversation as soon as you know that there is an issue of addiction in the family. Take note of when the child is most relaxed during the day, and plan on doing it then. Right before bedtime is usually not a great choice, as kids can be cranky, tired, and then find themselves ruminating or having trouble sleeping with this new information. 

Make sure you pick a place where the child feels safe to share with confidentiality, somewhere where they won’t fear being heard. If you are outside of the family, there is a good chance that the child may deny the problem in an attempt to protect their parent. Be patient, validating, and supportive. 

Support for Families of Alcoholics and Addicts in Boulder, Colorado and Beyond

At Flatirons Recovery, we take a “systems approach” to healing from addiction. In other words, the entire family system needs to heal from the trauma of addiction and needs to adapt to thrive in recovery. We are always here to provide supportive resources to children of alcoholics and addicts throughout the Colorado area, as well as including in our programming steps parents can take to mitigate and correct the effects their addiction has had on their children.