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How to Discuss Addiction with Your Child

by Ariana Jacobs

Addiction impacts everyone in your life. Family, friends, coworkers, and even strangers see you at your worst when under the influence. No matter what addiction you’re fighting, those around you see it. They see you at your best; they see you at your worst.

Children see it, too. Even though many assume children are too young to understand or can’t fathom what’s going on – they do. It impacts them throughout their life, especially when it comes to a family member struggling with addiction. Here are some helpful tips for discussing addiction with children so that they aren’t left in the dark with what they’re seeing happen around them.

Discussing Addiction with Children

Remind and Encourage

Let your children know that they can talk about what’s going on, even if they don’t quite get it:

  • Remind them that addiction is a disease.
  • Tell them they can’t control what someone else does.
  • Reinforce, they are not alone.
  • Continuously tell them it’s not their fault – no matter what they hear.

Leveraging these statements over and over again will reinforce that your children have a safe space to process what’s going on and discuss it. They don’t have to hold it inside. They don’t have to feel alone.

Never Assume

Never assume your child understands what addiction is. Explain it in plain terms. They may have questions. Answer them and be honest, even if it’s difficult. Try to use the most straightforward language possible. Be kind, compassionate, and understand their frustration, trying to wrap their head around what you’re discussing. It may take several conversations with your child to understand what’s going on and what they’re seeing. Be patient.

Start Early

The earlier you begin discussing addiction, the better. Your child is seeing what’s going on and already has an idea that something is “wrong” or “off.” Addressing those feelings as soon as possible helps them understand and cope with the situation better. There are some great books out there to help your children understand, even at young ages.

Kids under the age of ten often believe they’re the center of the universe. They can’t comprehend a larger world around them. They will believe they caused an addict to be an addict, especially if the addict has done something personally to them. Reinforcing that the child isn’t at fault is crucial at this age and younger.

Tweens often rely on gossip, rumors, and talking to friends about everything to get information and make decisions on people and situations. It’s important at this age to state facts, give resources they can investigate themselves, and give room for them to ask questions and get the answers they need to make an opinion for themselves on the situation.

Teens can be the hardest to talk about addiction because they’re old enough to feel like they have to step up and do something about it. They may resent the situation, especially if they feel their friends have more “normal” lives. It’s important to reassure teens that the experience they’re going through is valid but that they are not responsible for the addict – only the addict is responsible for their actions.

Resources such as the National Association for Children of Addiction (NACoA) can help with resources to support your children.

Consider Therapy

As you can see from the different age groups, addressing addiction with children can be difficult in any household. When you begin discussing it, consider therapy as an option for your children. Therapy can help your child express their feelings in a safe setting away from home. Sometimes talking to parents or family members is hard for a child because they feel like they aren’t heard or can’t be honest.

By investing in therapy long-term, this makes children feel safe, listened to, and a professional can help them process what’s going on better than family at times. You want to support your child in every way possible when discussing addiction at home – therapy should always be an option.

Enlist Family and Friends

If your children are in a home with an addict causing friction and uncertainty, consider asking family and friends for help. Getting the child out of that environment even for some time can help them live a more stable life. Ensuring they go to school, have play dates, and take part in extra-curricular activities will give them something to occupy the mind and keep them away from the addict in their lives at their worst.

Don’t Discount How Smart Children Are When Dealing with Addiction at Home

Children are smarter than we give them credit for. They’re observant. They’re curious. They take in the world around them. They may not always understand it, but they can process the emotions they feel and hold onto them until they do. By addressing addiction with children as it happens on their terms, you’re giving them some understanding of what’s going on. This helps them process what’s going on. This gives them hope it will get better.

Whether their family members go into addiction treatment, attend a 12-step program, or are getting help one way or another, ensuring your children are also taken care of during this difficult time is essential for them to live a fulfilled life in the future.