When a person has an addiction to drugs or alcohol, that addiction affects everyone around them, including any children in their lives. Explaining addiction to children, whether your own addiction or that of a loved one, can be challenging. You want them to understand the disease, to know that it’s not their fault, and to feel safe. We’ve provided below some tips and resources you can use for age-appropriate conversations with children.
Plan a Time and Place for the Conversation
Choose a time for your conversation that is calm, private, and free of distractions. If you or your loved one will be entering addiction treatment, talk to the child beforehand if possible. Explain that you or your loved one is ill but that you are taking steps to improve the situation. Talk about any changes that are going to occur in the family, temporary or permanent. Let the child ask questions, and expect that they will want to keep talking about the situation. Allowing ongoing conversation will help the child feel more secure and comfortable.
Keep the Conversation Age-Appropriate
The level of detail and the language you use will depend on the child’s age and level of maturity. Talk about the issues as simply and directly as you can. Always finish the conversation with a message that conveys positivity and hope.
- When talking to children under the age of ten, remember that they still have a me-centered view of the world. They are likely to blame themselves for their loved one’s addiction or believe they did something to cause it. Reassure them that they are not to blame and could not have done anything to stop the addiction from occurring.
- If the child is a tween, make sure to give them all the facts of their loved one’s addiction. State the facts simply, and give the child plenty of time to ask questions. Answer them honestly and openly. Make sure they know they can come to you anytime if they are confused, angry, upset, have questions, or just need to talk.
- If you are talking with a teen, keep in mind they may feel resentment or anger toward the addicted person or toward the addiction itself. They may have had to take on added responsibilities at home. Let them know how much you appreciate what they have done for the family. Be respectful of their feelings and never use a tone that is dismissive or condescending. Always keep an open line of communication with your teen.
You might want to consult one of the many excellent books on explaining addiction to children. Here is a list of twenty of them.
Always Be Honest
Regardless of the child’s age, they need to know they can trust you to be honest. Being honest when you’re explaining addiction to children will help to rebuild trust that may have been broken because of the substance use disorder. For example, if their loved one will be in treatment away from home, explain that to the child and also tell them why. You could show them pictures from the treatment facility’s website so they can see that their loved one is being taken care of. If their loved one is not ready to seek treatment, be honest. Explain that addiction is a disease and that it can be very hard for people to accept that they need to get help. Your honesty will help the children in your life feel safe and protected.
Listen to and Validate Their Feelings
Listen to what the child has to say about how they are feeling. Give them the time they need to express themselves without trying to fix it. Allow them to have their feelings instead of trying to convince them to feel okay. Acknowledge how they feel, their pain, and the impact the addiction has on them. Let them know you support them without judgment.
If You Need Help
If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, help is available. At Canyon Vista Recovery Center, located in Mesa, Arizona, our skilled team will use a combination of medical, psychiatric, clinical, and holistic approaches to provide you with the help and skills you need to live a clean and sober life. We also offer family counseling to help our clients and their families begin to rebuild their family unit.