Growing up in an environment where a sibling or parent has a substance abuse problem is not only confusing for a child, but frightening as well.
Between the arguments and unusual behavior that typically come without much of an explanation, children are often left alone to figure out what’s going on. Because of this, they may become withdrawn, act aggressively, or even start using illegal drugs or alcohol themselves.
If you are a parent, sibling, or guardian to a child who is in this type of atmosphere, it’s up to you to talk to him or her about addiction. While it may seem like your family’s “dirty little secret,” and you don’t want to expose it to anyone, helping your children understand what’s going on can keep them from going down the same road.
Impact of Drug Abuse on Children
Studies show that more than 8 million children under the age of 18 years old live with at least one adult who has a substance abuse disorder. This is a rate of more than one in 10 youngsters, most of whom are younger than 5 years old. These reports also show that families with at least one person with an addiction have a significant influence on a child’s behavior and development, which includes struggles with behavioral, emotional, and substance use issues.
Families with a parent under the influence of drugs or alcohol usually live in an environment of conflict, abuse or violence, secrecy, and fear. The detrimental impact of this addiction also includes a disruption of:
- Everyday routines and rituals
- Basic communication
- Normal social life
- Familial attachments
Children whose parents abuse drugs or alcohol are also three times more likely to be emotionally, sexually, or physically abused. They are also four times more likely to be neglected than others their age. This is one of the reasons why children need to understand addiction when it first becomes a part of their lives.
Explaining Addiction to a Young Child
There are several ways to explain addiction to younger children; of course, it all depends on their age and what they can comprehend.
Without a solid understanding of the situation, young children will learn to fend for themselves, often coming to wrong conclusions or seeking the wrong kind of help no matter how desperately they want support. These steps can help you decide what to say:
- Choose a suitable time: It is best to discuss a family member’s addiction when the situation is calm, and there aren’t any distractions. It may be best to hold off the discussion until a plan for rehab and recovery is in place. That way, you can talk about the problem and the steps being taken to improve it. Make sure to stress how the situation will change at home once the family member enters treatment, and offer as much support as necessary.
- Keep it age-appropriate: Only tell your child as much as he or she will understand. Break the issues down and keep them as simple and direct as possible. Try to remain hopeful.
- Be truthful: Honesty is always the best policy. However, depending on the age of the child, certain details can be omitted. Be truthful and explain that drug and alcohol addiction is a disease and treatment is needed to get better.
- Provide additional outside support: Just as the family’s loved one receives treatment for his or her addiction, so should your child. Finding a support group or therapist that make the child feel comfortable will also validate his or her feelings and make him or her feel less alone.
Share the Seven Cs
For additional information, contact the experts at Great Oaks Recovery to learn more about talking to your child about addiction. The National Association of Children of Alcoholics has an affirmation that provides a basic and effective way to teach children to be proactive and maintain their self-confidence when a loved one is in recovery:
- I didn’t cause it.
- I can’t cure it.
- I can’t control it.
- I can take care of myself by:
- Communicating my feelings,
- Making healthy choices, and
- Celebrating me.