Addiction is never an easy subject to discuss.
It’s difficult for those living with substance use disorders to get the people closest to them (family members, friends, employers, coworkers) to understand it. There are still a number of myths around addiction that people believe, even though they may not be consciously aware of them. Your best approach is to be honest with the youngest members of your family around this challenging subject, even when it feels awkward or uncomfortable.
How to Talk to Children About Addiction
The following are some suggestions to keep in mind when discussing addiction with children.
• Consider the Children’s Age When Deciding What to Tell Them
Very young children may not be able to understand exactly what addiction is and what “taking drugs” or “drinking too much” may mean. They may become confused between “drugs” that are being abused and medicines that they need to take to feel better when they become ill. Likewise, a young child may become concerned that they could have a problem if they drink “too much” water or juice, which isn’t the same thing you are trying to talk about when sharing a concern about an alcoholic loved one.
Instead, you may want to stick to simple language and say that your loved one is sick. At this point, it’s a good idea to stop and listen to the child’s reaction. Let them guide the discussion, by asking a question or taking time to process the information.
• Be Up Front About What You Know
The best approach is to be honest with children about the facts. This doesn’t necessarily mean that children need to know all the details about a parent or close relative’s addiction. It means that you explain what is going on simply, without embellishment or adding your personal thoughts or opinions.
In very simple terms, addiction can be explained like this: “It’s a certain type of illness that makes people want to do something that isn’t good for them. When someone is sick like this, they aren’t able to stop wanting to do the thing that isn’t good for them.”
• Explain that Addiction Isn’t Contagious
Some children may hear you talk about addiction as a disease and picture it like a cold or the flu. They may be wondering if you can “catch” an addiction from a loved one. Reassure children that addiction isn’t contagious and that they won’t become ill from spending time with the addicted person in the family.
• Tell Them They’re Not Alone
Children who are old enough to go to school may look at their classmates and assume that they are the only ones who are dealing with a parent or close relative who has a problem with substance abuse. Tell them that addiction is a problem that has been around for a very long time and it affects people from all backgrounds.
• Allow the Child to Express Their Feelings
Older children may be more likely to have the vocabulary to express how they feel about someone they love being addicted to drugs or alcohol. Don’t be surprised if the child feels hurt, ashamed, frustrated, angry, and guilty—all at the same time. The dominant feeling may vary from day to day too. It could mirror how the child is getting along with his addicted loved one.
You can let the child know that he is allowed to feel the feelings, but that he is responsible for expressing them in an appropriate manner. An example that children can understand is that when we feel angry at school, we know it’s not OK to yell at other students or the teacher. Better ways to deal with the energy are getting some exercise, drawing a picture of whatever is making us angry, or talking to someone we trust.
• Keep Talking About It
The discussion about addiction isn’t something you can have with a child once and then be done with it forever. This is something you’ll probably want to continue to talk about over a considerable time. Let the child know that he can come to you with any other thoughts, questions, or concerns.
Ultimately, you want your addicted loved one to seek help. Great Oaks Recovery, a leading Texas addiction treatment center, offers residential treatment for drug and alcohol addiction to male and female clients. Contact us to find out more about our services.