How to Explain Addiction to a Child: A Guide

explaining addiction to a child
In America today, more than eight million children live with parents who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Living in a home with parental substance abuse can be frightening and confusing for anyone, but especially so for the very young. A child may struggle to understand why their parents behave a certain way, as they face unclear communication and erratic, unpredictable behavior from the adults in their life. This often results in kids making up their own explanations for what is happening; unfortunately, they may even blame themselves for parental substance abuse.
To make matters worse, family members are often hesitant to bring up addiction, or they may ignore the problem altogether.
Experts recommend being honest and up front with children whose parents are addicted to drugs or alcohol. This openness and shared understanding can pave the way for personal growth and common-sense next steps. Today on the blog, we’ll share with you our top tips for how to explain addiction to a child.

Why Should I Tell Them?

When a parent, sibling, or other family member is addicted to drugs or alcohol, a child’s entire life changes.

Children living in homes with people who abuse drugs and alcohol may find their lives unpredictable and scary. They may even think their parents’ substance use is their fault, or they can feel guilty or ashamed while trying to protect family secrets. It’s also common for children of addicts to feel abandoned, since their loved ones are not emotionally available to engage with or support them.

Young people who feel unsafe or unwanted tend to withdraw or act out, which can put them at greater risk of becoming addicts themselves. In order to break this cycle, it is necessary to be honest with them about their loved one’s substance use.

Remember above all else that the goal is to help a child better understand the disease of addiction. The conversation should be a way for them to have questions answered, assuage themselves of guilt, and know what’s going on with their loved one. It can also aid them in knowing their own predisposition to addiction later in life. The conversation should not be a chance to get the child on someone else’s side, turn them against their loved one, or scare them.

How Much is Appropriate to Explain?

There are some topics that are very difficult for children to understand, and addiction is one of them. When telling a child about the substance use of a parent, sibling, or more distant relative, it’s important to consider their age. By tailoring your conversation to their cognitive level, you will avoid overwhelming them and can help them to understand the issue at hand.

For very young children, this age appropriate conversation may involve describing addiction as being “sick.” Consider using books or other aids to guide you through this process. The older the child is, the more you can share; however, be careful not to provide too much upsetting information. Additionally, monitor your attitude while talking about this particular topic. The child may already resent the addicted family member. Instead of upsetting them further, seek to help them understand their feelings and the situation without creating prejudice or anger.

The Disease Model of Addiction

Be sure that the child understands that addiction is a disease. By letting them know that their parent is sick just like a person with any other condition, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, you can significantly decrease the stigma around substance abuse. Tell them that they are not alone, and that millions of families are in the exact same situation.

You do not need to use this opportunity to launch into a full explanation of addiction; instead, focus on addressing the child’s concerns and helping them to develop a general understanding around the topic. This conversation is the time to tell them that their parent is sick and that it is not their fault. Later, you can talk to them at length about the disease model of addiction if necessary.

The Seven C’s

The National Association for Children of Alcoholics is an organization whose purpose is to eliminate the adverse impact of substance use on children and families. They recommend using the seven C’s to help young people better understand and cope with addiction in the home. They are…

  • 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
These seven C’s are useful for combatting helplessness, guilt, shame, and other negative feelings that may arise throughout a loved one’s recovery or continued drug use.

Finding Support

In addition to providing an age-appropriate explanation, adults should find ways to support the children of addicts. Perhaps the simplest approach to this is to ask the child how they feel in a situation – for example, if they’ve seen Daddy get angry and throw things, or if Mommy has fallen asleep while talking to them. Having these conversations brings family secrets to light and allows the child to feel seen, heard, and supported through difficult times.

Teenagers may benefit from participation in Alateen, a version of Al-Anon for younger people dealing with a loved one’s addiction. In a group setting, participants may share experiences, discuss difficulties, and provide encouragement for one another.

Do You Need Help Explaining Addiction to a Child?

Telling children about addiction is a difficult task. However, with the right level of preparation, it is possible to use this conversation to help the child to feel supported, loved, and informed. At HVRC, our Family Program can help young people to better understand their parents’ drug and alcohol misuse, strengthening the family unit. To learn more about our evidence-based approach to addiction treatment and family healing, contact us today.