Substance use disorders go beyond the individual and can affect entire families. Discussing a loved one’s addiction is difficult and stressful, and explaining the situation to kids is that much more challenging. Substance use can ruin people’s daily lives and create tension and divides within families—and kids notice everything, even if they don’t understand. As a parent or guardian, you carry the formidable task of helping them understand what’s happening. Here’s how to talk about addiction and treatment with a child.
Why is talking to kids about addiction important?
Parents and guardians want to protect their kids, but silence doesn’t help anyone. Let’s face it: Talking to kids about addiction is uncomfortable. It’s a sensitive subject that can bring up a lot of questions you might not know how to answer. However, honesty is essential. Kids are more perceptive than adults give them credit for, so your child is probably already aware of the situation.
Talking openly with your child in an age-appropriate manner equips them to understand their experiences with an adult dealing with addiction. This is especially important if you see this family member often.
How do you talk to a child about addiction?
Determine what makes the most sense for your child
When you’re ready to have this talk, make sure you have time for an open discussion with no distractions. The key is to explain what addiction is, how it happens, how it affects individuals, and how it impacts your family dynamic—all in an age-appropriate way that your child will understand. You don’t need to tell them every gritty detail. Part of the challenge is knowing how much to reveal and how to frame it, and much of this will depend on your child’s age. You can tailor information by only answering the specific questions they ask.
So where do you start? If you’re having trouble opening the conversation, there are many relevant children’s books available for kids of all ages, whether you’re reading out loud to them or looking for tips to talk with a teen. Check out the High Five Books reading list on how to talk about addiction, suitable for kids ages 4 – 12. Common Sense Media has tailored a collection for kids and teens ages 10 and up. You can also visit your local library to find these and other related titles.
Lean on familiar concepts
With a very young child, it may help to start by comparing addiction with concepts they understand. For example, most kids are familiar with the experience of overindulging in candy, even though it upsets their tummy. Older kids and teens can handle more specific details, so you can share more information as they get older.
Treat substance use disorder as you would any sickness or disease. Discuss the problem, the symptoms (i.e., why your relative might behave a certain way), and how it can be treated. It’s also important to note that like many diseases, there is no “cure” for substance use. Treatment is a lifelong process, and patients deserve a strong support system.
Be factual and try to avoid passing judgment
How you talk about addiction can affect the way your child feels about your relative, and you don’t want them to be afraid of or angry with them.
While you don’t want to be judgmental, you should still explain how substance use has affected the family. You want your child to understand the dangers of substance use, so it’s crucial to be honest about personal experiences.
Explain that addiction is not a choice. This relative is not hurting themselves or your family on purpose, and the goal is to help them heal.
It’s a good idea to include when the adult in question is receiving support. Addiction is a scary, unfamiliar concept to a child, so knowing their relative is getting the help they need can be comforting.
Remember that the conversation shouldn’t end there. Keep communication open and let your child know they can ask you questions any time. This is how their understanding will evolve as they grow up.
How can I support their needs?
When talking about addiction with your child, pay attention to their reactions and ask them to share their thoughts and feelings. They may be experiencing a vast range of emotions, from sadness and confusion to guilt and frustration. Let them know that it’s okay to feel this way. It’s tough to process sad situations you can’t control, but it helps to talk about them.
Communication and education are powerful tools that can help kids cope with addiction in the family. When you need additional support, family counseling creates an effective avenue for children, and even parents or guardians, to better understand and unpack the effects of substance use disorder. If your loved one is receiving treatment and is willing to have individual/group sessions, counseling can be especially helpful. These sessions will help you talk through the pain your family has gone through, as well as specific upsetting incidents, allowing you to move forward and heal as a family.