Addiction Affects Children Too
Having a parent, grandparent, older sibling, or other family members who struggle with addiction can be a traumatic and confusing experience for a child. It can be tempting to avoid the topic due to your own discomfort, but secrecy only adds to a child’s inner turmoil.
Openly and honestly discussing the issue is the best way to help your entire family move forward. To help you start the conversation, we’re outlined the key lessons children need to understand about drug or alcohol addiction.
1. They Didn’t Cause It
Children have a natural tendency to center their worldview in terms of their own limited experiences. When they see a parent or other adult struggling with addiction, they often feel guilty and believe they are responsible. For example, a child may believe that Dad wouldn’t drink so much if they had better grades in school or did their chores without complaining.
Explaining that addiction is a disease can help children understand that substance use disorders are not caused by anything they said or did. The level of detail you provide should be tailored to the child’s age. For example, preschoolers typically only need someone to explain that addiction is a sickness and that their parent or loved one needs to see a special doctor to get better. This conversation can refer to the Sesame Street in Communities website, which has a section offering resources to help young children understand parental addiction—including videos with Karli (a Muppet in foster care because of parental addiction) and coloring pages that talk about the importance of self-care for coping with addiction-related stress.
2. Addiction Can’t Be Cured
Like adults, children often misunderstand how addiction is treated. A child may believe that someone with an addiction just needs to decide to stop abusing drugs or alcohol. They may worry that a parent or family member who refuses to stop doesn’t care about them or love them enough to stay sober.
Children need to understand that addiction is a chronic illness—especially if their parent or family member has recently experienced a relapse. If your child knows someone with diabetes, comparing the need for ongoing addiction care to a diabetic’s need to take insulin and check their blood sugar can be helpful.
Teens may be curious about the specific ways in which addiction is treated. Talking about Alcoholics Anonymous, medication-assisted treatment, and cognitive behavioral therapy helps them see that treatment provides hope for lasting recovery and reassures them that their loved one is working hard to get better. If your teen asks questions that you can’t answer, simply admit that you’re still learning about the topic, too, and suggest that you do some research together.
3. They Are Not Alone
Because of the stigma surrounding addiction, children often feel that this problem is one that only affects their family. They don’t realize that about 25% of children experience the effects of a parent or other family member’s addiction before their 18th birthday. This means that many of their friends and classmates are also dealing with a loved one’s addiction—even if they’re not openly talking about the issue.
Support groups such as Alateen and Confident Kids can give kids a way to learn from the experiences of others who are dealing with the same struggles. Teens may also benefit from attending the family programming offered by their parent or loved one’s treatment center. For example, Mountain Laurel Recovery Center offers weekly educational and process groups for families as part of its Pennsylvania drug and alcohol addiction treatment program.
Additional resources are available for children of incarcerated parents and children in foster care because of a parent’s addiction.
4. It’s Okay to Share How They Feel
Children need to know that their feelings are valid. A child who is struggling because of a family member’s addiction may feel upset, angry, afraid, and embarrassed. Encourage children to talk to adults they trust, such as a teacher, school counselor, coach, neighbor, or church leader.
Journaling can also be a good way to encourage kids to share how they feel. Drawing or writing about their feelings may be easier than talking about how addiction has affected their lives. Encourage kids to spend time journaling each day, then ask if they are comfortable sharing some of their entries with you. If desired, you could create your own journal entries to share.
5. Making Healthy Choices Can Help Them Feel Better
For young children, it’s important to talk about how sufficient sleep, healthy food, regular exercise, and stress-relieving hobbies can help them feel better about what’s going on with their parent or family member’s addiction. Practicing self-care builds resilience, which plays a vital role in helping kids overcome trauma.
For pre-teens and teens, a discussion of healthy choices should include talking about how to handle peer pressure to experiment with drugs and alcohol. While genetics aren’t destiny, a child with one or more blood relatives who have struggled with addiction does have biological risk factors that must be considered. Pre-teens and teens who fully understand their personal risk of developing an addiction will be better equipped to make healthy choices as young adults.