Tennessee Addiction Resources: Talking to Your Children About Addiction


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Addiction and alcoholism cause pain and misfortune for the addict or alcoholic and all whose lives are associated with them.  Husbands, wives, parents, significant others are all impacted deeply by the turbulent and twisted life of active addiction.  But there are none who suffer more, or whose suffering goes the most unnoticed than the children involved with or in the household of an addicted person. No one can truly prepare for how to deal with the chaos addiction and alcoholism can bring, but children have not yet seen the world for what it can be, nor have they yet developed the skills for how to cope with all the dark confusion.

Talking to Children About Addiction

It’s not easy to talk to children about addiction. You may be worried your children will find the subject uncomfortable or wonder if they will even be able to understand it depending on their age. However, because a parent’s (or any family member’s) addiction has a direct impact on children, it’s crucial to have this conversation.

You may ask yourself: But when is the right time? What do you even say? In order to make the discussion informative and helpful, adhere to the following tips when explaining addiction to your child:

Acknowledge Their Pain and the Confusion of Their Experiences with the Addiction:

Your child may have been through tough experiences because of yours or a loved one’s addiction. Instead of skirting around the hurt your child has experienced, validate their pain. Sincerely apologize for the pain your child has experienced and remind them that the addiction doesn’t impact how much they are cared for.

It may be helpful to address this in a therapy setting as well. Never feel that you have to have these conversations alone, especially if you aren’t sure how to talk about your substance abuse constructively.  There are many children and family therapists that can prove useful.

Remove Any Shame They May Feel About the Addiction:

Chances are your child may blame some of the problems on him- or herself. Remind your child that they didn’t cause the addiction at all and that they aren’t responsible for curing it either. Take responsibility and make sure your child knows that they didn’t contribute to the substance abuse problem.

Educate Yourself About Addiction:

The first thing you should do before diving headfirst into a conversation with your child is getting more educated yourself. Although you may have lived with addiction in your household and understand it a great deal, there are probably things you don’t know about addiction. Learning more about the disease will help you answer any questions your kid may have.

Keep the Addiction Conversation Age Appropriate:

Be mindful of how much detail and what information you provide when talking to your kid about substance abuse. The information you share largely depends on your child’s age and maturity. The conversation will be different if your kid is five or twelve years old, but it’s important to explain addiction in simple and age-appropriate terms. If you’re still not sure how to keep the conversation age-appropriate, talk to a professional or reach out to someone in your support group. It’s more than likely that someone else has had to have a similar conversation.

Similarly, make sure you are honest no matter how you approach the subject. Refusing to be open about addiction will only cause misunderstanding and distrust. While you may need to censor some of the conversation, you shouldn’t try to lie about the substance abuse issue. Explain that addiction is a disease and address its underlying causes.

Make Sure the Timing is Right:

The best time to discuss addiction with your child is in a calm and distraction-free environment. It’s not a bad idea to try and keep the conversation as lighthearted as possible.  Maybe discuss it over ice cream or a tasty treat.  If the person struggling with substance abuse will be going away to treatment, prepare the child so they understand why they will be away for a little while. Explain they are getting help and make it a positive thing. 

Keep Them Encouraged and Hopeful:

One of the most important things to do is finish with a hopeful message. This conversation will probably be hard for your child to process, so it’s crucial to explain to your child that things are going to get better. Be reassuring and comforting so that he or she knows that all hope is not lost.

Common Questions Children Ask About Addiction:

Children old enough to understand that a parent or loved one is struggling with addiction may ask a lot of questions. They need simple but honest answers. The following are some suggested responses. You’ll want to adjust your answers depending on children’s ages and individual needs.

What is addiction?

  • Addiction is a sickness of the brain, a disease (but not the kind you catch like a cold).
  • Addiction makes people feel that they need drugs or alcohol to feel okay. Then they just don’t act like themselves. Like any sickness, people need treatment to get better.
  • People with addiction may take drugs or drink alcohol to stop feeling bad for a little while. But when there’s none left, they feel very bad, and they believe they need to take more. (So they get “stuck,” “trapped,” or “hooked” on drugs or alcohol.)

What are drugs?

  • Drugs are medicines that sometimes can help people get well, but sometimes can cause a person to use them more than is healthy.
  • Drugs are different kinds of medicine. Just like there are lots of different foods, there are lots of different drugs. Some can really cause trouble for grown-ups.

What is alcohol?

  • Alcohol is something in grown-up drinks like beer, wine, and liquor. If people drink too much of it, it changes the way they think and act.
  • Some grown-ups drink alcohol and they don’t have any problems. Others can’t stop drinking alcohol and it creates problems in their lives and in their families’ lives.

If you have a child who has been witness to addiction or alcoholism, remember this is not the end of the world.  As the addiction gets better and life returns to a normal rhythm everyone will heal.  Keep communication open and if fear or concern crop up, address it immediately.  Recovery is real and so long as the addict or alcoholic is taking action to prevent relapse the child can grow up happy and well balanced.

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Picture of Esra Ahmed - MS, NCC, LPC, MHSP
Esra Ahmed - MS, NCC, LPC, MHSP

Experienced Clinical Director with a demonstrated history of working in the hospital & health care industry. Skilled in Anger Management, Healthcare, Medicine, EMDR, and Life Transitions. Strong healthcare services professional with a Masters Degree focused in Psychology from The University of Memphis.

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