According to recent research, around eight million children younger than age 18 currently live with at least one adult who has a substance use disorder (SUD). That’s a rate of around one in every 10 children in the United States.
If you know someone battling addiction, you might wonder how to talk to children about what’s going on in and around their home. Today, we’re sharing a guide on how to have those hard conversations and what to expect when you do.
Understand Their Perspective
Before you start to talk about addiction, take the time to think about how this issue might be making the child feel.
Often, children of addicted persons will feel confused, frustrated, and even angry at the situation. They might also feel insecure or threatened by it and wonder how much longer life will go on like it is. Depending on their age and emotional maturity, they may even wonder if the disorder is somehow their fault, or if they did anything to worsen it.
In response to these big feelings, they may turn to physical violence or expressive outbursts as a way to release some of that tension. This is especially the case if no one has talked to them about addiction before, or if they’re received inconsistent messages about it.
Consider their perspective before you sit down to talk about alcoholism or any other substance use disorder that’s currently occurring. This is a step to take regardless of your relationship with the child. Whether you’re their other parent, a family member, or a trusted friend or teacher, don’t rush into the meeting without thinking about it through their lens.
Don’t Put It Off
Addictions can conjure up feelings of guilt or shame. They can push loved ones apart and make life difficult for everyone involved. For these reasons, it can be intimidating to be the one tasked with giving voice to the issue.
You might feel more safe or comfortable simply skirting around the topic, or never initiating that conversation with little ones whose minds might not be ready to understand. Yet, you’ll do them a great disservice by not acknowledging it at all.
This may leave them wondering if everyone’s life is like this, or whether it will ever get better. They might wonder why their parent is emotionally or physically unavailable, or why they’re behaving in a certain way. Some children may even conjure up incorrect notions that they could be the ones to help their parent get better or change their ways.
When you address the addiction in a gentle and healthy way, you can provide them with new and appropriate ways to cope with their emotions. You can also help clear up any disillusions they may have and answer some questions they’ve been too afraid or nervous to ask.
Cater the Subject Matter
It goes without saying that a teenager is more emotionally equipped to handle a conversation on addiction than a three-year-old. Rather than working off the same generic script, think about the child’s maturity level as you prepare what you want to say.
For instance, children under the age of 10 are still living in a very me-centered universe. This means they view everything that occurs to them through a self-perspective lens, and they take everything personally. They’re more likely to internalize a parent’s addiction and think they’re to blame than a 16-year-old who can separate their own actions and behaviors from those of their parents.
You want to be able to share the truth in a way that makes sense to them. They must be able to reason with what you’re saying and use the information to enhance their own understanding. By keeping the material age-appropriate, you can increase its effectiveness and make sure your message gets across.
Tell the Truth
Regardless of how old the child is, never bend the truth. Children have the innate ability to sniff out a lie, and they might not trust anything you say if they can tell you’re being dishonest.
Explain the matter in clear, concise terms. Tell them that addiction is a disease linked to a range of factors, from genetics to past trauma and environmental elements. Reassure them that there are plans and programs that can help their parent recover, just like medicine is used to treat someone who is ill.
Understand the Issue Yourself
Are you prepared to talk confidently and knowledgeably about alcohol or drug addiction? Before you sit down with a little one and try to explain the situation, make sure you’re fully educated in the ins and outs of what’s happening in their home.
To help you in this journey, we’ve put together a collection of guides and articles in our Resources section. These posts talk about specific issues that accompany addiction, as well as how to identify the signs and navigate the next steps of counseling and rehabilitation.
It’s critical to make sure that the information you’re sharing is credible and accurate. This way, you’ll be prepared to answer any questions that may arise, and you can establish yourself as a trusted authority in the matter.
Time It Right
When planning the right time to have this difficult conversation, try to do so when there will be no distractions, and everyone can focus properly. Ideally, it’s best to bring the issue up when there’s a plan in place for the parent to receive treatment for their addiction.
While time is of the essence, you don’t want to rush into this step. Avoid bringing the topic up when the child appears upset, frustrated, or busy. Instead, look for a time when you think they’ll be the most relaxed.
This might mean waiting until after they finish a big project at school, or once they get done studying for a test. If something else is currently bothering them, such as a disagreement with a friend, try to help them work past that issue before moving on to this one.
Choose a Comfortable Place
Children are usually most receptive to new information when they’re in a spot that makes them feel safe and comfortable. While you might initially plan to talk at home, keep in mind that this might be a stressful environment for them at the moment.
If you’re not a parent or family member, make sure you receive permission before setting up a place to have this conversation. It should be a location where you won’t run the risk of being overheard and where everyone can talk freely. Put the phones away, turn off the computer, and sit somewhere you can face the child eye-to-eye and focus.
Give Them a Chance to Talk
This shouldn’t be a one-sided conversation. Once you’ve shared your information and explained the situation, be sure to give the child time to ask questions and express concerns. You might be surprised to find that even the tiniest talkers have lots to say!
At the same time, older children may clam up and refuse to speak about the issue. Be prepared for that too and reassure them that they don’t need to say anything if they don’t want to. By keeping the conversation open-ended, you can give them the opportunity to reach back out to you when they’re ready.
Make sure they know that you aren’t there to criticize or pass judgment. You simply want to help, and you’ll be there for them as they work through their emotions. If they still aren’t comfortable talking to you, then let them know they can reach out to another trusted group or person, such as a:
- Religious leader
- Support group
Make sure they know how to contact these individuals and help set up those connections, if necessary.
End With Hope
This conversation will undoubtedly have some difficult and even dark moments. Yet, it doesn’t have to be entirely rooted in doom and gloom. If it is, then both parties could leave feeling downtrodden and despaired, which doesn’t serve a valuable long-term purpose.
Children need to know that there can be light at the end of this tunnel, however long and winding it might seem right now. Assure them that their parent is going to receive help and that you’ll be there every step of the way.
Explain how addiction counselors and therapists work, and what they can expect from substance abuse treatment services. Discuss the credentials and experience of the team. Share information on addiction recovery and the beautiful journey that it can be.
When you leave one another, it should be on a hopeful and optimistic note. This can be a challenging concept for them to process, and they should feel supported and empowered to navigate what comes next.
Understand How to Talk to Children About Addiction
When addiction is present in a family, it’s hard on everyone, including the smallest members. By talking about the issue and getting it out in the open, you can initiate a path to healing.
Now that you know how to talk to children about addiction, you’re one step closer to answering their questions, soothing their worried minds, and helping them understand what comes next. With the right steps and resources in place, parents can overcome their addictions and restore those connections.
We offer substance use disorder treatment programs throughout Texas, designed to help people along their recovery journey. Get help today and learn more about our life-changing services.