Addiction affects millions of people around the world and as much as we would like to shield our children from problems like addiction, unfortunately, many children are affected by the addictions of parents or loved ones.

Keeping all the information about addiction from children in an attempt to protect them can often be more harmful than good, despite having the best of intentions. On the other hand, it is also important not to overwhelm them with information and to keep in mind the age of the child and their own personal maturity level or understanding.

How do we talk to children about addiction?

First, let’s start with a little advice from Donna, one of our Counsellors and Manager of The Recovery Lodge:

Make it age appropriate, don’t go overboard with too much information. When my partner suffered from addiction, I was as honest as I possibly could be.

It was such a confusing time for them, it was hard for an adult to understand, but I made sure they knew it was an illness.

I explained that it wasn’t their fault and they were not responsible for making their dad better.

We then found out there was a solution to this illness. Like any other illness, we knew we had to see help, be proactive, and we tackled this thinking together.

As adults, they now understand addiction and drug usage in a much better way than most.

One important thing to remember when discussing addiction with children is that, while talking about addiction can be challenging, it is crucial to address the topic to foster awareness, empathy, and resilience. By having an age-appropriate and open conversation, your children can be equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to navigate the complexities of an illness such as addiction.

Develop an understanding of addiction

Before you open the floodgates and start discussing it with your children, it is essential that you, yourself, have a good understanding of addiction and what the recovery process could entail. Only then can you help your child gain an understanding of addiction and help them cope with it. Addiction is a chronic brain disorder characterised by compulsive substance use or engaging in certain behaviours despite negative consequences.

It is important to simplify the subject matter without trivialising it so that the child(ren) can understand that it is an illness like any other, such as asthma or diabetes, and therefore not a choice. Just like someone with an illness, people with an addiction need help and support to get them through it. It is hard to explain this to a child if you do not have a good grasp of it yourself.

Create a safe space for open communication

Ensuring your children know that they can talk to you about anything, especially any concerns, worries, or questions they might have, is extremely important in any parent-child relationship. 

Establishing a safe and, most importantly, non-judgemental environment is essential when discussing addiction with your children. Encourage them to have open dialogue with you by assuring them that they can ask any questions they like freely and without judgement, and share their feelings with you without fear of criticism or reprisal. It is important that they understand that you will be empathetic towards their feelings and curiosity about the subject and that their feelings, questions, and fears are valid and that they will be supported.

Reinforce the notion that addiction is a sensitive and very complicated topic that has no one-size-fits-all solution and so it is ok to feel a range of emotions, including confusion, sadness, and even anger. These are all valid emotions and your children should never feel ashamed that that’s how they feel.

Reassure your children that you are always there for them, too. Never underestimate the importance of having a reliable and caring adult available for a child. Let them know that there is a safe place for them to talk about anything they want to or that they can come to you for help with anything.

Age-appropriate conversations

In order to ensure that the conversations you are having with your children about addiction are effective, make sure that you adapt how you talk to them, the language you use, and the content to the child’s age.

Younger children will require simpler explanations, while older children should be able to handle more complex and nuanced discussions.

For young children, focus on general concepts like health and making good choices, and some substances can be harmful when misused.

For older, more emotionally mature children, you should be able to delve into more specific details, like how addiction can affect the brain or the different types of addictive substances.

Promote empathy and compassion

Teaching children empathy and compassion will only help them develop into kind and considerate people as they mature, but teaching them empathy and compassion towards people struggling with addiction is vital to supporting the addiction recovery journey.

Help them understand that addiction is an illness, and people affected by it need support and understanding to help them through. Encourage your children to imagine how they would feel if they were poorly and their illness caused them to do things that they normally would not if they were well, emphasising that addiction does not define a person’s worth or character.

Address the stigma and stereotypes of addiction

Discussing the harmful impacts of stereotypes and stigma surrounding addiction can help broaden a child’s understanding of addiction and help them manage their feelings about it. 

Explain that the stigma around addiction can sometimes stop people from getting proper help and can make them feel isolated. 

Highlight that addiction could affect anyone, regardless of their background, and it is essential to treat them with kindness, respect, and empathy.

Be open and honest

Whenever you’re talking to children about problems at home, especially addiction, it is important to be open and honest with them. You don’t have to give them the whole, ugly truth, but it is important not to mislead them, hide the truth from them, or sugarcoat the subject too much, as this can create confusion and mistrust.

As we’ve mentioned, use age-appropriate language and examples and ensure that your children have a clear understanding while being careful of maintaining their emotional well-being.

Encourage children to question and utilise active listening

While you are talking to your children about addiction, encourage them to ask questions whenever they want to and listen actively to what they are saying. 

Provide honest answers and if you don’t know something, admit it and explore and find the answer together. This will reassure them that you value their thoughts and concerns and by finding answers together, it will help strengthen the bond between you and show them that you’re in this together.

Promote healthy coping mechanisms

When discussing addiction with children, it is also important to talk about ways in which they can cope with their emotions and feelings in a healthy way.

Explaining that everyone faces challenges throughout their lives and finding positive ways to deal with stress, sadness, anger or other difficult emotions is important.

Encourage them to continue to be their wonderful, imaginative, joyful selves and to continue to do the things they love like sports or hobbies, reading, playing in their room, going out with friends, or even just watching tv. Take some time yourself to spend with them and reassure them that they are incredibly important to you.

Sometimes, a child can begin to take on many of the adult responsibilities around the house in response to a parent suffering from addiction. While this can be helpful, especially during particularly difficult periods, it is also important to let your child just be a child.

Allow your children to seek support

Letting your child(ren) know that they are not alone is incredibly important whilst navigating the complexities of addiction and addiction recovery.

Let them know about trusted support options and resources such as teachers, counsellors, or local support groups for families affected by addiction. Reassure them that reaching out and asking for help is a sign of strength, not a weakness, and that there are people and resources available to support them and their loved ones.

One great supportive resource for children affected by addiction is the charity Nacoa (The National Association for Children of Alcoholics). Their website is a fantastic resource for children who have a parent or family member that is struggling with addiction or recovering from addiction.

One invaluable tool Nacoa promotes is to talk to children about the six C’s and how important they are to remember with regards to a family member’s addiction:

  1. I didn’t cause it
  2. I can’t cure it
  3. I can’t control it
  4. I can take care of myself
  5. I can communicate my feelings
  6. I can make healthy choices

It is vital to ensure that your children understand that none of this is their fault and they have no responsibility for the addiction but that you are there, along with a multitude of other support options and resources, to support them along the journey to recovery and beyond.

Talking to children about addiction is crucial for fostering understanding, resilience, and empathy. By promoting a safe and non-judgemental space, using age-appropriate language and information, promoting empathy, and encouraging healthy coping mechanisms, we can equip our children with the knowledge and skills they need to navigate the complex journey that is addiction recovery.

Together, we can all break the cycle of addiction stigma, foster compassion, and support those suffering from addiction in our communities.

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