How to Explain Addiction to Young Children: 8 Tips
Children of those with addiction problems are often gravely affected by their parents' or caregivers' struggles. Coming into recovery can be the perfect time to explain to your child that a parent or older sibling's actions during addiction are not the fault of the child.
That being said, we know that speaking to young children about addiction can feel like an overwhelming conversation to have.
After all, where do you even begin? What if they have questions? Will they understand? Is it too late?
Fortunately, there are ways of talking to young children about addiction that are healthy and honest without being scary or damaging to them. It’s never too late to open the lines of communication with young children and to give them a safe space to explore their experiences.
The impact of addiction on children
Research shows that more than 8 million children under the age of 18 live with at least one adult struggling with addiction. Studies show that when someone in the household is struggling with an addiction, it has a significant influence on the child’s development behaviourally, mentally, and emotionally. Research indicates that children growing up in a household with addiction are also more likely to have addiction issues of their own.
In their early years and teens, this may manifest in activities such as TikTok or online gaming and gambling where they can purchase in-app add-ons before they are able to engage in substance use.
Furthermore, studies show that the children of parents who are addicted to substances are three times more likely to be emotionally, physically, or sexually abused. They are also four times more likely to be neglected than other children of the same age.
Because of this, it is incredibly important to discuss the nature of addiction with young children as soon as it becomes a part of their life. Doing so may help mitigate significant trauma from developing within the child, as they learn how to talk about and process their emotions.
When to talk to a young child about addiction
It's important to talk about addiction when it first becomes a part of the child’s life.
If a parent or older sibling is struggling with addiction, a young child will be able to sense that a shift has taken place within the household.
If other family members in the house ignore the problem or don’t communicate openly, this can add a layer of confusion for the young child. Because of this, it is best not to avoid the conversation and to open up the lines of communication as early as possible. Doing so will help normalise the experience for the child, and will help them develop healthy ways of coping.
Additionally, when talking to a young child about addiction, try to engage them in conversation at an appropriate time. Talking about addiction will be more difficult if the child is tired or angry, so talk to them when they’re relaxed.
Also, find time to talk to them when you won’t be interrupted. Create a safe, open space for them to ask questions. Approach the conversation with patience, empathy, love, and hope. Be sure to ask questions so you understand the child’s perspective and how they’re perceiving what’s happening.
How to explain addiction to young children: 8 key tips to keep in mind
Below are a few concepts to keep in mind when explaining addiction to young children:
1. Keep it developmentally appropriate
Your child’s age will determine how you talk to them about their parent's or sibling's addiction. When it comes to younger children, it’s important to use age-appropriate language, metaphors, and examples. Keep in mind that children under five years old generally aren’t able to understand abstract concepts such as “mental illness” or “addiction,” so keep your explanations incredibly simple and clear for them.
Additionally, refrain from using words such as alcoholic and drug addict. Instead, use simple metaphors to try and explain to them what drugs are and how they change the brain. For instance, you may equate the addiction to drugs or alcohol with a child’s desire to eat more and more candy. A child may not necessarily understand how heroin interacts with receptors in the brain, but they may understand a desire to eat more and more of something that makes them feel good. Help them understand that addiction is a sickness that changes their parent or siblings' brain.
2. Explain that addiction is a disease
When explaining addiction to a young child, it’s important to let them know that addiction is a disease and not a moral failure. It is likely that their parent or older sibling is behaving out of character, so it’s important for the child to know that this behaviour is because of the disease.
When parents are intoxicated, they may behave erratically. They may do or say things that don’t make sense, and they may disappoint their child. When parents are intoxicated, they may also do things that are embarrassing for the child.
It’s important for a young child to know that feelings of embarrassment, confusion, anger, or pain due to their parent or older sibling's behaviour is completely normal. Allow them space to understand that their emotions are valid. Also, be sure they know that the disease is what is causing their parent to behave the way that they are.
3. Let them know it isn’t their fault
It’s important for young children to know that their parent's or sibling’s addiction is not their fault. It’s also important for them to know that what they do or don’t do does not impact their parent or sibling’s addiction.
Even young children can bear feelings of guilt or responsibility for their loved ones’ behaviour, so it’s important to help them alleviate this burden. Let them know that addiction is a sickness, and isn’t anyone’s fault - not even the fault of their loved one. Let them know they didn’t cause their parent’s addiction, and it isn’t their responsibility to cure the addiction.
4. Be honest
It’s important, to be honest with younger children about what is going on. As noted earlier, children can sense what’s going on around them, even if they don’t verbally express it outwardly. If you don’t explain directly to the child what is going on, they may learn information elsewhere that proves to be inaccurate or stigmatizing. They may also be scared and confused, and have feelings of guilt or shame. If your child pushes these feelings down and doesn't discuss them, it can have detrimental effects down the road to their mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
Let the child know that their parent or sibling's addiction is not anyone’s fault. Express to the young child what their parent or sibling is going through without vilifying the parent or sibling in the process. Share with them that their parent or sibling has an illness that changes how their brain is working, which is why they aren’t behaving like they normally would.
Keeping this in mind, also know that being honest doesn’t mean sharing every detail. Offering more information than your child needs to know can lead them to feel anxious or confused. Young children don’t need to know the details of treatment, for example. Again, simplicity and using general concepts are best.
5. Use age-appropriate resources
Using resources can be incredibly helpful when explaining addiction to a young child. It can help open up a dialogue and help your child feel safe communicating their feelings and concerns. Today, there is an abundance of resources available online and in bookstores that can help you explain addiction to a young child in simple and concise terms.
Books that explain addiction to young children:
- Up and Down the Mountain: Helping Children Cope With Parental Alcoholism - by Pamela Leib Higgins
- I Wish Daddy Didn’t Drink So Much - by Judith Vigna
- “My Dad Loves Me, My Dad Has a Disease” A Child’s View of Living With Addiction - by Claudia Black
- Mommy’s Disease: Helping Children Understand Alcoholism - by Carolyn Hannan Bell
- Daddy Doesn’t Have To Be a Giant Anymore - by Jane Resh Thomas
- Critters Cry Too: Explaining Addiction to Children - by Anthony Curcio
- Stoney the Pony’s Most Inspiring Year: Teaching Children About Addiction through Metaphor - by Linda Myers
- I Can Be Me: A Helping Book for Children of Alcoholic Parents - by Dianne S. O’Conner
- An Elephant in the Living Room - by Jill M. Hastings & Marion H. Typpo
- When a Family Is in Trouble: Children Can Cope With Grief from Drug and Alcohol Addiction - by Marge Heegaard
Additionally, the children’s show Sesame Street offered a storyline on addiction in 2019. In the storyline, a green muppet character named Karli talks to her friends about her mother’s addiction to illicit substances. It may be beneficial to watch this episode with your child and discuss it with them afterwards.
6. Keep the lines of communication open
Keeping the lines of communication open is incredibly important. This is because as previously mentioned, children of addicted parents can face many emotional, mental, and developmental roadblocks. However, allowing them to discuss their experience freely and openly can help them explore what is going on internally. Speaking to your children often about how they’re feeling can help them feel heard and understood. It can also help them feel like they are not alone. Focus on creating a safe and open space for your child to come to you when they are experiencing difficult emotions or have questions.
7. Get help for yourself
As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. In order to truly be a support system for your child and help them understand addiction and process their emotions around what they’re experiencing, you need to be able to help yourself first.
If you’re struggling with addiction, it’s important to seek treatment and engage in treatment on an ongoing basis. If your spouse or child is struggling with addiction, it is just as important for you to seek individual or group counselling for yourself in order to have space to process your own worries and concerns. By engaging in group counselling or peer support, you can also learn from others how they are navigating this experience with their own children.
Additionally, it can be very helpful to get outside support for your child as well. Whether it’s an individual therapist or a group therapy setting, allowing the child to engage in therapy can help them understand their experience and feel less isolated. This can truly make all the difference in their future.
8. Remember the Seven C’s
The National Association for Children of Addiction offers seven affirmations adults can use to help their children cope with addiction in their family. This list is referred to as the Seven C’s, and is as follows:
- Cause - I didn’t cause it
- Cure - I can’t cure it
- Control - I can’t control it
- Care - I can care for myself…
- Communicating -...by communicating my feelings,
- Choices - making healthy choices, and
- Celebrating - celebrating myself.
A final word on talking to a young child about addiction
Remember, there is never a “perfect” thing to say. Every child is different, just as every family situation is unique. However, what you say is not as important as you simply opening up a dialogue with your child.
Giving your child a free and safe space to express how they’re feeling and what they're thinking is the most important thing. Focus your efforts on making sure your child feels safe (not only physically but emotionally), heard, and understood. Remain patient, express empathy, and remind them that they are never alone and that their feelings are always valid.
Author - Thurga
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