Age-Appropriate Ways to Talk To Your Kids About Addiction

Growing up in a home where an adult has a substance abuse problem can be chaotic and frightening to children. Odd behavior, arguments and tears without explanation often make children draw their own — usually wrong — conclusions. They may become withdrawn or act out in aggressive ways or begin using substances themselves. “Addiction is the dirty little secret of many families,” says Natalie Blais, parenting strategist with “Parents and adults walk a delicate line talking to kids about addiction.”

How Old Is Your Child?

How you speak to a child about addiction varies with the age of the child, of course. “We must remember they have only their experience with which to process information,” says Blais. “Even if we don’t think so, kids are very aware of what goes on around them.” For young children, a good opening line may be to ask if they’ve ever seen Uncle Joe acting sleepy, or if they’ve noticed Daddy being loud and goofy when everyone else is not. Kids can process how they feel in a situation, says Blais. “Often, asking them how they feel in a situation is the easiest way to start a conversation on a difficult subject.”

Experts stress that it’s important to tell kids the truth. They know when you’re lying, says John Mayer, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in treating adolescents, children, families and substance abusers. “Kids know about addiction because of social media and the Internet. They will see through any deception you try to cover up addiction.” Which is not to say, though, that kids of all ages (or any age, for that matter), need to know all the details of what’s happening; just that you should not lie or mislead them. These general guidelines can help start a dialogue:

  • Prior to age 10: Young children deserve to be spoken to so that they have the chance and a feeling of safety to speak directly to how they feel and to express their fears, says Blais: “Young kids and [even] teens can relate to the feeling of wanting something so bad and, no matter how much your brain told you ‘no,’ you still wanted it.”Start with an example like this, then tell them it’s the same way with drugs and alcohol, and that even parents, relatives and family friends have things that they want so much they can’t seem to say no, or make a better choice. Blais suggests saying something like, “Right now, Mom [or Dad] is dealing with the same thing. Sometimes we make really good choices and sometimes, even when we know better, we choose the one thing that will hurt us.” Very young children should simply be told that “so-and-so is ill, and they get ill from this addiction,” adds Dr. Mayer.
  • Tweens: Provide details if your son or daughter is interested in them, but don’t use this time to deliver a lecture about the evils of addiction, cautions Mayer. “The child will turn off hearing the important information you have to give them. Stick to the facts and what you know is true. Be truthful and transparent about, say, Uncle John’s ‘illness,’ which has been caused by an addiction to [X substance].”
  • Teens: Speaking with older kids requires being honest and forthright, says Blais. “Teens can see right through you when you’re trying to gloss over the situation. They will quickly check out if they feel you’re not being honest with them or are speaking down to them.” A great opener for teens may be, “Dad and I have been talking about what he drinks after dinner.” Or, “Do you remember the time I had to put Mom to bed after she came home acting really strangely?” “Begin with the kid’s experience of the event and then speak directly to the situation,” recommends Blais.

Age-Appropriate Ways to Talk To Your Kids About AddictionYou also want to have one person in your immediate family to provide information on the addict, says Mayer. “Reliable sources, such as one or both of the parents only, should be the people to provide the most factual information. This avoids all the gossip and rumor mills that naturally get generated by multiple sources of information flooding the kids.”

Without explanation, children often feel that the turmoil in the house is their fault. For example, your son or daughter may not know why their parent loses their temper and assume it’s something they did or didn’t do, like clean up their room or finish their homework, says Mayer. “In childhood the child’s cognitive state is that of a ‘me’-centered world, [so] mentally, kids will always jump to the assumption that ‘it’s my fault’ unless they have proof to the contrary.” This makes conversations about addiction of vital importance, as is explaining the addiction in a way that’s within a child’s ability to understand.

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