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How to Talk About Addiction With Kids

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Anyone who has dealt with addiction -- either personally or with a loved one -- knows how difficult a struggle it can be. Some of the most vulnerable victims of addiction are children in the addict’s life. Whether the person grappling with addiction is the child’s parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent or close family friend, knowing how to handle the issue can mean the difference between helping the child and causing him or her additional trauma.

According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, millions of children -- one in four under age 18 in the United States, in fact --are growing up with at least one parent who abuses alcohol. Millions more have parents who abuse drugs.

Children of alcoholics and drug abusers deal with a lot in their young lives. Common in these homes are criticism, negativity, drama, parental inconsistency and denial. As a result, kids may feel angry, resentful and disappointed. Some may even turn to drugs or alcohol themselves to cope.

However, with the right guidance, many children of alcoholic and drug-abusing parents bounce back and actually learn to become more resilient to life’s challenges. Whether you are the child’s parent or another a responsible adult in his or her life, there are things you can do to help. Most importantly, you can be there for the child as a source of comfort and advice.

Here are some actions you can take:

Offer an ear. In many cases, children dealing with an addicted family member feel neglected and desperately need someone to talk to. Listen to everything the child has to say before you ask questions or offer advice.

Do your homework. By nature, children tend to ask lots of questions. Before you sit down to talk about addiction, educate yourself on the disease so you can answer these questions knowledgably.

Talk at the right time. If you plan to have a conversation with the child, make sure the timing is right. Your surroundings should be calm, with no distractions. If possible, wait until after the addicted parent is in the process of getting help, so the child gets hopeful news.

Validate feelings. Any child who has experienced a loved one’s addiction has feelings surrounding the issue. Ask open-ended questions about how he or she feels and explain that hurt, sadness and fear are normal emotions when addiction is at play.

Be honest. It may hurt, but children deserve the truth. Do your best to describe the situation as clearly yet sensitively as possible. Depending on the child’s age, you may want to explain that addiction is a disease (just like heart disease or cancer) and that their parent or loved one is not a bad person or to blame. For a very young child, you might want to say something like, “mommy is sick, and she is going to go away for a little while to get better.”  

Avoid putting too much responsibility on the child. Whether or not you are the child’s other parent, do not put your child in the middle of any arguments regarding addiction or place an older child in the position of being a confidant for adult-level conversations—no matter how mature the child may seem.

Remind the child he or she is not alone. Kids tend to think their families are the only ones dealing with addiction. In reality, there are millions of other children going through the same thing. Point this out to the child and if he or she is old enough, suggest some online resources and/or in-person support groups.

Tell the child it’s not his or her fault. A common emotion in children of addicts is shame. Sometimes the addicted parent inflicted blame, saying things like, “I wouldn’t need to drink if you would listen and stop fighting with your sister.” In other cases, the child puts the blame on him or herself. Either way, it’s important to assure the child they are not, in fact, to blame.

Remind the child there is nothing he or she can do to stop the alcohol or drug abuse. The only person who can make an alcoholic or drug addict stop abusing is the addict (often with the help of trained professionals). Explain that hiding bottles of alcohol or pills won’t do anything but make the addict angry.

Encourage professional help. Depending on the child’s age and individual situation, he or she may benefit from counselor or other type of addiction professional. Help the child find the appropriate resources he or she needs. For example, there is a support group called Alateen for children of alcoholics. Other support groups include The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon.

Should a child visit a parent or relative in rehab?

When it comes to drug and alcohol addiction, each situation is different. In some instances, it may be a good idea for a child to visit a parent in a rehab facility; in others, it may not be. If an addict and his or her counselor make the decision to go ahead with a visit, here are some tips:

- If you haven’t already talked about your addiction with your child, recognize the visit may start an important dialogue.

- Be as honest as you can, keeping in mind the child’s maturity level and age.

- Take responsibility for your actions and be ready to apologize.

- Encourage the child to ask questions and talk about how he or she feels.

- Let the child know it is not his or her fault.

In addition, keep in mind that there are free programs available to children whose parents are in drug or alcohol rehab. These programs help children understand addiction and deal with having a family member who is struggling with abuse. 

As Executive Director of Beach House Center for Recovery, Robert Yagoda brings more than ten years of combined clinical and administrative experience in facility-delivered, drug and dual diagnosis treatment Robert is a licensed mental health counselor and certified addictions professional. What motivates him most is seeing clients make groundbreaking strides in recovery, knowing he was part of their growth and success.

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