Talking about drug use with kids is one thing, but what about if you are struggling with drugs and/or alcohol yourself and you need to explain it to your children? According to a 2012 study, more than 10 percent of children in America live with a parent with alcohol problems. Another report shows that an annual average of about 8.7 million children under the age of 17 lives with at least one parent with a substance use disorder (SUD).
Parents want to protect their children and shield them from danger, including any knowledge about the parents’ drug problem. When children are out of the loop of this adult issue of struggling with substance abuse, however, they gravitate toward filling in the blanks with misinformation or worse. They may feel guilty, like they caused the problem or that they could do something to cure it or control a parent’s drug or alcohol use. They can’t. That’s why it’s important for parents to talk with their kids about addiction and what happens when someone has a problem with drugs or alcohol.
But how do you talk to your kids about a drug or alcohol problem? That’s a very real question that many parents find it hard to answer. Below are some pointers, including how to have an age-appropriate conversation with your child, depending on how old they are.
Understanding the Need to Address the Issue
Children are naturally curious and tend to ask a lot of questions, many of which include the word “Why?” When the issue is a parent’s drug problem, instead of trying to shut down the child’s inclination to want to know more, understand that children have a basic need to be inquisitive and ask questions. It’s not only how they learn, but it’s also a healthy sign of a well-adjusted child. Just because the topic is how to explain addiction to a child or explaining parent addiction to a child doesn’t change the child’s need to get answers to their questions. The more parents understand this need, and the greater their willingness to both entertain the questions with an open mind and answer the inquiries as honestly as possible, the easier the conversation will be.
How to Discuss Addiction with Younger Children
Young children look to their parents for all their needs, especially children 3-5 years old. From the ages of 5-8, kids start spending more time with their peers. Explaining parent addiction to a child at this stage of their development should be couched in simple and easy-to-understand terms. Younger children need to know that nothing they did caused a parent to use drugs or alcohol. Stress that there’s nothing wrong with the child. They are normal kids trying to deal with a stressful situation at home. Give them lots of affection and reassure them that you’re getting help to deal with your problem, and you’ll still be their parent, still love them no matter what, still want the best for them and the family.
How to Discuss Addiction with Teenage Children
Despite their outward demeanor of knowing it all and seeking greater independence while challenging parental rules, teenage children are still most influenced by their parents. Indeed, parents are teens’ most important influence. As such, your teens have already likely witnessed the effects of your drinking and drug use, including slurring, stumbling, and incoherent behavior, arrests by the police, angry outbursts, and perhaps physical violence. They’re like sponges soaking up each and every minute of countless episodes.
Since parental action under the influence has likely caused a great deal of inner turmoil and confusion, tell the teen that you’re sorry for any pain they’ve felt as a result of your actions. Ask how they’re feeling and allow them time to begin to open up about their emotions. Their academic performance may have slipped due to the chaotic home environment, or they may have given up on hobbies and stayed away from friends in an effort to take care of you.
Alternatively, their behavior may have become more aggressive, even violent, and they may have begun experimenting with alcohol or drugs and hanging out with drug-using friends. Subconsciously, they may blame the parent with a drug problem for this.
From preteen to throughout the teen years, teenagers are voracious consumers of facts. A good approach is to present lots of facts about drugs and alcohol, what addiction does to a person, the effects of specific drugs, how addiction changes body chemistry and affects how they think, what they remember, how their emotions fluctuate, and how their behavior is inconsistent.
Along with a discussion of factual information about addiction, it’s also a good idea for parents to talk about the consequences of alcohol and drug use, how having a mental health disorder like depression or anxiety can also occur at the same time as a drug problem, and how that needs to be addressed through treatment and recovery.
The best way to prepare for what to tell a child about the parents’ drug problem is to know the facts themselves. Become as educated as possible to be able to both present the facts about addiction to teens and to answer all their questions as honestly as possible.
How to Discuss Addiction with Adult Children
Your adult children are savvy about what’s been going on with you, having likely witnessed alcohol-or-drug-related behavior on your part for years. Even if this is a relatively new problem that may have been precipitated by taking prescription drugs and then developing a dependence or addiction, adult children can and should be given the truth about what you’re going through. If you’ve already begun treatment, talk about how this is helping and be upfront about the recovery journey being an ongoing one. Ask for their support and understanding as you tend to your recovery, which has to take priority over all else.
Let them know emphatically that you love them and always will, and that taking steps to overcome your drug problem or learn how to cope with mental health issues that may accompany or have been exacerbated by drug or alcohol use is a vital part of getting back to normal.
Regardless of Age, Show Them There’s a Plan
Whether your children are younger, teens, or adults, what’s most important about what to tell a child about a parent’s drug problem is that you have a plan for treatment and recovery. In this way, you’re not putting undue expectations on them, pressuring them subtly or overtly. The more calmly and clearly you lay out the plan, the more reassurance they’ll feel about where life goes from here.
Make sure that arrangements have been made to take care of young children during the parent’s detox and treatment for opioid use disorder, prescription drug abuse, alcohol addiction treatment, and treatment for any dual-diagnosis, or co-occurring disorders.
Part of the overall plan should include family therapy so that the other parent and children can participate in therapy that helps them better understand the disease of addiction, how to repair relationships that may have been damaged by a parent’s addiction, improve communication skills, and help rebuild the home environment. This includes setting healthy boundaries, ensuring good self-care, and learning coping techniques to cope with stressful situations so that when the parent returns from drug rehab, there’s a greater likelihood of continued abstinence and fewer triggers to return to drug use.
The plan needn’t be fully mapped out at present and, indeed, probably won’t be. It’s sufficient that parents stress unconditional love and that they’ll always be there for the children. As more details become available, those can be shared, as appropriate, with the children. Again, how much to tell children and in what detail depends on their age and ability to comprehend what’s being said without becoming overwhelmed or anxious by the facts.
Most of all, children—of all ages—want consistency and stability in the family unit. Showing them you’re proactively addressing your drug problem is a powerful indicator of your commitment to preserving familial bonds. It may be difficult to broach the subject, yet this is an absolutely critical endeavor on the part of parents to help explain parent addiction to a child and to ensure their child’s continued healthy growth and development.
To find out more about getting addiction treatment and exploring treatment options, contact FHE Health.