By Wesley Gallagher
Children of individuals with addiction often struggle silently, as they learn to adapt to the everyday reality of having a parent who is addicted. They may seem like they are coping well – they might even seem to have things surprisingly together, despite their circumstances – but the reality is that children with parents who abuse alcohol and drugs are greatly affected by it.
In fact, children whose parents have an addiction tend to have more emotional, behavioral and academic issues, are at greater risk of abuse and neglect, and are more likely to struggle with addiction themselves. Chaotic home environments can lead to self-control and responsibility issues or overcontrol and hypervigilance. And a culture of silence in the family can lead to unhealthy emotional coping mechanisms.1
So, if you’re a parent who is struggling with addiction, what can you do to help your children cope, to make sure they remain as healthy as possible in a difficult family situation?
It Starts With Conversation
One of the best things you can do for your child, no matter what age, is to be honest with him. Many children of those who deal with addiction learn to internalize their emotions because they’ve seen negative consequences from speaking up in the past. They don’t want to rock a boat that already feels unstable, so they keep quiet. As a parent, it’s your responsibility to break the silence about addiction in your household.
Benefits of Being Honest
Let’s face the facts here – addiction is not usually accompanied by open and honest conversation and healthy emotional habits. It’s often characterized by secrecy and silence, as well as deception. Even if you’re in a place where you’re committed to recovery and willing to own up to your issues, it’s hard to lay yourself bare in front of anyone, particularly your children.
It won’t be easy to change the tide from secrecy to honesty, but it’s an essential change to make. When left to cope on their own, children will draw their own conclusions about why things are the way they are, and these assumptions can be dangerous.
Children, especially younger ones, are inclined to blame themselves for what’s happening in their family, so they need someone to explain that mom or dad’s actions are not their fault. Your child needs to know that his job is not to fix you – his job is to be a child.2 As many children of addicted individuals are forced to grow up too soon, this is an important truth for both you and your child to remember.
Tips for Talking to Your Child
So you’ve decided to talk to your child about your addiction – now what? There are a few things to keep in mind as you enter this conversation.
As mentioned before, honesty is key, but this doesn’t mean telling every child every detail. Cater your conversation to the age and maturity level of your child and what they are capable of understanding.
Younger children might not be ready to hear all about the drugs or alcohol you consume, but they’ve already witnessed the effects of it, so it’s important that their observations and feelings are validated. Create a safe space for them to discuss their feelings, and ask open-ended questions about what they’ve experienced and how they feel about it. Again, be honest, as even young children will pick up on dishonesty, but be careful not to confuse or overwhelm them with information they can’t process.
Even young children understand the concept of wanting something that isn’t good for them, so you can use this analogy to explain addiction to your child.3 Brian J. Maus, director of addiction prevention and mentoring programs for The Moyer Foundation, uses three words when describing addiction to children:
Older children will likely be able to handle more information, and they probably already know a lot more than you realize. You can cater to their comfort level, but know that the conversation is likely to be uncomfortable for you, and that’s okay. The most important thing is to get them talking and to provide a sense of trust so they know it’s okay to be open with you. Have information about addiction at the ready so you can answer any questions they have about it.
You might even want to offer resources for them to seek outside support from a counselor or support group. Finally, you’ll want to talk to them about the genetic nature of addiction, their heightened risk for addiction and the importance of staying away from alcohol and drugs because of your addiction.
The Seven C’s
The National Association for Children of Alcoholics recommends teaching your children the Seven Cs when talking about addiction:
I didn’t cause it.
I can’t cure it.
I can’t control it.
I can help take care of myself by communicating my feelings, making healthy choices and celebrating me.2
Let these concepts guide your conversation, and encourage your child to remember them going forward.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
- Timing is important for the conversation. Try to talk at a time when everyone is calm, rather than after a big incident or when tensions are high. If possible, have a plan in place for getting help, so you can tell them you’re taking steps to improve the situation.1 If you’re going to a support group or counseling, you might wait until you’ve been to a few sessions before talking to your children.3
- Encourage self-care. Encourage your children to take care of themselves, and let them know it’s OK to ask for help and support if they need it.
- Tell them you love them. Sometimes it’s hard for children of addicted parents to feel like they are loved. Things are said and done in the throes of addiction that are harmful and untrue. Make sure they know that no matter what, they are loved.
- Addiction is a disease. Kids need to know, just like adults do, that addiction is a disease. Talk about it like you would talk about heart disease or cancer – “Mommy or Daddy is sick, and sometimes they do things they don’t want to do, but they are taking steps to get well.” This is serious, but it’s something that can be managed and overcome with the proper care and resources.
- They are not alone. Like any other disease, your family is not alone in their struggle. Millions of families just like yours are struggling with this very same thing, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, there are groups and organizations for children just like them if they want to seek support.
- There is hope. End the conversation in a positive way, telling your children that there is hope for the future, encouraging openness and honesty going forward. Simply by bringing the addiction into the light, you’ve taken one step closer to the healing you and your family need.
1 Sack, David. “How to Talk to a Child About a Parent’s Addiction.” Huffington Post, January 31, 2013.
2 Daley, Bill. “How to talk to your kids about addiction.” Chicago Tribune, May 30, 2017.
3 Ponti, Crystal. “Should Kids Know the Truth About A Parent’s Addiction?” Motherly, Accessed July 29, 2018.