Having a parent with a substance abuse addiction is scary and confusing to a child. While adults may feel it best to shield children from the painful truth of the addiction, the better path is to engage them in a conversation about it. With proper guidance, it’s possible to talk to children in a way that will alleviate fears and offer assurances that, no matter the disruptions they are experiencing in their household, they are still valued and loved.
The responsibility for talking to children about a parent’s addiction typically falls upon the other parent. In single-parent households, the most appropriate person to have the conversation may be a grandparent, an aunt, an uncle, or a close family friend.
Whoever initiates the conversation should understand how tough it can be for children growing in addictive households. Studies have consistently shown that children with an addicted parent are more likely to have behavioral problems or perform poorly in school. They are also more likely to grow up to have addictions themselves. Communicating with these children early and often is essential to alleviating the turmoil in their lives and lessening the possibility of long-term negative impacts.
As you initiate the conversation with the child, keep the following guidelines in mind.
Make the Conversation Age-Appropriate
The conversation you have with a 6 year old is not the same as the one you will have with someone who is 15. Younger children are unlikely to understand what the term “addiction” means; you may simply need to say that Mommy or Daddy has an illness and needs help to get better. With tweens and teenagers, you can explain that their parent has a substance abuse problem in more concrete and straightforward terms.
Regardless of the child’s age, make clear to them that they are not responsible for their parent’s addiction. If the parent’s addiction has resulted in angry outbursts, sullenness, or neglect, make it clear to them that they did nothing to cause this behavior and should not feel guilt or blame for what is occurring in the household. Let them know that their mom still loves them but that she has to get better at controlling her behavior so that she can be the responsible parent they deserve.
Answer Their Questions
Younger children’s questions are likely to center around themselves: Why is Dad being mean to me? Why can’t he drive me to school anymore? Why won’t he play with me? Answer these questions as truthfully as possible while describing how you and others will be meeting their needs until Dad has a chance to get better.
Older kids may be more concerned about the parent’s condition and outcome: Why can’t Mom stop drinking? How come she has to go to rehab? How long will she be there? Why can’t she get better at home? Answer these questions honestly as they occur, and let them know that they can come to you anytime with additional questions they may have.
Let Them Know There is a Plan
Share with your children that there is a plan to make the situation better. If Dad has committed to going to rehab, this is an important step that can offer comfort and reassurance.
As Dad recovers from his addiction, he can talk to his children themselves. This will let them see firsthand that their father is getting better, allowing them to have more positive interactions that will help dissipate the trauma the addiction has caused.
Seek Help and Support
If you’re uncertain how to initiate a conversation, don’t hesitate to seek the advice of a counselor or a therapist for yourself or your children. Also look for books that you or your children can read to gain a broader perspective on what it means to have an addicted parent.
Another option is to participate in a support group. Asking questions and sharing advice with others about how best to talk to their children can be beneficial to all.
Keep the Dialogue Going
Don’t assume that your children are “back to normal” just because they’re not expressing doubts or fears. Regularly check in to ask how they’re doing, and let them know they can talk to you about anything.
One word of caution: Don’t overdo it to the point that they feel smothered by your questions and attentiveness. Give them some space, and touch base with other adults in their lives — such as teachers and coaches — to verify that they’re doing well.