Growing up in a home where an adult is struggling with addiction can make life quite difficult, unpredictable and confusing for a child. When they witness unusual behavior, fights and arguments, or crying and yelling without any explanation, children can feel guilt and shame, believe that the substance abuse is their own fault, or even feel abandoned due to the emotional unavailability of their parents. If you want to make this situation less confusing and painful for your children, you need to talk to them about addiction, as well as their own thoughts and feelings. Here are some points to consider when opening up a conversation:
Take their age into consideration
Addiction is always a hard topic to discuss and an even more difficult concept to understand, which is why it is vital to consider a child’s age, as well as their cognitive abilities to understand such a complex topic, when talking to them about a family member’s addiction problem. For young children, it would be a good idea to refer them to a situation when they wanted something so badly and insisted on it, even though you explained that it is bad or potentially harmful for them. Compare that situation with their family member who is struggling with alcohol addiction or substance abuse, and tell them that sometimes adults aren’t able to control themselves, just like children. When it comes to tweens and teens, feel free to give them as much information as they are interested in, but be careful not to be too confusing. Avoid sugarcoating the situation and giving them a lecture about how substance abuse is wrong and they should never do it. Instead, try to stick to the facts that are relevant for your current situation and be transparent by telling them that their family member is ill due to substance addiction.
Be open and honest
One of the most difficult aspects of explaining addiction to a child is realizing the importance of honesty. Although it is not necessary, and can even be harmful, to share every detail of addiction with your child, you need to be as open and transparent as possible, because your child has to feel like they are able to trust someone in regards to the addict in their life. That is why you should always explain to them why and how long their family member is going to be away from home, if they are seeking treatment, or tell them why the addict in their life is not yet seeking sobriety and be honest about their status. While it’s completely natural to feel the need to protect your child from certain information and possible pain and suffering that may come from the knowledge of their loved one’s addiction, helping them understand addiction and being completely open and honest about the realities of the situation will be much healthier and much more beneficial to your child.
Offer them love and support
Having a family member who is struggling with addiction and being a child of an addict are quite difficult circumstances to be a part of, which is why it is vital to show your child that they aren’t alone in dealing with this situation and explain to them that they have a good support system. The most important message you should convey is that their loved one’s addiction is under no circumstances the child’s fault; they didn’t cause it, they can’t cure it and they should never feel guilty about it. Always encourage your child to speak up and share their thoughts and feelings with an adult they trust, whether that is you, another family member, a friend or a teacher, as keeping it all in will only cause more harm and damage. Above all else, always make it clear to your child that they are loved, no matter what.
Even though the abovementioned advice can be a great starting point for leading an informative and meaningful conversation, if you’re worried about the mental health and the overall wellbeing of your child, the best idea might be to seek help from a child psychologist or therapist to help them get through this difficult time in a healthy and painless manner.