How To Talk To Kids About A Parent’s Drug Or Alcohol Addiction

Children living in homes where there is parental substance use or addiction can find life difficult, unpredictable, upsetting and confusing just to list a few examples. Sometimes they may even believe the alcohol or drug use is their fault.

Dealing with this chaos and unpredictability can leave kids feeling insecure and uncertain. Additionally, they may receive inconsistent messages from their parents, unreliable and broken promises, feeling like they are invisible, unworthy or even scared as they fear the risk of abuse or violence!

As a result, children can most often feel guilt and shame whilst trying to keep the family’s “secrets.” And they often feel abandoned due to the emotional unavailability of their parents.

Did You Know:

1 in 5 children in the UK are currently living with a parent who drinks hazardously.


How To Talk To Kids About Drug & alcohol misuse and Addiction

Whether you’re the child’s non-addicted parent, family member or a concerned relative or a teacher, talking to kids about their parent’s addiction is not an easy conversation to initiate or what should or shouldn’t be said.

However, it’s one that needs to happen and ideally at the first possible, appropriate opportunity. Ignoring the issue or trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist is never a good idea and only leaves kids wondering if this is the way everyone else’s life is and provides an incorrect message that substance use (drugs or alcohol) is acceptable rather than being a role model that demonstrates that substance use is ok.

Even if you’re not talking about their parent’s addiction, kids aren’t stupid and still know it exists. Plus, covering it up, lying about it, trying to justify it or pretending that it’s not a big deal doesn’t protect them from the emotional pain that the parents substance use or addiction is causing the child.

They are still being impacted. In fact, talking about the addiction openly and honestly can actually help them find healthier ways to cope with the trauma they’re experiencing, can help to strengthen relationships by improving communication between the parent and child, and will also make the child feel valued and reassured that the parent has identified that they need professional help, wants to change and that the parent wants to include them in the parents recovery journey.

Additionally, you’re able to share the truth about their parent’s addiction and dispel some of the lies and misinformation that they may believe—like the faulty belief that they are somehow to blame or that they can “help” their gparent get well. These types of beliefs can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms in kids, such as codependency.

Once you’ve resolved to talk to a child about their parent’s addiction, it’s important to educate yourself first. You want to be sure you’re sharing accurate information. Likewise, you should keep your conversations age appropriate.

It’s vital that we continually have open and honest conversations and discussions between parents or guardians and our children about being aware of addiction, it’s signs and symptoms and how to access help, support and treatment if they are worried that they might be developing an addiction themselves. we speak about other important issues as we raise our children about issues such as homelessness, money management, education, discipline and behaviour and relationships to list just a few, and addiction should be no different. In a previous article, we looked at how you can have these frank discussions with children from toddlers to teenagers, no matter what their age may be. You can read our article on this very topic here.

For instance, for kids younger than 10 years old, you need to remember that they still view the world from a me-centered perspective. Consequently, they are likely to blame themselves or believe they did something to cause their parent’s or guardians addiction.

Be sure that you reassure them that they didn’t cause the addiction and there’s nothing they could do or could have done previously to prevent their parent from drinking or using drugs or causing them to develop an addiction.

Reassure them that their parent loves them, but that they have a medical condition and disease and that they need help to get it under control. Also, remind them that you love them, are there to support them, will be open and honest and will work collectively to overcome their addiction.

When it comes to teens, you want to make sure they have all the facts about their parent’s addiction. At this age, it’s tempting for them to piece together what they do know and try to come up with their own explanations. Your goal should be to keep that from happening to ensure that they aren’t relying on lies, misinformation and out of date advice and information .

Ensure that older children and teenagers are accessing and using the latest information when it comes to them better understanding their parents addiction so that they aren’t getting confused or coming to the wrong conclusions. Like the old saying goes, make sure that 1 and 1 doesn’t total 3!

So, make sure you answer all their questions openly and honestly and if you don’t know the answer, don’t lie or make one up, work together to find the right answer from a reliable source. You also can invite the teen to come to you anytime they are upset or confused and need some answers to any questions that they may stumble upon as they travel along their recovery journey together with the parent.

Finally, when talking with teens, the first thing you need to consider is that they may be feeling resentful of the addiction. This may be especially true if the addiction has required them to miss time with their friends due to taking care of younger siblings or doing extra chores or gaining added responsibilities that realistically shouldn’t be theirs.

Be Sensitive To How The Addiction Has Impacted Them

When we are in active addiction or are new to recovery, we often think that it’s our addiction that only affects the addict, however this isn’t true. Addictions affect everyone else around them. We often overlook or forget about this, but it is an important thing to try and remember as time goes on.

If you can, try to give them opportunities to participate in activities or to take up a hobby that builds their self-esteem. And, at some point you should talk about the fact that addiction is a disease with a genetic component and that chronic substance use causes real changes to the individuals brain and body. So, they should refrain from experimenting with drugs and alcohol, because the chances of them developing an addiction like their parent is higher than it is for other kids who don’t experiment with drugs and alcohol.

If You’re A Family Member, When’s The Best Time To Have “The Conversation”?

When it comes to the timing of the conversation about a parent’s addiction, you should consider having it as soon as you’re aware that there’s an issue, especially if you’re a friend or family member. But picking the right time and place is still important.

Make sure you choose a time of day when the child is relaxed and fully awake to ensure that they are listening and truly able to understand and digest what you’re telling them. Trying to have a conversation when they are upset, angry or tired will keep you from having the impact you’re hoping for which can hinder the effectiveness and seriousness of this discussion.

Also, be sure that when you do talk, you are in a warm, quiet and comfortable place where there is no risk of being overhead and you can say what you want without fear of other people hearing your conversations.

If you feel that talking about this issue at home or in a familiar place could be interrupted, overheard or could possibly cause more added pressure, you could decide to discuss it in an unfamiliar location.

Talking about substances and addictions is a sensitive topic so doing it on a beach, forest or a quiet cafe. The important thing to keep in mind when deciding is that it’s informal and relaxed, where both people can speak clearly and frankly.

Things To Keep In Mind When Deciding Where To Have The Conversation

  • Informal and relaxed
  • Won’t be overheard or interrupted
  • Free from interruptions from phones, tablets or other devices and gadgets
  • Is somewhere warm and quiet
  • Where you can make eye contact with each other and talk directly to them
  • Decide to have the discussion when there aren’t any time constraints so that you can take as long as you need to
  • Try to avoid distractions such as music and road traffic, sirens, horns, engine noise ect
  • Ensure that you have as much information surrounding each stage of the recovery journey, including the initial detox phase, rehab/therapy/treatment stage and what’s to expect afterwards.

If You’re Not A Family Member

If you’re not a family member, be prepared for kids to experience some initial surprise, worry or emotional distress such as crying regarding your conversation. They also may deny there is an issue or not be willing to accept and acknowledge the true situation, even if they realistically know it’s happening deep down inside of them, so be patient.

Finally, make sure you approach the conversation with empathy and patience. Ask questions so that you understand their perspective, and if they blame themselves, reassure them that they are not at fault. Their parent’s addiction is not their responsibility or cause.

Ways You Can Ensure That Children Are Correctly Understanding What’s Been Said

How you ask questions to ensure that the young person has understood what you’ve said is vitally important if you want to ensure that they have taken in all of the important aspects of your discussion, whilst also ensuring that they’ve asked you any questions or concerns that they may have. This is why it’s important to use the right language, tone, volume and speed when talking to them. The examples below will help you to ensure that you ask the right questions in the right way.

Open-Ended Questions

An open-ended question is a question that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” response or with a static response. Open-ended questions are phrased as a statement which requires a longer response. The response can be compared to information that is already known to the person asking the question.

Examples of open-ended questions:

  • Tell me about your relationship with your supervisor
  • How do you see your future?
  • Tell me about the children in this photograph
  • What is the purpose of government?
  • Why did you choose that answer?

Closed-Ended Questions

A closed-ended question contrasts with an open-ended question, which cannot easily be answered with specific information.

Examples of close-ended questions which may elicit a “yes” or “no” response include:

  • Were you born in 2010?
  • Is Lyon the capital of France?
  • Did you steal the money?

Similarly, variants of the above close-ended questions which possess specific responses are:

  • On what day were you born? (“Saturday”)
  • What is the capital of France? (“Paris”)
  • Where did you steal the money? (“From the bank”)

At the same time, there are closed-ended questions which are sometimes impossible to answer correctly with a yes or no without confusion, for example: “Have you stopped taking heroin?” (if you never took it) or “Who told you to take heroin?

Loaded Questions

A loaded question or complex question is a question that contains a controversial assumption (e.g. a presumption of guilt).

Such questions may be used as a rhetorical tool. The question attempts to limit direct replies to be those that serve the questioner’s agenda. The traditional example is the question “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Whether the respondent answers yes or no, they will admit to having a wife and having beaten her at some time in the past. Thus, these facts are presupposed by the question, and in this case an entrapment, because it narrows the respondent to a single answer, and the fallacy of many questions has been committed.

The fallacy relies upon context for its effect: the fact that a question presupposes something does not in itself make the question fallacious. Only when some of these presuppositions are not necessarily agreed to by the person who is asked the question does the argument containing them become fallacious. Hence, the same question may be loaded in one context, but not in the other. For example, the previous question would not be loaded if it were asked during a trial in which the defendant had already admitted to beating his wife.

Examples Of Open-Ended Questions

Sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it. In a previous article, we looked at this very topic. You can read the article here.

The words/terms we use is also a really important part of ensuring that the child correctly understands what you’re saying and see’s the addiction as a healthcare related issue and not as a choice or moral failing. This also subconsciously ensures that they see addiction as a real and serious issue as children sometimes play the severity of the situation down as a way to cope with the possible upsetting news. In a previous article, we looked at the importance of using the correct terms/words you use. You can read the article here.

Remember to use age appropriate resources when you’re talking to kids about substance use and addiction. What’s appropriate and helpful for a teenager won’t be helpful or fully understood by those who are younger.

Messages The Kids Need To Hear

Living with an addicted parent is often chaotic, lonely and sometimes even scary—especially if the family breaks up because of substance use or addiction. Even if children are not removed from the home, living with a parent who regularly uses alcohol, drugs or other substances may cause kids to become withdrawn and shy, while others can become explosive and violent.

Likewise, kids with an addicted parent often develop issues with self-esteem, attachment, autonomy, relationships and trust to list just a few. So, what do you tell children when one or both of their parents struggle with drug and/or alcohol use or addiction?

First and foremost, because trust is almost always an issue, you must and need to tell them the truth and be honest, if you don’t know an answer to a question they may have, don’t lie or ignore the question, be honest and say that you don’t know and work together to find the correct answer to their questions together. This will strengthen your relationship with each other and shows them that you are serious and want to make long, lasting and positive change.

Additionally, the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA) indicates that there are four messages that children with addicted parents need to hear. They need to know that addiction is a disease that they cannot control and that it’s OK to talk about it—even if they have been told not to. And, most importantly, they need to know that they are not alone.

Did You Know?

A research study with 4,000 respondents estimates there are 3 million children in the UK living with parental alcohol problems. They are:

  • Six times as likely to witness domestic violence
  • Five times as likely to develop an eating problem
  • Three times as likely to consider suicide
  • Twice as likely to experience difficulties at school
  • Twice as likely to develop alcoholism or addiction
  • Twice as likely to be in trouble with the police

Addiction Is A Medical Disease & Not A Moral Failing Or Choice

When parents are drunk or high, sometimes they can do things that are mean or say things that don’t make sense. They might make promises that they don’t keep, like failing to show up for a child’s dance recital after promising to be there or forgetting to pick them up from soccer practice when it’s their turn in the carpool.

Adults behaviour changes with substances, this is why it’s important to remember that verbal, physical or sexual violence is also a possibility with some addicts when they use or drink.

Sometimes addicted parents also will do things that are embarrassing, like show up for a school function intoxicated, slur their words when talking with a teacher or explode in anger at a basketball game. All of these things are extremely hard on children, no matter how old they are.

Kids can feel embarrassed, confused and angry by their parent’s behaviour. Make sure you validate their feelings and explain that what they’re feeling is normal and acceptable. But also remind them that addiction is a medical disease and not a choice or moral failing.

Children need to be reassured that their parents are not “bad” people. Instead, they have a medical condition/disease that causes them to make bad choices.

Remember, if you are or have experienced any form of violence or abuse, it’s important to remember that it isn’t acceptable and that you don’t have to suffer in silence.

The National Domestic Abuse Helpline is confidential and available 24 hours a day by calling: 0808 2000 247

You can also find other helpful organisations, charities and organisations who can help you. You can find their contact information on our help and support page here.

Remember, It’s Not Your Fault

Most children feel like they are to blame for their parent’s addiction. Even if they realistically know they are not to blame, they can still struggle with guilt and wonder if there is something they can do to keep their parent from using or drinking.

For instance, older kids may cancel plans with their friends, hoping that if they stay home with their parent, they can keep them from drinking or using drugs. While this type of response is normal and understandable, it’s not healthy. Plus, it won’t keep parents from using substances and can cause resentment and stunt the kids childhood and mental/psychological growth.

Consequently, if you’re talking to a child who has an addicted parent, make sure they understand that they are not the reason a parent drinks too much or uses drugs. They did not cause the addiction and they cannot stop it themselves until they seek professional help to change.

You Are Not Alone

Living with an addict can be extremely overwhelming, especially if that addict is a parent. After all, kids are supposed to feel safe and secure at home without worrying if they will be cared for. But in homes with an addict, there is very little safety and security, which can make kids feel alone. What’s more, they’re often convinced that no one understands what they are going through which can cause a feeling of isolation and that all of the pressure is on their shoulders alone, which isn’t true and is a perfect opportunity for them to seek professional help in the form of counselling and other forms of psychological help for themselves, alongside the addict, providing both support for them together and as separate individuals.

For this reason, you need to be sure you emphasise the fact that they are not alone and that you are there for them anytime they need to talk or have any questions or concerns. You could contact NACOA, Alanon or Naranon for help. You can also find other groups, charities and organisations who can help on our help and support page here.

You also can remind kids that many other children have parents who are addicted to drugs or alcohol—even in their own school or community. So while what they’re experiencing is extremely difficult, they aren’t the only one who is going through something like this. Just knowing that there are others who are feeling the same pain and confusion can be comforting to kids.

It’s OK To Talk & Will Positively Strengthen Your Relationship

Many times, kids who grow up with an addicted parent are told not to tell anyone about what happens in their home. Consequently, they often feel a great deal of shame and embarrassment about their home lives.

As a result, you need to assure them that it’s OK to talk about the problem without having to feel scared, ashamed or embarrassed. Remind them that they don’t have to lie, cover for their parent or keep secrets.

Instead, encourage them to talk to someone that they trust—a teacher, counsellor, foster parent or members of a peer support group such as Alateen or Narteen.

The 7 C’s

NACoA also suggests that children remember the “7 Cs of Addiction” when dealing with their parent’s substance use. Consequently, help them learn these key facts:

  • I didn’t cause it
  • I can’t cure it
  • I can’t control it
  • I can care for myself
  • By communicating my feelings
  • Making healthy choices
  • By celebrating myself

A Word From Drink ‘n’ Drugs

Children from homes where there is parental substance use are often scared, lonely and many times, feel isolated from society. Be sure you’re talking to them about what they’re experiencing. And whether you deliver the message perfectly or not, just giving them someone they can talk to is an important step in their recovery.

So don’t delay in talking to them and ensure that you not only seek help for the addict themselves, but just as importantly, seek help for the other friends and family members who also live with them or spend most of their time around them.

Children and teenagers often require some form of therapy to help them recover from the impact that the long term, successive damage that having a parent or guardian who is an addict causes on the young persons development, growth and early life.

This is why seeking professional help is so important. We here at Drink ‘n’ Drugs provide a comprehensive package of therapies including counselling, hypnotherapy, auricular acupuncture and mindfulness sessions. Our therapists have the unique advantage that they are fully trained and qualified healthcare professionals, trained therapists and have direct experience of addictions within their own lives, giving the unique opportunity to have a unique, holistic view of your situation and the treatments and therapies that you maximise your recovery and past damage to friends, family and loved ones. You can learn more about our services by clicking the link here.

You can find a wide variety of groups, charities and organisations who can provide help and support for addicts and their family and friends on our help and support page here.

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Published by Drink ’n’ Drugs

Providing useful, relevant, up to date information and support for those suffering from active addiction or those who are in recovery.

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