By: Casey Parr, Community Outreach and Marketing Specialist
Addiction is a difficult topic for children to understand and even more challenging for them to observe and experience through their parents. If you work directly with children who have parents with addiction issues or come from a family with adults who struggle with addiction, it’s important to support the children involved. Here are a few tips:
- Show up for the child. Children with inconsistency at home need stable adult support in their lives. Continuously showing up for a child allows them to feel safe. Make sure to put cell phones away to demonstrate active listening and interest in what they’re saying.
- Explain addiction in an honest but age-appropriate way. To help children make sense of their situation, explain addiction as a disease, just like other diseases, while keeping in mind the child’s age and what they are able to understand. Jerry Moe, national director of Children’s Programs at Hazelden Betty Ford, recommends explaining addiction as using the words stuck, hook, and trapped. Stuck refers to gum in hair, very hard to get out. Hook is about a fish on a hook that can only focus on getting free and therefore is unable to focus on other things. Trapped refers to an animal, powerless because they are stuck in a trap.
- Let them know it’s not their fault. Children can take the blame for a parent’s decisions, thinking they could have prevented their parent from becoming addicted. Ensure the child that addiction is an internal illness not caused by outside behaviors that needs treatment to heal.
- Encourage them to speak up. Let the child know that it is okay to confide in trusted adults how they are feeling and what’s going on in their lives. Help them talk through who to go to for support. It’s important to explain to them what to do when they find themselves in unsafe situations.
- Help them continue to be kids. When parents are struggling with addiction, children often have to take on extra responsibility like caring for younger siblings or preparing meals or even determining when to call 911. To help reduce this stress, provide an opportunity to act silly, play, or get out and have fun. Balance talking about what’s going on and allowing escape from it.
When you need to have these conversations, ask questions and follow the child’s lead before determining the right thing to say. When in doubt, seek out a professional’s opinion to determine if a child needs further help. If they share information that you believe makes the child unsafe, thank them for sharing and explain that you’ll need to share it for the child’s wellbeing. If the child is unsafe, share that with child protective services. Hopefully these tips help you feel more confident discussing addiction with children.
What tips do you have for talking to kids about addiction?