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A Difficult Conversation: Talking To Kids When A Parent Is Addicted

Talking to kids about addiction and treatment is difficult and requires considerable patience, but it’s important to get started – the sooner the better. If you are addicted to drugs or alcohol, treatment can help you turn things around and improve life for you and your entire family. If you’re already in treatment, you’ve taken a monumental step.

People who are addicted to drugs and alcohol become so enmeshed in their addiction that they fail to realize how their illness affects the lives of everybody who loves them. When a parent is addicted, children pay the highest price, and the trauma of growing up with an addicted parent can last a lifetime.

Children of addicts live in constant fear of losing a parent through accident, illness, violence, incarceration or divorce. Many believe a parent’s addiction is their fault, while others become perfectionists to gain a sense of control over chaos.

A life of confusion and constant upheaval prevents kids from enjoying a normal childhood. Boundaries are inconsistent, rules are unpredictable and structure is erratic. Worry and tension make it difficult to concentrate. It’s no surprise that children of addicts tend to perform poorly in school.

Kids who live with an addicted parent are at higher risk of emotional problems, including depression and anxiety. They are more likely to attempt suicide, and they have a higher incidence of run-ins with the law. Researchers have established that a child growing up with a parent with a substance abuse problem is three to four times more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than kids
who grow up in families where addiction is not an issue.

How to Talk to Children about Addiction

  • Be honest, but be positive and hopeful.
  • Assure kids that they aren’t alone, and that addiction affects millions of people.
  • If necessary, educate yourself about the illness before you sit down with kids.
  • Use age-appropriate language. Very young children are ready to hear short, simple sentences, but if kids are old enough for school, they can handle more complicated information.
  • Junior high and high school kids will already have knowledge of addiction and they are aware of the problems at home. They may be fearful, angry or embarrassed. Encourage them to speak openly about their feelings.
  • Acknowledge the impact of the addiction and don’t discount a child’s feelings and experiences.
  • Reassure children that the addiction of a parent is not their fault. Tell them they didn’t cause the problem and they can’t fix it.
  • Explain that addiction is an illness that causes very real chemical changes in the brain. There is no cure, but treatment can help the parent stop using.
  • Help children understand that the parent must make the decision to get treatment and stop using. Nobody else can make that decision.
  • If you find it difficult to talk to kids about addiction, don’t hesitate to seek help from a mental health provider, family therapist, pastor, or a trusted friend or relative. Older kids may benefit by attending meetings at Alateen, an organization created specifically for teens with addicted parents.
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