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06 Oct Explaining Addiction to the Child of an Addict

Addiction is a disease that affects the whole family, and when children are involved, things can get complicated. It’s tempting to try and cover up addiction and avoid the subject with children, hoping they won’t notice the problem. Children are very aware of their surroundings and the feelings of others though, so hiding a problem like addiction is impossible. It’s better to discuss the issue openly with them, to provide them with some answers, and to enlist their support as your family works through this difficult time.

Have a Plan for Moving Forward

Nothing is more scary to kids than the unknown, and addiction has probably left them feeling constantly uncertain. The thing that will provide the most comfort to them is having some answers about what the future holds. Make a plan for how you will increase the child’s safety and for how their family will be getting help. Have this plan ready to tell them about when you discuss addiction with them. They need hope in order to heal, so have some ready to give them.

Avoid Blame

Children tend to blame themselves for all of the problems brought on by addiction in their home, and their addicted parent may have been heaping some blame on them too. (“If you would behave, I wouldn’t be so upset!”) The most important thing you can tell them when discussing addiction is that none of this is their fault, that they didn’t do anything wrong, and that their parent’s illness is not their responsibility. They are going to be fiercely loyal to their addictive parent, so don’t place the blame on the parent either. Explain that addiction is a disease, and that help is available.

Reiterate Love and Understanding

It’s going to take a lot of work to heal a child who has been damaged by addiction, but a strong foundation of love can go a long way. Point out to the child specifically the people who love them, and who will be there to support them. This can include parents, siblings, extended family, teachers, counselors, etc. Validate the pain they’ve been experiencing, express understanding, and provide extra love.

Be Honest and Age-Appropriate

Your child is going to have questions about addiction and about the things they’ve been experiencing. Don’t shy away from providing answers, but keep your answers simple, and your terminology age-appropriate.

Maintain a Running Dialogue

It will take time for the child to open up and be comfortable with communicating about this problem. Their feelings will probably come out in bits and pieces, so be open to discussing these issues with them any time they want. Make communicating with them your top priority.

Follow Through With Stability

The child of an addict is bound to have some trust issues and letting them down will severely hamper progress. Be prepared to keep the promises you make and to provide them with long-term stability as the addictive parent goes through recovery. This may involve some major life changes for the child, but they will fare better if they have a consistent, stable environment.

Enlist Professional Help

Having a parent who is an addict makes a child four times more likely to become an addict and increases their risk for several other problems as well. Professional intervention is needed to try and mitigate the damage done to them by addiction. Just like the parent needs professional recovery help, so does the child. Ask your rehab professionals about getting your child the help they need as well.

Betsy Firth is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. She graduated from Purdue University. She began her career in residential treatment in 1984. Betsy’s professional passion is in assisting others to heal from trauma or disruptions in attachment. She is certified in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) for increasing ability in emotion regulation and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) for resolution of traumatic memories. She has found great satisfaction utilizing these skills and abilities in helping those who suffer from the disease of addiction.

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