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How to Talk to Children About Parental Addiction

No matter your background, your faith, your age, your race, your gender, or your socio-economic class, addiction does not discriminate. Many people learn this the hard way after a beloved family member asks for help fighting addiction. Unfortunately, not everyone will get the help they need and deserve. Drug overdoses are now the number one cause of injury-related deaths in the United States, and we know that those who could truly benefit from the help that drug and alcohol treatment centers provide don’t always seek out assistance.

While those who struggle with drug addiction and alcoholism may believe that they are hurting only themselves by not going to addiction treatment centers, the truth is that their problems have a deep impact on everyone in their immediate circle. Parents, siblings, friends, co-workers, and children are all affected by their loved one’s drinking and drugging. The ways in which they’re impacted may vary somewhat depending on the nature of the relationship, those who are closest to the addict or alcoholic typically suffer right along with them.

You may make every effort to shield young children from these situations, but children who grow up in households where alcoholism or drug addiction is present may still struggle with emotional and behavioral issues. Whether or not the addicted parent ends up seeking help at alcohol or drug rehabilitation centers, other trusted adults in the child’s life — whether it be the other parent, a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, or adult sibling — may be able to improve that child’s situation and provide emotional stability and reassurance during an uncertain time. Here are a few ways you may be able to help.

  • Be honest but age appropriate: You may be tempted to sugar-coat the situation, especially if the child is quite young. While you should be very careful about what you say, honesty is usually the best policy here. Trying to protect a child by lying to them about their parent’s issues will probably backfire. They will likely be able to tell when they’re being deceived. During this time, they need someone they can trust. Presenting information in a simple, direct, and hopeful manner is often a good approach, as long as you keep the child’s age and ability to understand in mind.
  • Assure them they aren’t alone: Living with or even interacting with an addict or alcoholic on a long-term basis can feel incredibly isolating. A child will likely not have a complete understanding of why their parent acts the way they do or why they feel so alone. They also may not realize that there are millions of other children dealing with the same kinds of issues. Although family members hope that the addicts in their lives will choose to go to drug or alcohol treatment centers, your continued involvement in this child’s life can help them gain the perspective and encouragement they need — whether or not their parent decides to seek out help.
  • Let them know it’s not their fault: Many children affected by the actions of addicted parents are worried that they are to blame for the chaos that ensues in their home. They may feel shame, guilt, and confusion — especially if a parent has verbalized that the child is to blame for their substance abuse in some way. Even adults in an addict’s life may believe that they’ve caused their loved one to abuse alcohol or drugs. But nothing could be further from the truth. When an addict is under the influence of a substance, anything they say or do (including blaming someone else for their problems) is not an accurate representation of events or even of who that person truly is. Having ongoing conversations about how this child is in no way to blame for their parents’ problems, regardless of what may have been said in the past, may help to restore normalcy and remove guilt from a child’s sense of reality — whether or not parents go to drug or alcohol treatment centers.

If you are the primary caretaker or are an important figure in the life of a child affected by a parent’s addiction, you can support this young person by following the tips above and encouraging their parent to take back their life by going to drug and alcohol treatment centers.

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