We often think we need to protect kids and addiction shouldn’t be discussed. We think they’ll be too young or immature to understand this, but they probably already know what is happening. In fact, they’ve likely been negatively impacted by the loved-one’s use. When working with addicted mothers, I was amazed at the knowledge of four year olds regarding their mom’s use. So we need to explore the following ages and what to say and what not to say.

Addiction is a disease that affects the entire family and because of this, the entire family, including children, need to be informed about this illness. An unhealthy family system tries to keep it a secret. This only causes more dysfunction.

These general guidelines are age-related information, but it’s important to also consider the child’s level of maturity.

Ages 2 – 4

At this age it is appropriate to ask the child what he’s seen or felt. The child may respond with something like, “Daddy drinks” or “Daddy gets mad at me.” Likewise, a child at this age may feel a lot emotionally but cannot verbalize it. Asking the child how she feels and acknowledging her sadness, anger, or other feelings is very appropriate; trying to explain why they feel that way is not. However, it is very important to tell the child that “Daddy is sick” and ask her how she felt when she was sick. Use simple, non-emotional words.

Ages 5-8

Here, you can focus more on the illness and how bad it feels when you’re sick and that’s how Uncle Jim feels when he drinks too much or takes drugs. Ask the child how he remembers how sometimes he wants things that you don’t think are good for him (such as eating breakfast with cereal that is high in sugar or wants a new toy that wasn’t allowed). That can help to see that Uncle Jim wants things and does things that aren’t good for him. Answer their questions. This helps them with seeing causes and consequences.

Ages 9-12

At this age, you can begin to tell them in more detail about addiction and the family member’s illness. Continue to allow them to feel their feelings and to ask questions. Talk to them about whether they’ve been approached to use and ways to say ‘no.’ Help them to process what is happening in the family and ask them about their experiences with the using family member.

Ages 13-19

At this age, it is important to continue to allow them to vent and to make choices regarding their relationship with the addicted person. Ask them about their experiences with the addict, ask them about their own use of substances, and be open to their responses.

For All Kids And Addiction, It Is Important That You:

  • Are educated about addictions and can relate this in an age-appropriate manner.
  • Relate that addiction is an disease just like heart disease or diabetes.
  • Are honest with them; however, the level of truth is dependent upon the age of the child; you must explain this in their own level of language and understanding.
  • For younger children, it is important that you help them to make healthy choices regarding the relationship with the addict; for example, you won’t let them ride in the car if Grandpa has been drinking.
  • That you use appropriate boundaries in telling them about the addiction and the person; i.e., you don’t tell them inappropriate things such as you hate Mommy when she drinks or that Daddy is an awful person.
  • Ask them how they feel in a certain situation and validate their feelings (including anger).
  • Continue to tell them it is not their fault (kids are egocentric and believe that they caused the problems and/or they’ve been told it’s their fault that Dad does drugs).
  • Ask the child what he/she/they know about addictions from social media.
  • Ask the child if they have been approached to use alcohol or drugs.
  • Help the child to know how to refuse drugs and alcohol.
  • As the child ages, continue to talk with them about the family addiction.
  • Offer them the chance to talk with a school counselor, social worker, or outside therapist as well as to attend local support groups such as Ala-Anon or contact the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (nacoa.org).
  • Do not lecture.
  • Take care of yourself so you can take care of the children by using your supports such as family, friends, 12-step groups, and/or therapy.

Remember, you don’t have to do this alone. Seek help as needed and continue to recognize that taking care of yourself and your children is the top priority.

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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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