Talking to children who have an addicted parent

Substance abuse affects families with children. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly nine million children live in homes where at least one parent suffers from a substance abuse disorder.

When opioid addiction and substance abuse is present, the impact on children is substantial. Whatever the age of the child, he or she may not understand what's going on but there is no doubt that something is wrong.

Talking to a child about a parent's addiction can be difficult, particularly when the child seems too young to grasp the nature of the problem.

Life can be confusing for young children who don't understand addiction and the behaviors that surround it. Neglect and abuse, both physical and emotional, are common. Sadness, anger, embarrassment, and loneliness are among the emotions that children of an actively addicted parent may feel. They might also believe that they are to blame.
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Depression, anxiety, and problems with emotional regulation, impulse control, and self-esteem are often seen in children of addicted parents. They may do poorly in school.

Children of addicted parents are twice as likely to develop a substance use disorder themselves, thus repeating the cycle.

Of course, this isn't inevitable. Many children of actively addicted parents are resilient, and may do well regardless of the increased risk factors.

Early childhood and during key developmental stages are pivotal times for children who are at risk, and these are also the times when protective factors can be the most effective.

Of course, it helps greatly if there is at least one responsible, sober, caring adult in the child's life. Other positive role models and peer support can also be influential. Regular attendance at a good school, and participation in activities, such as sports, can also minimize the harm. As children are individuals, the child's unique temperament may also be determinative.

Open and honest communication with children can help them to feel safe, secure, cared for, and loved. They need someone who they can trust and rely on.

Unfortunately, children who are growing up with an actively addicted family member often live under a rule of silence that may be imposed by both parents, including the parent who is not a substance user.

Not being able to talk about this very real problem adds to the confusion for kids who are aware of a parent's use of drugs or alcohol. Being able to talk about their parent's substance dependence openly and honestly with a trusted adult can greatly reduce the damage and help children find healthy ways to cope.

This is why it is important for the non-using parent or another trusted adult to talk with children about alcohol and drug use when it first becomes a regular part of their lives.

It's not easy explaining addiction to a child. Depending on the age of the child and the relationship of the child to the addicted adult, it can take time and patience to help a child understand the disease of addiction.

The child's perspective and understanding of the problem can be more effectively framed by learning about addiction as a disease, as this allows the child to develop an awareness of their parent's illness without thinking of it as a character flaw.

Of course, the information provided to the child needs to be age-appropriate. Otherwise, when confronted with too much information that they can't process, they might not understand anything at all. Conversely, talking down to an older child might be perceived as dishonesty.

When speaking to children under the age of five, keep your language simple and avoid technical language. It's also important to return to normal activity after the talk is over.

Elementary-aged children have probably been provided with information about drugs, alcohol, and addiction in school, whether part of the course curriculum or from conversations with peers. Be ready to answer questions and explain any misconceptions they may have received.

Teenagers can handle a great deal of information, and it is unlikely that drug and alcohol use is foreign to them, as drug awareness programs are commonly provided in school. Your teens probably know people who have experimented with drugs and alcohol, and may have done so themselves. Encourage them to talk about addiction, paying attention to how it affects them personally.

At any age, it is important for children to understand that they have no responsibility for their parent's addiction. They are in control of their own choices and well-being. Beginning with these simple principles, maintain an open dialogue and handle any issues as they arise.

The National Association for Children of Alcoholics emphasizes the necessity for children to know that they are not alone and that their parent's drinking is not their fault. To illustrate this, they use the 7 C's for children to be aware of, as pertaining to their parent's addiction:
  1. I didn't CAUSE it.
  2. I can't CONTROL it.
  3. I can't CURE it.
  4. But I can help take CARE of myself.
  5. I can do this by COMMUNICATING my feelings,
  6. Making healthy CHOICES, and
  7. CELEBRATING me.

They need to know that they are not the cause of their parent's addiction, and that they can still take care of themselves, make good choices, and be happy.