Talking to kids about addiction and knowing the appropriate things to say to a child when there is addiction in the home can feel overwhelming and uncomfortable for parents. It is the natural reaction to want to shield and protect our kids from anything that might cause them pain or anguish. But, like most situations in addiction, our natural reactions have a tendency to cause more harm than good.
As my father’s addiction worsened, his behaviours became significantly more erratic and much more difficult for my mother to explain. Addiction is one of the only diseases in which people deny the symptoms for as long as possible while truly believing that they themselves or the sick individual is just about to get things under control.
Our family was no different…
It started with excuses about dad “working late” when he stopped showing up for dinner, or that “something had come up” when he missed another volleyball match. And when I would find him passed out on the couch for what sometimes felt like days I was told that “dad needed his rest” because he had been working so hard and that I was not to wake him.
But I knew that wasn’t true…
Now I want to stress that my mother walked our family through these times with as much grace and dignity as is humanly possible. But she also did what 100% of parents of young children do when addiction is present in the home…they cover.
Parents tend to rationalize, justify, minimize and downright lie to children about the behaviours of the addicted parent as a means of protection. This, coupled with the denial of addiction as a disease, and the idea that this can be handled quickly and quietly, causes much confusion in children and teaches them that they cannot trust their own intuition. When children are told that “everything is fine” when they can feel, and in many cases see, that things are not fine the message then becomes: this is not ok to talk about. Parents have now consciously or unconsciously asked their children to keep a secret that in many cases manifests as shame, confusion, and/or fear and isolates them from other family members as well as people outside the home.
While honesty can feel extremely scary for parents, the alternative can have a lasting impact on a child’s emotional health and development. Below I have outlined four suggestions for talking to your kids openly about addiction:
Children are naturally very intuitive and they know a lot more about what is going on in the home then we tend to give them credit for. Honesty, on an age appropriate level, establishes trust and can be used as an opportunity to educate your children about drugs and alcohol.
The Three C’s.
When talking to your kids about addiction make sure to enforce that they didn’t CAUSE it, they can’t CURE it, and they can’t CONTROL it. Children will often internalize a parent’s behaviour as being their fault and even change their own behaviour in an attempt to fix things. What’s important here is making sure the child understands that he or she could not have done anything differently to change the outcome of the situation.
Break the Do Not Talk Rule.
In families of addiction we often find that kids are encourage not to talk about what’s going on in the home. This is a huge secret to ask a child to keep and can often result in physical symptoms such as stomach aches. We want to encourage them to talk about their experiences and feelings both comfortable and uncomfortable. It will be important to emphasize to your children that they will not be in trouble for anything that they say and that they are not going to be hurting your feelings.
Identify Safe People.
Explore with your children who the safe people are in their lives. This might be a parent, grandparent, teacher, or counsellor. Basically, this is any person that the child feels comfortable speaking with. Note to parents: don’t take it personally if you are not the safe person. The important part at this point is that the child feels safe to openly share their feelings and ask questions.
As a Registered Social Worker, Interventionist, and founder of True North Interventions, Sonja Maibach works with individuals and families suffering from addiction through one on one counselling, family care, and invitational intervention. When addiction is present in the family, loved ones find themselves feeling afraid, alone and unsure of their decisions. Sonja provides services designed to provide peace of mind by creating a partnership that allows you to feel confident in the decisions being made about the health and wellness of you and your family.