How to Talk to Kids About a Parent's Addiction

Father and daughter talking on park bench

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Children living in homes where there is parental substance abuse can find life difficult, unpredictable, and confusing. Sometimes they even believe the alcohol or drug abuse is their fault. Dealing with this chaos and unpredictability can leave kids feeling insecure and uncertain. Additionally, they may receive inconsistent messages from their parents.

As a result, children can feel guilt and shame trying to keep the family's "secrets." And they often feel abandoned due to the emotional unavailability of their parents.

How to Talk to Kids About Addiction

Whether you're the child's non-addicted parent, a concerned relative, or a teacher, talking to kids about their parent's addiction is not an easy conversation. But it's one that needs to happen. Ignoring the issue or trying to pretend that it doesn't exist is never a good idea and only leaves kids wondering if this is the way everyone's life is.

Even if you're not talking about their parent's addiction, kids still know it exists. Plus, covering it up or pretending that it's not a big deal doesn't protect them from the pain that the addiction causes them. They are still being impacted. In fact, talking about the addiction openly and honestly can actually help them find healthier ways to cope with the trauma they're experiencing.

Additionally, you're able to share the truth about their parent's addiction and dispel some of the lies they may believe—like the faulty belief that they are somehow to blame or that they can "help" their parent get well. These types of beliefs can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms in kids, such as codependency.

Once you've resolved to talk to a child about their parent's addiction, it's important to educate yourself first. You want to be sure you're sharing accurate information. Likewise, you should keep your conversations age appropriate.

For instance, for kids younger than 10 years old, you need to remember that they still view the world from a me-centered perspective. Consequently, they are likely to blame themselves or believe they did something to cause the addiction.

Be sure that you reassure them that they didn't cause the addiction and there's nothing they could do to prevent their parent from drinking or using drugs.

Reassure them that their parent loves them, but that they have a disease and need help. Also, remind them that you love them and are there to support them.

When it comes to tweens, you want to make sure they have all the facts about their parent's addiction. At this age, it's tempting for them to piece together what they do know and try to come up with their own explanations. Your goal should be to keep that from happening.

So, make sure you answer all their questions openly and honestly. You also can invite the tween to come to you anytime they are upset or confused and need some answers.

Finally, when talking with teens, the first thing you need to consider is that they may be feeling resentful of the addiction. This may be especially true if the addiction has required them to miss time with their friends due to taking care of younger siblings or doing extra chores.

Be sensitive to how the addiction has impacted them.

If you can, try to give the teen opportunities to participate in activities or to take up a hobby that builds their self-esteem. And, at some point you should talk about the fact that addiction is a disease with a genetic component. So, they should refrain from experimenting with drugs and alcohol, because the chances of them developing an addiction like their parent is higher than it is for other kids.

When to Have a Conversation

When it comes to the timing of the conversation about a parent's addiction, you should consider having it as soon as you're aware that there's an issue—especially if you're a family member. But picking the right time and place is still important.

Make sure you choose a time of day when the child is relaxed. Trying to have a conversation when they are upset, angry, or tired will keep you from having the impact you're hoping for.

Also, be sure that when you do talk, you are in a comfortable place where there is no risk of being overhead. And be sensitive to the fact that kids often assume that no one knows what happens in their home.

If you're not a family member, be prepared for kids to experience some initial surprise regarding your conversation. They also may deny there is an issue, so be patient.

Finally, make sure you approach the conversation with empathy and patience. Ask questions so that you understand their perspective, and if they blame themselves, reassure them that they are not at fault. Their parent's addiction is not their responsibility.

Messages Kids Need to Hear

Living with an addicted parent is often chaotic, lonely, and even scary—especially if the family breaks up because of substance abuse. Even if children are not removed from the home, living with a parent who abuses alcohol or other substances may cause kids to become withdrawn and shy, while others can become explosive and violent.

Likewise, kids with an addicted parent often develop issues with self-esteem, attachment, autonomy, and trust. So, what do you tell children when one or both of their parents struggle with addiction?

First and foremost, because trust is almost always an issue, you need to tell them the truth.

Additionally, the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA) indicates that there are four messages that children with addicted parents need to hear. They need to know that addiction is a disease that they cannot control and that it's OK to talk about it—even if they have been told not to. And, most importantly, they need to know that they are not alone.

Addiction Is a Disease

When parents are drunk or high, sometimes they can do things that are mean or say things that don't make sense. Or, they might make promises that they don't keep, like failing to show up for a child's dance recital after promising to be there or forgetting to pick them up from soccer practice when it's their turn in the carpool.

Sometimes addicted parents also will do things that are embarrassing, like show up for a school function intoxicated, slur their words when talking with a teacher, or explode in anger at a basketball game. All of these things are extremely hard on children, no matter how old they are.

Kids can feel embarrassed, confused, and angry by their parent's behavior. Make sure you validate their feelings and explain that what they're feeling is normal. But also remind them that addiction is a disease.

Children need to be reassured that their parents are not "bad" people. Instead, they have a disease that causes them to make bad choices.

It's Not Your Fault

Most children feel like they are to blame for their parent's addiction. Even if they realistically know they are not to blame, they can still struggle with guilt and wonder if there is something they can do to keep their parent from using.

For instance, older kids may cancel plans with their friends, hoping that if they stay home with their parent, they can keep them from drinking or using drugs. While this type of response is normal, it's not healthy. Plus, it won't keep parents from abusing substances.

Consequently, if you're talking to a child who has an addicted parent, make sure they understand that they are not the reason a parent drinks too much or abuses drugs. They did not cause the addiction, and they cannot stop it.

You Are Not Alone

Living with an addict can be extremely overwhelming, especially if that addict is a parent. After all, kids are supposed to feel safe and secure at home without worrying if they will be cared for. But in homes with an addict, there is very little safety and security, which can make kids feel alone. What's more, they're often convinced that no one understands what they are going through.

For this reason, you need to be sure you emphasize the fact that they are not alone and that you are there for them anytime they need to talk.

You also can remind kids that lots of other children have parents who are addicted to drugs or alcohol—even in their own school. So while what they're experiencing is extremely difficult, they aren't the only one who is going through something like this. Just knowing that there are others who are feeling the same pain and confusion can be comforting to kids.

It's OK to Talk

Many times, kids who grow up with an addicted parent are told not to tell anyone about what happens in their home. Consequently, they often feel a great deal of shame and embarrassment about their home lives.

As a result, you need to assure them that it's OK to talk about the problem without having to feel scared, ashamed, or embarrassed. Remind them that they don't have to lie, cover for their parent, or keep secrets. Instead, encourage them to talk to someone that they trust—a teacher, counselor, foster parent, or members of a peer support group such as Alateen.

The 7 Cs

NACoA also suggests that children remember the "7 Cs of Addiction" when dealing with their parent's substance abuse. Consequently, help them learn these key facts:

  • I didn't cause it.
  • I can't cure it.
  • I can't control it.
  • I can care for myself,
  • By communicating my feelings,
  • Making healthy choices, and
  • By celebrating myself.

A Word From Verywell

Children from homes where there is parental substance abuse are often scared, lonely, and many times, feel isolated from society. Be sure you're talking to them about what they're experiencing. And whether you deliver the message perfectly or not, just giving them someone they can talk to is an important step in their recovery. So don't delay in talking to them.

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Article Sources
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  1. Lander L, Howsare J, Byrne M. The impact of substance use disorders on families and children: from theory to practice. Soc Work Public Health. 2013;28(3-4):194-205. doi:10.1080%2F19371918.2013.759005

  2. National Association for Children of Addiction. Facts for you.

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