Substance Use

How to Explain Addiction to Children

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When Is It Too Early or Too Late to Have the Drug Talk?

Children are sponges. They absorb information better than any of us. If you think your problem is going over their head, think again. Although your child doesn’t understand the gravity of a chronic substance use disorder, the disease’s effects will long remain:

Binging nights, erratic outbursts, nights withdrawal crept in— or perhaps you’re the functioning addict.

Drunk only after work.

The point is: they know — and we have a responsibility to do something about it.

Despite our roots or individual opinions on legal and illicit substances, our kids have to come first.

But how do you tackle the behemoth that is addiction for children?

What We Say to Our Kids Now Has Lasting Impact

Even if your five year old doesn’t understand why you’re finishing a bottle of whiskey a night, your behavior is the fundamental building block of their normalcy.

Our everyday actions guide our little ones— even if we tell them to “do as I say, not as I do.”

If only it worked that way.

Children’s personalities develop critically through the ages of one to five.

Our kids model the behavior they see— and that includes substance abuse.

But there’s something we can do about it.

How to Transform Your Addiction Into a Learning Experience for Your Child

Maybe you’re new to recovery. Maybe you haven’t started the recovery process— but you’re here regardless. Talking to your child about addiction is critically important to:

  1. Introduce addiction as a treatable disease
  2. Open a healthy dialogue about mental health early on
  3. Teach kids the real life dangers of addiction

If you went through school through the D.A.R.E. era, you’ve experienced prevention education at some of its worst.

Research shows us measured examples backed up with facts and rationale assist us in making good decisions.

Yet consider for a moment that the brains of children are not yet fully developed, and therefore incapable of making sound decisions for themselves. That’s where you come in.

Beginning the conversation about addiction with your kids may feel counter-intuitive and awkward, but your words may save them a lifetime of grief and anguish.

An anguish you’ve intimately felt.

So! Here’s how to do the deed.

Step by Step: How to Talk to Your Child About Addiction

1. Introduce Addiction As a Treatable Disease

When introducing addiction, a complex physical and psychological disorder, it’s important to keep details precise and brief.

Classifying addiction as a treatable disease for your children accomplishes two major things.

One, “treatable” introduces the idea that addiction isn’t forever, as long as mommy (or daddy or whoever) get help. Give hope whenever you can, and begin to unfetter your little one from harmful stigmas surrounding addiction.

You might say something like,

“Mommy is going to the doctor to get better. I have a disease called addiction, but it is 100% treatable. That means with medicine and the doctor’s help, mommy will be all better!

There’s nothing wrong with seeing a doctor when you need help. Sometimes a “head doctor” helps with bad feelings.

And if you ever need help with something, we can take you to the doctor too.”

2. Open a Healthy Dialogue About Mental Health Early On

Mentioning the “head doctor” early on in your addiction talk will prime the wheels for a healthy relationship with your child’s mental health. Many kids don’t understand the importance of mental health because it is not a subject readily discussed through most communities.

However, when tackling addiction recovery, your little one should know you will have both good and bad days during recovery. This may also prompt your child to ask about mental health doctors for their own feelings, should they experience distress.

3. Teach Kids the Real Life Dangers of Addiction

Depending on your child’s age, I certainly wouldn’t recount an especially harrowing story about addiction— but on the reverse side of the spectrum— as someone who was exposed to explicit details about drug addiction as a child of five, those tales kept me on the straight and narrow.

Whatever your tactic is when discussing addiction, do give your children the truth. Express the dangers as they exist and do not lessen them or exaggerate.

(In the wake of DARE, we’ve learned scare tactics are ineffective.)

Parental Drug Talking Points for Kids:

Consider working these points into your conversation:

  • Addiction can eventually kill you
  • Addiction separates families
  • Addiction damages the brain and body
  • Taking medicines that aren’t yours is very dangerous
  • Even if you hide trying something “just one time,” it can kill you
  • Drugs change the way your body works