Children and Addiction

 

Helping small children understand alcoholism or drug addiction in the family can be a daunting task. Fortunately, there is a wealth of advice to draw upon, especially if your loved one has entered treatment. Even if your loved one has not entered treatment, addiction professionals can help small children process and cope with a relative’s alcoholism and drug addiction. Before sitting down with a professional, however, you need to have an important conversation with any children involved, and it should be the first of many.

It is always a good idea to begin the discussion by acknowledging that there is a problem and asking children what they have noticed. They may know more than you realize, but often are not emotionally equipped to place what they have experienced in the proper context. Children can internalize the situation and feel like it is their fault. It is important to emphasize that there is absolutely nothing they could do to cause or prevent your loved one’s addiction. They also need to understand that it is not their responsibility to solve or fix anything. This is an adult problem, and adults are there to help them, not the other way around.

You should then introduce the concept that addiction is a disease, but in terms a small child can grasp. For example, most young children will struggle with the concept of “addiction,” but all children understand what it means to be sick and to feel bad. Stressing that your loved one has an illness will reinforce the idea that this is not any child’s fault and that the adult can get better. As they mature, your conversation will evolve along with their understanding of addiction. It is important from early on that children view addiction as an illness and not a moral failing, even if they cannot put it into those words.

Children also need to be reassured that they are loved and will be cared for, no matter what happens. They need to know you are there for them, they can talk to you about anything, and help is available. Chances are they will have a lot of questions. You should answer honestly but simply. As you explain things, you should check in to make sure they truly understand what you are saying. Ask them if what your saying makes sense and, if you want further confirmation, ask them to explain it back to you. You do not have to do this every time you make a point, but often enough that you can be confident they understand the most important things, which are that your loved one has an illness that is neither the child’s fault nor responsibility; the child is loved and safe; and because there is help, everything will be okay. For children who are around seven years of age, you can introduce the concept of The Seven Cs of Addiction which are:

I didn’t Cause it.

I can’t Cure it.

I can’t Control it.

But…

I can help take Care of myself

By Communicating my feelings,

Making healthy Choices, and

Celebrating myself.

If they are too young for The Seven Cs, you can still use it as a guide for your conversations. In fact, The Seven Cs was originally The Four Cs, which may be easier for a younger child to grasp:

I didn’t Cause it.

I can’t Control it.

I can’t Cure it.

But I can learn how to Cope with it.

Children who have been exposed to addiction in the home often seem older than their years, and it is easy to forget that while they have experienced very grown-up things, they do not have the emotional maturity to truly understand what is happening. They will need to be reminded that it is not their fault, they cannot do anything to change it, but they can always go to you for help. As long as children feel loved and safe, you are doing an excellent job of helping them understand alcoholism or drug addiction in their family.