Explaining addiction to a child can be a challenging and difficult process. Depending on the age of the child and the relationship to the addict, it can take a great deal of time, effort and patience to help a child comprehend the disease of addiction. The effects of drugs or alcohol can be frightening, violent and upsetting and it is difficult for a child to comprehend why anyone would want to choose to behave that way.
Honesty should always be used when explaining an addiction to a child. Explain clearly and simply what an addiction means–that the adult has a compulsive problem with using alcohol or drugs. Depending on the age of the child, may also be important to explain that drugs and alcohol change how the person behaves, how they feel and what they do. Additionally, it should be noted that an addiction occurs for many reasons – mental illness, from being in a traumatic experience, from growing up in a damaging environment or genetic reasons.
It is important for a child to understand that the addiction is not their fault and they have nothing to do with why someone uses drugs or alcohol. Through honest, open discussions a child will develop trust and understanding of the illness and be prepared to seek further help or advice if needed. If the addiction is hidden or refused to be spoken about a child may repress emotions, become angry, anxious or scared and feel afraid to talk to anyone. This can cause significant problems in the future and would be detrimental to the physical and emotional health of the child.
A common emotional response to a family member having an addiction is for a child to blame themselves or believe that the cause of the addiction lies with them. They may believe that their own behavior has created the problem of the addiction due to the negative reactions that may happen when the addict is under the influence; an addicted parent may justify having a drink by telling a child that they caused them stress or made them upset.
A child may believe what the adult says and think that because they were fighting with a sibling, had a problem at school or even didn’t do all their chores, that the addict was forced to drink or take drugs. It is important to make a child understand that they are not the cause nor to blame for ongoing addiction. The addict is under the influence when they make these comments, but they are not really true.
Some children may benefit from understanding that addiction is like other diseases and disorders. There are times when the problem is worse, that medicine is required to treat it and the addiction makes them feel very sick, angry and unwell. It is caused by a problem that is no fault of the child – be it a chemical imbalance, an inability for the adult to deal with stress, other mental illness or disease.
Children can often feel that it is their duty to take care of the adult, be responsible for other children and to protect an adult. This has been found to be particularly the case in children of addicted parents. Addicted parents may begin to rely on a child to take over the role of running a household, caring for other siblings and even taking care of the addict themselves. This can be stressful for a child who may not fully understand why their parent or another adult around them is behaving in a certain way.
Conversations with children about addiction should be informal and yet informative. By having good communication with a child, they can learn more about the addiction, gain trust in a person and express any fears, concerns or problems they may be having. Children should be made understand that when a person is affected by a substance they may do or say things that they would never normally do and may say things they don’t mean. This includes making promises, saying nasty or mean things, ignoring them, hurting themselves or others, disappearing for periods or even falling asleep at funny times. Being armed with knowledge that this is part of the disease of addiction will benefit children in the short and long term.
Some key points that should be reiterated with children when explaining addiction include:
* Doctors and scientists don’t fully understand why some people become addicted to a drug or alcohol. They might have a chemical problem in their brain, some genetic problem or have personal problems they find hard to deal with.
* Even though an addict may be very sick because of taking drugs or alcohol, they might not realize the drug is making them sick. They will blame work, money or even the weather on why they feel unwell but the real problem is the drug.
* When someone takes drugs or alcohol they lose control of how they act or feel when under the influence. They aren’t behaving how they normally are and may say or do things that they don’t really mean.
* There is no cure for the addiction disease yet, but if the person stops drinking or taking drugs they will get better and they will be happier. But no one can make them stop, they have to decide to do it themselves when they are ready.
* There is always someone available to talk when or if the child wants to talk – support networks like Alateen, school friends, teachers, other family members, church groups, sports coaches or even online support forums. The child doesn’t have to feel alone, upset or scared.
The National Association for Children of Alcoholics suggest that using the 7 C’s helps children deal with addiction in their family. This simple, yet effective statement can be useful for children to really understand what an addiction means and how they can avoid being involved in that life. The 7 C’s are:
* 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.