How To Talk To Your Kids About A Family Member’s Drug Addiction

 Talking with your children about a family member’s drug addiction presents a unique challenge. There are several questions you’ll likely have to answer while simultaneously providing the necessary context for your child to understand this experience as a learning moment.

It’s a complicated dance, and you want no nail every move. This post will help guide you through the process by providing tips on explaining addiction and its impact on your family to your young ones. 

Let’s dive in.

The Truth Is Always Better Than Lies

Simply put, it is irresponsible to lie, misrepresent, or deceive your children regarding a family member’s substance abuse problems. You may feel the need to shelter your children from the truth or to drop half-truths to massage a false sense of security when things seem awry, but the truth is, your children—though not educated in the nuances and intricacies of adult life—are smarter and more perceptive than you might initially believe.

When the atmosphere at home is off, children pick up on it straight away. If a family member or relative is showing signs of addiction, their behavior will seem different, and when your children ask you why—which they most definitely will—you need to step up to the plate and deliver an honest, kid-appropriate answer.

But, What To Say?

Tell it like it is. You’ll need to know the medical definition of addiction to break it down for your children. The medical consensus is that addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disorder and mental illness.

That’s quite a mouthful (or mindful if you aren’t reading this aloud): chronic relapsing brain disorder and mental illness. Let’s break down those terms even further.

  1. Chronic

There is debate in the medical field around how and when to label a disease ‘chronic,’ there is consensus. Generally, a chronic illness or disease means that it lasts for a long time; perhaps, a lifetime. Chronic illnesses may fluctuate in intensity, being severe at times or mild at other times, but they are always present. 

  1. Relapsing

This refers to the return of the signs and symptoms of a disease after a period of remission, improvement, and relative health. With addiction, a relapse means that the person is exhibiting signs and symptoms of using again.  

  1. Brain Disorder

This is another broad term that includes many illnesses. It refers to any injury or disease that alters brain structure and function. Brain disorders can be caused by trauma, infection, cancer, and prolonged substance abuse.  

  1. Mental Illness

Here is another umbrella term that refers broadly to various conditions that affect mood, thinking, and behavior. Addiction is considered a mental illness because an addict’s brain becomes rewired and their mood, thinking, and behavior all change as a result.  

When we consider these four factors together, we arrive at a more precise definition. Addiction is a disease that alters the brain’s structure and function over time, leading to changes that affect a person’s mood, thinking, and behavior. This disorder’s chronic nature means that an addict is always at risk of relapse, but addiction symptoms can be managed effectively for life with proper addiction treatment strategies. 

Making it Kid-Digestible

Understandably, most children won’t be able to break down large adult concepts in a meaningful sense, but addiction can be put into words that children understand.

Use Analogies

Though it’s sheepish to say, comparisons are the foundation of human thought. Because of this, children intuitively understand comparisons. You can say that having a drug addiction is just like being sick (because it is, after all, an illness). 

Certainly, your children were ill before, and they know through experience that it doesn’t feel good to be sick. They probably acted differently than when they felt normal. This is an excellent place to start the explanation.

“When you were sick, remember how you felt? You didn’t want to play, and you didn’t eat because you felt bad,” you could say. “Your brother is sick right now, but this sickness is a little different than when you were sick.”

The Candy Analogy

Next, you could bring in another analogy to help explain impulsive behavior and compulsive thoughts: 

You might say: 

“You know what it feels like to want candy so bad that you can’t think of anything else, right? Imagine if you always were thinking of candy. What if you were always trying to get it and never thinking about anything else. It would be hard to play, eat normal meals, and go to school, right? Your brother has a sickness in his brain that is making him crave _____.”   

This analogy helps break the complex disease of addiction down into terms that your child can relate to. They’ve probably been sick, and they know what it’s like to crave candy or a new toy. By using relevant analogies, you are telling the truth about addiction using words your children can understand.

Use Storybooks and the Power of Narrative

Another valuable tool for helping to break down addiction for children is narrative. Stories allow us to see ourselves and the people we know in the characters of a story. Narrative can help us see things from a fresh perspective and help us understand the motivations of people in our lives. Additionally, stories are a great way to show children that they aren’t alone in trying to understand and face different conflicts in life. 

Here is a helpful list of children’s books that deal with addiction organized by age. 

Start Talking—The Sooner, The Better

Ignoring or misrepresenting a family member’s drug addiction to your kids is harmful in several ways. First, it shows a lack of trust in your kids. They might start to think that you don’t trust them with the truth—remember, children are more perceptive than they get credit for. You’d certainly want your children to tell the truth in the future, so you shouldn’t lie or deceive them in the present.

Secondly, having this conversation is a good teaching opportunity to better help your children understand the world they live in, the prevalence of mental illness, and what it means to be human in the 21st century. 

Growth can be scary and painful—remember growing pains—but there are plenty of ways to help your child understand addiction to better prepare them for the real world that soon awaits them. 

Jenn Walker is a freelance writer, blogger, dog-enthusiast, and avid beachgoer living unapologetically in recovery in Southern New Jersey.

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