Explaining Addiction to a Young Child

shutterstock_46375792Explaining addiction can be easy to those who have a loved one or a friend who struggles with it. But what if you have a young child in your family that doesn’t understand what is going on? How can you explain why an older sibling, parent or relative has left home for a few weeks?

Words like “rehab,” “sobriety” or “treatment center” might not be in your child’s vernacular. You don’t have to worry if they’re not. Try to focus on the basics of addiction and explain them in the simplest ways.

Stick with the Basics 

Start by explaining that addiction is a disease. If your child can understand what a disease is, you have a better chance of them understanding addiction. In its basic kind of way, it would be like saying an older sibling or a parent is sick with something that doesn’t go away after a few days.

A way of describing the struggle of this kind of sickness is comparing the disease to something relatable to the child. Whether it’s likening the struggles of a sports figure, a popular musician or a character in a book, you can build a bridge of understanding this way.

David Sack, M.D., shared many other great suggestions in an article with the Huffington Post. He suggests starting the conversation when things are calm. He also suggests focusing on solutions instead of the problem itself.

“If possible, bring it up when there is a plan in place to get help for the addicted parent,” writes Sack. “Explain that there’s a problem and you’re taking steps to improve the situation.”

Not Their Fault

Acknowledging the impact on the child, as well as the family, is another. “Rather than skirt around the impact a parent’s addiction has had, validate the child’s experience,” writes Sack. “Apologize for the pain inflicted on the child and ask open-ended questions about how they’ve been feeling.”

One of the toughest aspects to translate to a child is that this loved one’s addiction is not the child’s fault. The addict may act in a way that the child is not used to. This can cause fear and confusion.

“Children need help to understand that what the addict says and does under the influence isn’t really who they are or how they feel,” Sack wrote. “Addiction hijacks the brain and just as the child is powerless to stop it, the parent is out of control as well.”

It is important that you convey to your child that your family is not alone in this struggle. “Children from addicted homes tend to idealize other families without realizing they have struggles of their own,” writes Sack. “Help them understand that they are not alone; in fact, millions of children are in the same situation. They are normal kids thrust into an unhealthy home environment who are doing their best to cope with an extremely stressful situation.”

Lastly, prepare yourself for a lot of questions in return. Chances are good that you will not have a one-and-done conversation about addiction. There will be questions about why, how, and when. Try to keep the dialogue open and free.

Remember that addiction is a family disease. There is the one that is ill and then there are the ones immediately affected by the sickness. Everyone deals with it in their own ways. It’s important to bring the family closer and worth through the experience rather than splinter the family apart.

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