How to Explain a Relative’s Addiction to a Child
Many individuals have problems with substance abuse - from alcohol to prescription drugs to illicit substances. The choices and actions of these individuals inevitably affect those around them, especially the family and friends who love them. Abuse and addiction can be difficult for adults to understand. When a child is involved, the situation can be even more complicated and distressing. What should you do?
1. Bring it up.
Silence implies that “this is something we don’t talk about,” which forces the child to bottle up emotions they may be feeling and questions they may have. In this situation, a child is left to resolve these problems alone, which is more emotionally traumatic than knowing they have the support of one or more adults.
2. Emphasize “illness”
Addiction is a form of illness, and children can relate to the pain and suffering of sickness. This analogy helps them empathize with an addict and perceive them as a good person who needs the help of a doctor instead of a bad person who is intentionally making poor decisions that hurt themselves and others. It also reminds them that the addict could “get better” if he or she agrees to get help.
3. Use age-appropriate language and information
Very young children cannot understand complicated ideas or advanced vocabulary. Keep it simple - use words like “sick” and “bad” instead of “addiction”. As children mature and pick up information at school or from other sources, you will have to adjust your conversations accordingly.
4. Let the child express himself or herself, and watch for other outlets
Be patient. Children will likely have many questions about why addiction occurs. They may want or need to have the same conversation multiple times to help them better understand what is going on. Addiction is a very adult topic. Be knowledgeable - it is easier to answer someone else’s questions if you have answered your own first. Be aware - a child may be venting emotions in outlets others than direct communication. These outlets could be anything from art to disruptive behavior.
5. Provide clear boundaries and role play interactions
Depending on what you determine to be an appropriate relationship between the child and the addict, give the child clear guidelines on how to interact with the addict. For example, “if Uncle Larry starts drinking when you are at his house, call home right away” or “if your dad asks you to get the special medicine, you may say ‘no!’” Letting the child practice in a safe environment by pretending to be the addict in different situations will prepare the child for the real interactions with the addict later.
6. Assure the child
Especially if the addict is a member of the child’s immediate family, assure the child that they are in no way at fault or responsible for the addict’s behavior. In the same way children blame themselves for the divorce of their parents, a child may feel guilt or other emotions related to the behaviors that occur during an addict’s periods of intoxication. Additionally, children often seek the affirmation of the adults in their life, especially close family members whom they love. Remind the child that their sick relative may have said or done things while they were sick that they would not have said or done in a normal situation.
7. Follow up
While it is important to have a conversation about the problem, once is not enough. Initiate a dialogue on the topic of the relative’s addiction regularly so that the child feels comfortable bringing it up on their own.
8. Seek professional help
If the child exhibits difficulty understanding the situation after your efforts, or if the child demonstrates emotional or behavioral problems, you should consider seeking the help of a professional therapist or a child psychiatrist. Some children may feel more comfortable confessing painful emotions or angst to strangers whom the child may perceive to be less invested in the situation or less judgmental of the people involved. A third person may be better able to assure the child that he or she will not “get in trouble” for saying something bad about the relative or that relative’s addictive behaviors.
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