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How to Explain Addiction to a Child: A Gentle and Honest Guide

How to Explain Addiction to a Child: A Gentle and Honest Guide
Raul Haro
October 14, 2023
There comes a time in any parent's or guardian's life when they must explain addiction to their children. Doing so can help prevent addiction, but it can also help children grow into compassionate, understanding adults. But why is it so important for children to understand addiction? The answer is that, at some point in their […]
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How to Explain Addiction to a Child: A Gentle and Honest Guide

There comes a time in any parent's or guardian's life when they must explain addiction to their children. Doing so can help prevent addiction, but it can also help children grow into compassionate, understanding adults.

But why is it so important for children to understand addiction? The answer is that, at some point in their lives, a person will encounter addiction. Either they will struggle with an addiction, or they will know someone who has. Addiction can tear families apart and cause long-lasting damage to individuals and communities alike. By explaining addiction to children, we give them the tools they need to recognize and navigate addiction later in their lives.

People may balk at the idea of explaining addiction to children. They may worry that they will traumatize their children, or make them more interested in substance use. However, there are ways to go about explaining addiction that are gentle, honest, and appropriate to their ages. 

At Pathways Wellness Center, a large emphasis is placed on communication between families. Having an educated and supportive family is important for those in recovery. It's so important that Pathways Wellness Center offers family therapy as a vital part of addiction treatment, which can certainly help families explain addiction to their children. However, here are some tips anyone can use to make the process easier. 

Understanding Why It’s Important to Explain Addiction to Children

There are many reasons why it's important to talk about addiction with children. It helps protect the child in the future and encourages them to use healthy coping skills. Children also learn how to be understanding and compassionate to other people. They also learn that they have a safe place to go to when they need help. Communication and trust make sure a child knows that they are not in life alone and that they can depend on their loved ones for support.

It's not just important to talk about addiction; it's also important to use accurate information about addiction. It might be easy to tell a child that bad people use drugs, but that's not the truth. Anyone at any time can develop an addiction. Addiction is never a punishment, but a symptom of a disease that affects someone's mind and body. Telling a child that only "losers" use drugs can instill shame and prevent them from seeking help later should they develop an addiction. Explaining addiction to children should not just be accurate, but compassionate as well.

When explaining addiction, be prepared to address a couple of fears and misconceptions. Addiction is a serious and sometimes frightening topic. Children may worry that they won't be loved anymore if they develop an addiction. If the legal status of substances is brought up, children might become afraid that they will go to jail forever if they use a substance. Children often skip to the worst-case scenario and it's important to put their fears to rest. After each talk, remind the child that they will always be loved and that there will always be help and safety in those they love. 

Take the Child’s Age Into Consideration Before You Explain Addiction

When deciding how to explain addiction to a child, remember their age and developmental status. Children do not have fully developed brains. Human brains don't finish maturing until someone is in their 20s. Some concepts, especially abstract concepts like addiction, will be difficult or impossible for a child to grasp depending on their age. Four main age categories exist to make it a little easier to plan discussions. These are toddlers, preschoolers, school-age children, and adolescents.

Toddlers are between one and three years old. By the time they are three, they can usually speak over 20 words, understand cause and effect, and display rudimentary problem-solving skills. They begin to gain some independence in choosing the clothes they wear and feeding themselves. Toddlers are information sponges at this time and observe how adults act around them, so parents must be careful of how they speak and act about addiction. At this age, explanations should be very simple and encourage compassion.

Preschoolers are between three and five years old. By the time a child is five, they can usually tell the difference between fantasy and reality, answer simple questions about stories, and speak in sentences. At this age, children can begin to ask questions about what they see, especially if they observe substance use. It's important to be truthful and answer their questions without getting too complicated.

School-age children are between six to ten years old. By the time a child is ten, they can usually use common electrical devices (phones, tablets), have a best friend, and form opinions based on their observations. It's important to explain addiction at this time, as they will certainly encounter depictions of it on the internet or television, as well as experience peer pressure. At this point, a child has a better attention span and can listen to a more in-depth explanation of addiction. 

Adolescent children are between ten to 19 years old. By the time a child is 19, they would have begun puberty, understand figurative speech and analogies, and spend more time with friends than family. They become much more independent at this life stage as they are figuring out the adults they want to be. Children at this stage can begin to understand more complicated aspects of addiction, such as brain chemistry and addiction treatment. It's still important to be age-appropriate, as a ten-year-old is very different from a 19-year-old. For adolescents, it's important to be a safe person they can come to when they have questions or need advice. 

Where and When to Explain Addiction to Your Child

There is a time and a place to explain addiction to a child. The conversation should take place in a quiet, calm environment where the child can focus on what is being said to them. Trying to have a serious conversation in the middle of a crowded street will only distract the child and prevent them from focusing. Instead, have the conversation at home in a safe place. Many choose to explain addiction to children in their bedrooms, as a bedroom is a safe private space for a child.

It's also vital to ensure that there will be privacy involved with the conversation. A child should feel safe enough to ask any question they like and get an honest answer in return. Fostering positive communication and trust is just as important as it is to explain addiction. Ensure that no matter what the child says or asks, it will remain private. It's also okay for them to express their feelings about the topic, especially if they have a loved one currently struggling with addiction.

Choose a time when there isn't anything going on and everyone is relaxed. Don't choose to explain addiction to a child right before an event or prior engagement. They will simply tune out what is being said out of excitement, anxiety, or annoyance. Instead, a good time to explain addiction to a child is after a meal or during a time when everyone is relaxing. Some families will schedule talking times where they can discuss important topics, or ask how everyone is feeling. 

Explaining Addiction to Small Children

Remember that the language a person chooses is important when they explain addiction to a child. Children will not be able to understand complex medical jargon or terms. It will only confuse the child. So it's better to leave them out and explain the medical side of addiction with clear and simple terms. Also, avoid stigmatizing language. People with an addiction have a disease. They are not “junkies” or “addicts.” Choosing compassionate language doesn't just help children learn to be compassionate too. It lets them know that if they ever do struggle with addiction, they have at least one person that they can trust to not judge them.

For toddlers, it's best to explain addiction simply and bluntly. They won't be able to understand metaphors at this time, but they do understand feelings. For example, one could say, “Uncle Joe has a sickness that makes him take things that hurt him. He has to see a special doctor to help him feel better. No matter what, we still love Uncle Joe and we want him to not be sick anymore.” This tells the toddler to understand simple concepts of addiction, such as:

  • Addiction is an illness
  • It's important to get help for an addiction
  • The person getting help for addiction is still loved

Preschool children begin to understand cause and effect, so someone can explain addiction to them by using stories, comparisons, and simple metaphors. For example, someone may compare the pleasure of eating candy to substance use. A child can understand that eating candy feels good, but eating too much will make them sick. Someone can explain addiction by saying, “When someone takes substances, it feels good to them. These substances make it very hard for someone to stop using them, even when they know it hurts them. This makes people sick and they need to see a special doctor that will help them get better.” From this, they can learn more complicated aspects, such as:

  • Substances can feel good but are harmful
  • Some special doctors help people recover from addiction
  • Substances make you sick

Explaining Addiction to Older Children

School-age children can form opinions and are very susceptible to peer pressure. Here, emphasis is placed on teaching a child how to say no and talk to an adult they trust. For example, one can explain addiction to a school-age child like this: 

“There may be a time when a friend or a group of friends may pressure you into trying a substance. You shouldn't use substances because once you start to use them, it's hard to stop without help from a special doctor. Substances make you sick and can cause someone to develop an addiction. This is when you can't stop using the substance, even if it hurts you. If someone asks you to try substances, tell them no, and then come talk to me. I will always help you, no matter what, because I love you.” 

From this, a child will understand that:

  • They will always be loved and supported
  • Substances are addictive 
  • They need to be aware of peer pressure and say no to substance use

Adolescent children can understand more complicated explanations. For example, one can explain addiction as follows: “Addiction happens because substances are made of chemicals. These chemicals affect the brain and make the brain think it needs the substance to work. This makes someone crave the substance, and it's hard for them to stop by themselves. It can make them act or do things that they wouldn't do before. Addiction is a disease and needs special care to help someone recover. People with an addiction are hurting very badly, and need a lot of support to help them get better.” 

From this, an adolescent child learns that:

  • It takes support and compassion to recover from addiction
  • Chemicals are what makes substances so addictive
  • Those with an addiction may act differently than before

Tips for Parents and Guardians

When someone goes to explain addiction to a child, they need to remember to consider the child's feelings. They may have fears, concerns, and other thoughts that they need to express. It's important to stop every so often and ask the child how they are feeling and allow them time to ask questions. Remember that it's okay to take a break and pick up a conversation later, especially if a child tells you they need time to process things. 

They should also be reassured that they are safe to talk about whatever they like and that they will not be judged for it. Be sure to listen to them and give them time to speak. However, care should be taken to not overwhelm the child. These don't need to be long conversations unless the child wants to learn more or ask questions. 

When explaining addiction, always leave a child with hope. Explain to them that people with addictions are sick, but can get better. It's like breaking a bone. Nobody would judge someone for going to a doctor to get a cast. Why should someone judge someone else for seeking addiction treatment? Like other sicknesses, there are special places people can go to get treatment for their addiction. An example of such a place is Pathways Wellness Center. At such as facility, anyone can recover from an addiction if they have enough love and support. 

Addiction education is an ongoing conversation. It's not a topic that people talk about once and then be done with it. Parents and guardians should always check in with their children to be sure that they are getting the information they need about addiction. Always be available to answer questions truthfully. Having an “open door” policy tells the child that they can always go to their loved ones if they help. The more education a person gives to their children the more compassionate and understanding they become. Eventually, they grow up and may have children of their own. The behaviors they see and the words they hear can influence future generations. Be sure it's a positive influence.

Showing Children That It’s Okay to Ask For Help

People don't have to explain addiction to their children alone. Children do not come with instruction manuals, especially when it comes to addiction education. However, there is a wealth of information out there that can make such a difficult topic easier to explain. Any addiction treatment facility would be more than happy to pass resources along. This is especially true at Pathways Wellness Center, which can offer professional guidance and resources to those looking to explain addiction to their children. Simply contact our friendly staff members for more information.

Remember, children are watching the actions of their guardians. Be sure to set a good example and show them that it's okay to reach out for help when they need it. Showing them everyone deserves help, no matter who they are, lets them know that they matter too.

Everyone needs to be educated about the nature of addiction and how it is treated. This also includes children, especially those who have a loved one struggling with addiction. Finding words that are both compassionate and age-appropriate can be difficult. However, some places exist that can make explaining addiction to a child a much easier process. Here at Pathways Wellness Center in Glendora, California, we strive to help everyone understand addiction, adults and children included. Staff members are always waiting to provide resources to not only educate children about addiction but also to help them grow up into compassionate and understanding people. For more information about age-appropriate addiction education, call (888) 771-0966.

About the Author

Raul Haro
Raul Haro is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with sixteen years of experience working in both the inpatient and outpatient setting. As an LMFT, He has trained in trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR. Raul has furthered his training in the drug and alcohol field by obtaining a Masters in Drug and Alcohol Counseling through CCAPP. Raul has a background in nursing where he has been an LVN for over 25 years. Recently, he has returned to school to complete a degree in Registered Nursing. Future plans are for Raul are to eventually complete a degree as a Nurse Practitioner combining his therapy practice with his nursing skills.

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