March 4, 2022
Explaining addiction to a child
Living with a loved one who has an alcohol or drug dependence can have a huge impact on the whole family – adults and children alike.
But for young children, who don’t understand addiction and its associated behaviours, life can be confusing.
Here we consider the child’s perspective, share some tips to help you talk openly with them and look at some age-appropriate resources that could help them better understand what’s going on.
How does parental or family dependence affect a child?
Children in homes where one or more adults have a substance dependence can be affected in many ways.
They may experience physical or emotional neglect and abuse. They may feel sad, angry, embarrassed and lonely. Or, they may think they’re somehow to blame.1,2
They’re also at increased risk of developing behavioural, cognitive and social issues, affecting:
- academic performance
- depression, anxiety and self-esteem
- emotional regulation
- impulse control.2, 3
Children with a parent(s) with substance dependence are more likely to try alcohol and other drugs (AOD) earlier and develop problematic use faster. They’re also twice as likely to develop a substance use disorder themselves.2, 4
But not all children respond the same way.
In fact, many children with a parent(s) with substance dependence are resilient and show positive outcomes, despite the risks they’re exposed to.4
We also know parental substance dependence doesn’t necessarily mean poor parenting. There are also other contributing factors at play such as housing, education, employment, and poverty.5
Early childhood and key child developmental stages are critical times when children are at increased risk of poor outcomes. But, these are also times when protective factors can be most influential.6
The most important protective factors include:
- engagement in community activities (like sports)
- having at least one significant caring adult present in the child’s life
- positive role models and peer support
- regular attendance at a supportive school
- the child’s temperament.6, 7
Open and honest communication
Children need to feel safe and secure, loved and cared for.
They also need someone they can trust and rely on – someone they can share open and honest communication with.6
One of the common difficulties faced by children growing up with a family member with a substance dependence is the lack of communication or ‘rule of silence’.2
This silence often starts with the parent’s denial of a substance use problem and spreads to other family members and social circles who choose to remain silent and/or deny there’s a problem.2
This can be confusing for children who see and experience the parent’s drug use, but also notice the lack of acknowledgement or communication by others about what is happening.2
Being able to talk about their parent’s or family member’s substance dependence openly and honestly can help children find healthier ways to cope.8
That’s why it’s so important to talk with children about alcohol and other drug dependence when it first becomes a part of their lives.
Tips for talking with children about addiction
You may feel uncomfortable or unsure what to say or how to start a conversation with a child about their parent’s or family member’s addiction, so we’ve provided some tips and resources to help you.
- Before you start the conversation, educate yourself so you can provide accurate information.
- Make it age appropriate.
- Keep it simple, but honest.
- Use terms they’ll understand.
- Choose a time when the child is relaxed.
- Pick a place where you won’t be interrupted or overheard.
- Let them know the parent loves them even if they’re not always able to care for them.
- Ask questions and encourage them to talk about what’s happening and how they feel.
- Let them know you’re there for them and they can come to you with questions at any time.8, 9
Here are some good core messages to include in your conversation:
- you’re not alone – many children have parents or family members who have addictions
- it’s not your fault – you’re not the reason your parent/family member drinks or uses drugs
- addiction can cause good people to make bad choices (rather than the parent is a ‘bad’ person)
- it’s ok to talk about your feelings, fears and concerns (even if you’ve been told not to), and ask for help.8, 9
The ‘7 Cs’ are a good way to help children remember these core messages:
- 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.8
Below are some resources to help you talk with children about addiction.
Enlist the help of Sesame Street – Karli, one of the Muppet characters has a mother who struggles with addiction.
Sesame Street also has Q&A information to help you talk with young children about addiction.
Books are another great resource for helping young children understand addition – we’ve listed a few below.
- The Blue Polar Bear – an illustrated book for 5-7-year-olds who are living with parents struggling with mental health conditions combined with drug or alcohol issues. Available as a free download from NSW Government website.
- The flying dream – an illustrated book for 8-12-year-olds who are living with parents struggling with mental health conditions combined with drug or alcohol issues (dual diagnosis). Available as a free download from the NSW Government website.
- A terrible thing happened – an illustrated children’s book aimed at 4-7-year-olds that puts the emphasis on the child’s experience rather than the “terrible thing” itself.
- Critters cry too – an illustrated children’s book aimed at K-5th grade that explains addiction and associated feelings in a way that children can easily understand.
- Addie's mom isn't home anymore: addiction is scary-especially when you don't know what it is – an illustrated book for 8-12-year-olds about Addie’s journey to answer the question: ‘What is addiction?’ told through her own eyes and from her perspective.
- Daddy goes to meetings – an illustrated book for young readers that explores the positive change in a family's life after Daddy enters recovery with a surprisingly light touch for a tough subject.
- Floating away: a book to help children understand addiction – an illustrated book for 8-12-year-olds.
- Timbi talks about addiction: helping children cope with a parent's addiction – an illustrated book to help children learn about addiction, it’s not their fault and their emotions are valid.
- The tail of the racoon (Part I, Secrets of addiction; Part II, Touching the Invisible; Part III, Departures) are part of The Sign Tracker Trilogy – an illustrated series about the adventures of raccoons in the Great Forest, whose actions and experiences are designed to improve our understanding of how drug use turns into drug addiction.
These resources aren’t designed as a replacement for having conversations with your child about addiction, rather an opportunity to explore the topic more together and encourage them to ask questions and talk about their feelings.
If you would like to find out about AOD parenting and family services near you call the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline 1800-250-015.
- NSW Government: Communities & Justice. For parents with mental health plus drug and alcohol issues [Accessed 3 February 2022].
- Tedgård E, Råstam M, Wirtberg I. An upbringing with substance-abusing parents: Experiences of parentification and dysfunctional communication. Nordisk Alkohol Nark. 2019;36(3):223-47.[Accessed 26 February 2022].
- Peleg-Oren N, Teichman M. Young Children of Parents with Substance Use Disorders (SUD): A Review of the Literature and Implications for Social Work Practice. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions. 2006;6(1-2):49-61.[Accessed 26 February 2022].
- Solis JM, Shadur JM, Burns AR, Hussong AM. Understanding the diverse needs of children whose parents abuse substances. Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 2012;5(2):135-47.[Accessed 24 February 2022].
- Whittaker A, Martin F, Olsen A, Wincup E. Governing Parental Drug Use in the UK: What’s Hidden in “Hidden Harm?”. Contemporary Drug Problems. 2020;47(3):170-87.[Accessed 24 February 2022].
- Velleman R, Templeton LJ. Impact of parents' substance misuse on children: an update. BJPsych Advances. 2016;22(2):108-17.[Accessed 25 February 2022].
- Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). Hidden Harm - Responding to the needs of children of problem drug users. 2003 9 February 2022. [Accessed 22 February 2022].
- VeryWell Mind. How to Talk to Kids About a Parent's Addiction [Accessed 24 February 2022].
- National Association for Children of Addiction (NACOA). Facts for You [Accessed 17 February 2022].