If you’re wondering how to talk to young children about addiction, know this: Chances are, they’re more aware of it than you think.
Consider: Earlier this month, The New York Times reported  on efforts in Carter County, Tennessee, to teach children as young as 6 to administer Narcan — the overdose-reversal drug naloxone — in order to prevent potential overdose deaths by parents or loved one caught in addiction’s grips. Last year, “Sesame Street” introduced the puppet Karli, “whose mother is struggling with addiction” and whose storyline shows “how she copes with the situation with support from Elmo and other friends.” 
Even more disheartening: Information compiled from the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health from 2009 to 2014 show  “an annual average of 8.7 million children aged 17 or younger live in households in the United States with at least one parent who had a (substance use disorder).” In other words, roughly 12.3 percent of American children live with at least one parent who struggles with addiction.
And children aren’t the only ones affected: According to the American Society on Aging , “Across the country, more than 2.5 million grandparents … are raising grandchildren as the nation faces sharp increases in the number of ‘children of the opioid crisis.’ These children’s parents are addicted, incarcerated or dead from an opioid overdose.”
While the picture-perfect childhood probably doesn’t include serious talks about why mommy or daddy is struggling with drugs and alcohol, they are conversations that need to be given serious consideration. It’s not a matter of whether you should have them, but instead the best way to talk to young children about addiction — to help them understand, and to mitigate the damage they’ve almost certainly already endured.
How to Talk to Young Children About Addiction: Know the Subject
Perhaps you’re the parent struggling with drugs and alcohol and want to know the best way to explain why you’re going away for a while to drug and alcohol treatment. Maybe you’re a grandparent who has to figure out how to talk to young children about addiction. Maybe you’re a sibling, an aunt, a close family friend. Regardless of your role, it’s best to start with an understanding of what addiction is and how it affects the individuals who suffer from it.
That’s not because you’re going to give young kids a science lesson on the intricacies of dopamine and the effects of drugs and alcohol on nervous system receptors — they won’t understand, obviously. But by understanding the disease concept behind addiction and alcoholism, you’ll get a clearer picture of how it’s affected you or those you love. Whatever emotions you may be feeling — toward yourself, if you’re an addict or an alcoholic, or toward a relative whose children are now in your care — it’s critical to understand that addicts and alcoholics aren’t “bad” people who need to be “good.” They’re sick people who need to get well, and the language you use when you talk to young children about addiction should reflect this reality instead of being colored by whatever negative perceptions you may have.
Speaking to the magazine Parent, Dr. Julie Dostal, executive director of the LEAF Council on Alcoholism and Addiction, puts it plainly : “For some, the truth (as they understand it) is that ‘Mommy/Daddy won’t stop drinking and doesn’t care enough about us to stop.’ Even though this may feel like the truth, it is not the truth. Blame and judgment toward the person with addiction will not help a child cope with the situation. If the truth is, ‘Mommy/Daddy is sick, and because of this, he/she does things that none of us can understand,’ then, yes, tell the child about addiction.”
So how can you best understand addiction before you even begin to explain it to a child? There are great resources online, particularly the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which is a clearinghouse of easy-to-understand information. A particular section of the website dedicated to addiction science  provides videos, graphics and suggested reading material to not only help you understand, but to give you ideas on the best ways to approach young children with some of that information.
There are also community resources that can broaden your own knowledge base as well. Family support groups such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon are designed for loved ones of addicts and alcoholics and serve the same role as 12 Step programs do for addicts and alcoholics. They’re essentially peer support groups where like-minded individuals come together to support one another, offer suggests and share experiences, strength and hope.
To adequately talk to young children about addiction, you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. Deepening your own understanding is a critical first step.
Laying the Groundwork
No doubt, many caretakers struggle with whether they should say anything about a parent’s or loved one’s addiction. Ignorance is bliss, as the old saying goes, but it’s important to understand as well that children see and hear a great deal more than the things for which they’re given credit. Speaking to Parent , Dostal said “when an addiction has progressed to the point that it is having an impact on the family, it’s time to talk to the children. They know ‘something’ is wrong and it’s important to validate their observations.”
After all, when addiction and alcoholism reach a point that the afflicted individual is going away to drug and alcohol treatment or jail, the problem is out in the open. But even before that, the chaos that surrounds addiction likely hasn’t gone unnoticed: “Children are often confused by erratic adult behaviors and can feel frightened or unsafe when they witness family tension and drama,” writes Doreen Maller for the addiction and recovery website The Fix . “As a child and family therapist, my goal is to help the child integrate what he or she has seen and heard into something that makes sense from a child’s perspective so that they can return to the behaviors and tasks necessary in their own lives (like school, exercise and sleep).”
What you may find is that while younger children have a sense that something is amiss, the culture around alcoholism and addiction have promoted an atmosphere of silence: “When there’s a history of alcoholism in families there’s automatically rules set up, and those rules are don’t talk, don’t trust and don’t feel,” Donlon Wade, a teen substance abuse counselor in New Hampshire for more than 40 years, told The Washington Post in 2017 . “You’re setting up a dynamic for people not saying what’s going on, and there are incredible consequences.”
On top of that, it’s important to understand that young children may have a lot of guilt for why mommy or daddy drinks or gets high: “Children tend to blame themselves for their parent’s behavior as they hear statements from their parent that blame them for things being the way they are — for example, ‘If only I could have some peace and quiet, I would not feel the need to drink,’” Dr. Indra Cidambi wrote for US. News and World Report in 2017 .
Setting the stage for how to talk to young children about addiction is as important as the conversation itself. Doing so in the heat of the moment isn’t the wisest of decisions, approaching it from a place of anger or resentment will likely do more harm than good and ignoring the issue in favor of no conversation whatsoever can do more damage, Dostal told Parent : “Just after a blow up is not the time open a discussion. If you’re the addicted person and you’re going into rehab or have decided to get better by attending support groups (such as Alcoholics Anonymous), it might be best to wait until you have some recovery under your belt, she suggests.”
On top of that, recognizing that young children may feel a sense of responsibility is a heavy burden to bear for any caregiver. Those things can, however, help you to understand that talking to young children about addiction can open doors for the healing of young hearts.
How to Talk to Young Children About Addiction: What to Say
Once you’ve decided that a conversation is not only inevitable but necessary, figuring out how to talk to young children about addiction can take any number of shapes. Entire books can be and have been written on when and where the topic should be broached, but it’s important to keep one thing in mind, according to Jen Simon , a mother, writer and addiction advocate who shared her own story in The Washington Post: “How much you tell your child should also be guided by age and maturity. ‘You’re not lying to a seven-year-old if you don’t provide ALL of the details; you’re explaining things in a nuanced, step-by-step way,’ Simon explains.”
In addition, it’s important to keep in mind that while children are incredibly observant, they’re not always fully aware of what’s going on. If a household has descended into chaos and negative energy, then they’ve been directly affected, but if a parent has, like many addicts and alcoholics, endeavored to keep their problem a secret, then it may not be so obvious. It’s a good idea to gauge the scope of the child’s knowledge to get a sense of how the conversation should proceed: “For example, asking them if they’ve ever seen Mommy getting sleepy or if they’ve noticed Daddy stumbling around and being loud pulls them into the conversation and allows them to explain how they feel.” 
That said, there are certain talking points that should be included in any conversation that takes place, some of them more important than others:
- According to Dr. David Sack, writing for Huffington Post , one of the biggest is to reassure young children that what’s going on is not their fault: “They didn’t cause their parent to abuse drugs or alcohol and they cannot cure or control it. This can be hard for children to understand, especially if the addicted parent blamed their drug abuse on a child’s behavior (e.g., ‘I wouldn’t need to drink if you’d do your chores.’). 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. Addiction hijacks the brain and just as the child is powerless to stop it, the parent is out of control as well.”
- But how do you explain that loss of control to a young child? Again, Maller points out , it’s about how you frame the topic: “’Mommy has a hard time stopping when she starts drinking. Do you ever have a hard time stopping something? How do you stop something once you start it?’” Some caregivers draw parallels between an object of the child’s affection that, in excess, is unhealthy — candy, for example.
- So how do you explain drug and alcohol treatment for an addicted loved one? The simplest way is to explain it in terms of what addiction actually is: a medical condition that requires hospitalization. If there are family members young children have visited in the hospital, use that as an example: “You remember how Grandma got pneumonia and was really sick and had to go to the hospital for a few days? Well, Daddy is really sick, too, and he’s going to a different kind of hospital to get better.”
- If a loved one will be going away to treatment for days, weeks or months, don’t oversell it — children shouldn’t need to worry about whether a loved one is facing a life-and-death predicament — but don’t undersell it, either. Addiction treatment isn’t a magic cure, and the recovery process involves a lifestyle change as much as it does putting down the drugs and alcohol. But reassuring children that a loved one is getting help and healing is huge. As Maller puts it , “Truth telling, though difficult, can help set clear expectations. A child may be concerned and ask ‘Will Mommy come home soon?’ A response might be ‘We sure hope so, getting better is difficult and takes a lot of work, for now, we want to be sure you are OK and doing all the things a kid needs to be doing, and that Mommy is safe and doing what she needs to do and can come home when she is ready …’”
- Reassure children that they, and their families, are not unique. “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.”
- Encourage dialogue. As Cidambi explains , “it’s OK to feel the way they feel, share their feelings and learn to express their feelings appropriately, including anger. Repressing their feelings could eventually lead to behavioral problems.”
- Find outside support. That may be another relative — a favorite uncle or grandparent, for example, who can shower them with love, acceptance, encouragement and kindness. There are a number of self-help books that address this topic, and a child and family therapist in your area may be able to recommend programs and peer support groups where they can bond and interact with other children who are in the same situation.
It’s critically important to understand that while this is a very adult topic of conversation, the other party is still just a child — a young child at that to whom so many of these concepts are big and frightening and alien. Yes, it can be emotionally devastating to you, as a caregiver, to even contemplate the idea of having to have them, but know this: Whether their parents or loved ones have kept it a secret or not, the family dynamic has been damaged.
Children don’t need to find mom or dad passed out with a needle to know that something is amiss. The emotional toll is often far more exacting, and figuring out how to talk to young children about addiction is a critical first step toward repairing that damage.