When you have a loved on suffering from addiction, it’s tempting to try and hide it, especially from your kids. You think that they’re too young or that they don’t understand what’s happening. We often hear patients say, “I never drank in front of my kids, so they aren’t affected at all.” But the reality is that kids growing up near someone with the disease of addiction are affected. And it doesn’t even have to be their parent – kids with aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings or grandparents struggle to cope.
The key to helping kids is to talk to them – don’t sweep it under the rug, and don’t pretend they don’t understand. And you need to do this – because kids of addicts are four times more likely to become addicts themselves. And those who don’t are likely to struggle with anxiety, depression, self-doubt, difficulty in personal relationships and unhealthy coping skills. So here are four tips to help you get started, or you can check out a video from our kids program, Bounce Back:
1. Be honest
Honesty is key here. When a parent or loved one has addiction, kids often learn not to talk about it. The parents are ashamed, and they don’t want anyone to know. And they often don’t want to face up to the reality of the disease. Kids pick up on this – it becomes the elephant in the room and this culture of silence and shame becomes entrenched. It often even follows them into adulthood. So be honest, and be open. They already know something is wrong; tell them exactly what it is and answer their questions honestly and directly.
2. Use the Three C’s
The Three C’s are – “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it and you can’t cure it.” Children often take on the responsibility for the things happening in their family. They think that their behavior caused their loved one to use, or that if they’re just good enough or lovable enough, they can make them stop drinking. You have to take that responsibility off of their shoulders. If they can understand addiction as an illness like diabetes or the flu, they can start to understand that it has nothing to do with them.
3. Designate Safe People
Encourage your children to talk openly, and ask any questions they might have about addiction. A good strategy is to designate who are the safe people they can talk to about it – it can be grandma and grandpa, or a a trusted family friend. Especially if you’re the person with the addiction, they may not feel comfortable talking to you about it. But they do need to know that they have someone who they can go to.
4. Keep Talking About It
This isn’t the kind of conversation you can have once, and expect it to make a huge difference. This is something that you have to keep reinforcing, and discussing to really reverse the culture of silence and shame that surrounds addiction. Besides, your kids will have questions and feelings that bubble up as the situation progresses.
If you can make a habit of regularly talking to your kids about what’s happening in their family, they will better off for it. You remove the weight of responsibility and model some very healthy behaviors. Most importantly, you are acknowledging their feelings, and letting them begin to process it. We have some great tools to help you do that – the first is our children’s book, Gracie’s Secret. It’s a great way to start the conversation. And the other is our three day program, Bounce Back, where kids learn all about the disease, share their feelings and learn they are not alone.