Addiction is not only a devastating problem for the individual, but also for the children of addicts. Those children who live under the same roof as an parent with a substance abuse problem are in danger of developing any number of emotional problems. If a family breaks up over the issue of substance abuse, or if the children are removed from the destructive environment, these problems can follow them. A child’s reaction may be to withdraw or to behave violently; shame and guilt can color their behavior, too, as they attempt to keep the secrets of the family. Issues of self-esteem, attachment and trust become a part of their life when forced to cope with this situation. How do you talk to children about the chaos they’re experiencing? How do you explain to children about addiction?
There are key messages such children should hear, recommended by the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare. First, children need to know that addiction is a disease, that their parents aren’t “bad,” but have a sickness, and that when they’re high or drunk, their behavior may be mean or won’t make sense. Second, it’s not the fault of the children; they’re not responsible for it; just as they didn’t cause it, they are not the ones who can stop it. Also, the children should know that they aren’t alone in this situation. Sadly, there are millions of children who have alcoholic or addicted parents; it’s likely that there are other children in their own school that may be experiencing something similar.
They should know too that it’s acceptable to discuss the problem; they don’t have to feel embarrassed or ashamed or scared about it. They don’t have to, nor should they, keep this particular family secret. They need to go to talk with someone they trust, whether that be a counselor or teacher, or a peer who has training from support groups like Alateen.
These basic ideas need to be driven home. The National Association for Children of Alcoholics, for instance, recommends that children should learn and follow what they refer to as the 7 C’s of Addiction. In essence, these seven C’s reiterate the idea that the child didn’t cause it, cure it, or control it. Further the seven C’s tell children that they can cope with their situation by caring for themselves through communicating feelings, making choices that are healthy, and by celebrating themselves.
All of this is focused on getting across the message that children aren’t responsible for the addictions of their parents, and that in order to survive this bad situation, children should strive to remember that they have self-worth independent of the family unit.