Should Kids Know the Truth About a Parent's Addiction? 

When it comes to addiction, knowledge is power – and hope and healing. Don’t shy away from these conversations.

In the United States, more than eight million children live with parents who are substance abusers. There are also 18 million alcoholics in the U.S., according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD). As a result, an estimated 26.8 million children are exposed, at varying degrees, to alcoholism in the family.

Living in a home where there is parental alcohol or substance abuse can be scary and confusing for children. Family life is often characterized by chaos and unpredictability because behavior is erratic and communication is unclear.

Complicating matters, family members are often unsure how to bring up the issue of addiction, or choose to ignore the problem for fear of pushing their loved one away. Yet experts stress the importance of being honest with your kids. Unusual behaviors, withdrawal, arguments – when they go unexplained, children often come to their own conclusions. Kids who feel unsafe, unwanted, or question their surroundings tend to withdraw, act out, or even become addicts themselves – leading to a perpetual cycle of addiction. And those effects extend beyond the here and now.

According to the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, “The child may no longer be living with the substance abusing parent because of separation, divorce, abandonment, incarceration, or death. And the parent does not have to be still actively drinking or using for the child to continue to feel the impact of their addiction.”

There’s also a need to reduce the stigma in society associated with addiction. Julie Dostal, PhD, Executive Director of the LEAF Council on Alcoholism and Addiction and NCADD board member, says, “It is my greatest hope that one day we will talk freely about the disease of addiction as just that: a disease. We talk openly about diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and multiple other chronic diseases, we should be so bold about the disease of addiction. It is not a moral failing or a character flaw to be whispered about, it is a disease that can be treated and a disease that people recover successfully from.”

When it comes to addiction, knowledge is power – and hope and healing. Don’t shy away from these conversations. Dostal says 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. There are some parameters to keep in mind though, including the age of the child.

Jen Simon, mother, writer, and addiction advocate, publicly shared her addiction story in a piece called “I’m a stay-at-home mom. I’m an addict” in The Washington Post. She believes age makes a huge difference in what and how you tell your children about your addiction. “I think parents should tell their children about their addiction in an age-appropriate way. My sons are still young … they’re only just 3 and 7, so we haven’t gotten to that talk yet. But it’s important for them to know about my history because addiction has a genetic component,” says Simon.

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.

Dostal shares Simon’s sentiments, “If you can tell a child about the disease of addiction in an age-appropriate way, then by all means, talk to the child. 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.” ​

Younger children and teens both understand the feeling of desperately wanting something, even when it’s something that’s not necessarily good or healthy. Opening a conversation this way allows you to explain how Mom or Dad is struggling with a similar choice and that sometimes we make choices that hurt us.

Experts also suggest asking children how they feel in a situation. 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.

Explain that addiction is a disease. Let the child know that their parent is sick much in the same way a person with any other illness (i.e. heart disease, diabetes, etc.) might be sick. Make sure they know they’re not alone, and that millions of families are struggling with the same challenges. Keep in mind, this difficult conversation is not the time for a lecture on addiction.

Children also need to understand that addiction is not their fault. They didn’t cause a parent to abuse drugs or alcohol and they cannot cure or control it. According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, and this applies to children of substance abusers as well, children benefit from knowing the “Seven Cs of Addiction”: 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.

According to Dostal, it’s best to have these conversations when things are calm and cool. 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. 

Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease and it does not help a child to promise them that you’re going to get better when it is well documented that the first few weeks or months can be bumpy (at best). So, if possible, wait a little while, she recommends.

It’s okay for the parent who is not addicted to open the conversation, too. “If the addicted parent will not accept help or has behaviors that impact the family it’s important to validate your children’s experiences. Just remember to leave your strong emotions at the door and keep the children’s best interest in very sharp focus,” says Dostal. 

“If your relationship with the addicted person is still strong and intact, you can certainly invite them to join you in the conversation. If the addicted person strongly objects to having a conversation with the children, you may then want to consider bringing in a third person to assist.”          ​

Before having these tough conversations, it’s important to educate yourself about the disease of addiction so that you can answer any questions a child may ask. Here are some helpful links for the family of alcoholics and addicts:

What are your thoughts? Should children know the truth about a parent’s addiction? Share in the comments.