Talking to children about substance use disorder can be very uncomfortable, but it’s necessary, especially if they have witnessed a parent or other loved one struggling with addiction. At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, we know that what children don’t know can sometimes hurt them, particularly when it comes to drug misuse. Children may assume that they are to blame for their parent’s drug use or responsible for managing adult responsibilities. They need adults to help them focus on being kids.

You Are Not Alone

You are not the first adult who has had to initiate this discussion, nor is this child the only one who needs to know more about the dangers of drugs and to process their experiences of having a loved one who struggles with addiction. Some tools have been developed by and for people in your situation:

  • National Association for Children of Addiction (NACoA) – Resources for families and a special page for teenagers who have an addicted parent.
  • Al-Anon Family Groups – Online resources and support group meetings for families and children of alcoholics. There are more than a half dozen Alateen meetings within 100 miles of Safe Harbor Recovery Center, and there are also online options.
  • Nar-Anon Family Groups – Online resources and support group meetings for families and children of people who have faced addiction to narcotics. There are several meetings available in Virginia and online.
  • SMART Recovery for Family and Friends – While Al-Anon and Nar-Anon have spiritual components built in, SMART Recovery’s premise is built on science. This may be a better option for some children and families seeking information and support.
  • Learn to Cope – This is another support option by and for people who have had a loved one in recovery. Though they do not currently offer face-to-face meetings in Virginia, virtual meetings are available.
  • Grief After a Substance Abuse Passing (GRASP) – This is a group specifically for those who have lost a loved one to substances. The site lists two chapters in Virginia.

Books on Addiction

Young people may find it comforting to read about fictional characters who have shared their struggles. For this reason, age-appropriate books on substance misuse may be beneficial. For example:

  • Daddy Doesn’t Have to be a Giant Anymore – the story of a girl whose father struggles with alcohol, written for children ages 7-9
  • The Dragon Who Lives at Our House – a book for 8-10-year-olds that compares alcoholism to a massive dragon who takes over a family’s home but shrinks down to a manageable size again after treatment
  • Sunny Side Up – a graphic novel for pre-teens, about teen substance misuse
  • An Elephant in the Living Room – an illustrated story about substance use disorder for children ages 9-12  
  • Recovery Road – a book that teaches teenagers about addiction and the risks that go along with substance misuse
  • Hey, Kiddo – a story of a teenager with an addicted mom, geared toward teenagers

Familiar Resources

Scholastic may be a name you recognize from school book orders. They also have a section of their website dedicated to tough topics to help adults prepare for discussions like addiction, bullying, and online safety. Sesame Street is another household name that has taken on the topic of substance use disorder from a child-friendly angle.

The Seven Cs

NACoA recommends centering conversations with children whose parents have struggled with addiction around seven words that start with C:

  • Cause – help the child to understand that they did not cause their parents’ substance misuse.
    1. Cure – emphasize that there is nothing the child can do to cure their parents’ addiction.
  • Control – the child is not in control of the situation, nor should anyone expect them to be.
  • Care – the child can focus on self-care using the three remaining c words:
  • Communicating – talking about their feelings
  1. Choices – making decisions that are healthy for them
  2. Celebrating – acknowledging what is great about themselves

Coping Skills for Children

Children of addicted parents can often benefit from being reminded of coping skills they have available to manage their feelings around parental addiction. These could include things like:

    • Confiding in a trusted adult can help the young person to be and feel safe and make it easier to handle difficult situations. 
    • Journaling can make it easier to understand and manage tough emotions.
  • Engaging in favorite activities is a great way to manage difficult feelings and get a break from stressful situations.
  • Reaching out to friends is important for young people and can help them manage difficulties.
  • Keeping a list of emergency phone numbers where they can reach out for help. This could include the 988 crisis line, emergency services, relatives who have helped in the past, a neighbor, teachers, or anyone else who can help them stay safe.
  • Having a list of safe places, such as homes of friends or relatives, drop-in centers, libraries, their school, parks, etc. where they can go if home feels too stressful.
  • Remembering it’s not their fault when their parents make poor choices. It’s not their responsibility to manage adults.

At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, we believe that it is possible to break cycles of addiction within families by helping children to understand their risks for substance abuse and heal from generational trauma before they enter adulthood. If you need help talking to a child in your life about substance abuse disorder, our team can help.