How to Have a Conversation With Your Children Before Starting Addiction Treatment

by | Last updated Jun 20, 2024 | Published on Jun 21, 2024 | Addiction Treatment | 0 comments

an image of a father talking to his child about starting addiction treatment.

Open and honest communication within the family is critical when dealing with parental addiction. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly 9 million children in the United States live with at least one parent with a substance use disorder. That’s about 12% of all kids.

Having an open discussion helps families recover together and allows children to understand, process, and cope with the situation healthily.

This article will guide you through initiating an age-appropriate conversation to provide a supportive environment, minimize harm to your children, and foster honesty and trust.

Understanding the Importance of the Conversation

The impact of addiction affects the entire family unit, but children are usually the most vulnerable to the consequences.

Kids whose parents have substance use disorders (SUDs) may experience physical or emotional neglect, abuse, sadness, anger, loneliness, and struggle with academics, depression, anxiety, and emotional regulation.

Breaking the “rule of silence” can help mitigate these difficulties and give children the tools to process their complicated feelings on the subject.

Benefits of Early Communication

Talking openly and honestly with children about your addiction treatment not only builds trust but also facilitates transparency and helps reduce the fear and uncertainty they may be experiencing.

Being honest, instead of tip-toeing around the subject or denying it altogether, lets them know they are not alone or responsible for causing the addiction.

Dialogue helps kids better understand what is happening and reinforces that your commitment to recovery is an act of love for your family’s well-being.

Preparing for the Conversation

Since this is a crucial conversation that will affect the dynamics of your entire family, it’s important not to jump “cold” into it. Consider the following points and adjust accordingly based on your children’s needs.

Assessing Your Child’s Age and Maturity

Tailor your conversation to your child’s age and emotional or cognitive abilities. This can be difficult to discern at first, but try to keep these tips in mind:

  • For preschoolers. Use straightforward, concrete terms and explanations. Explain that you have an illness but are improving and how this condition will affect your daily life.
  • School-age. Children can understand more details with proper context. At this age, they are more perceptive than you might otherwise think and have likely already noticed changes to the family dynamic.

Be honest at an age-appropriate level, but avoid oversharing or going too in-depth, which could overwhelm them. 

Always remember that it’s okay to have only some of the answers during this conversation as long as you’re honest.

Choosing the Right Time and Setting

Pick a calm moment without distractions or interruptions when your child is well-rested and not upset, perhaps after an enjoyable family activity.

Regardless, find a private, comfortable place where everyone can speak openly without being overheard. It’s not about keeping secrets but ensuring you all have the time and space to open up.

Gathering Resources and Support

Before the talk, educate yourself by reading books, articles, and pamphlets about discussing addiction with children. You can speak to a counselor or therapist for professional guidance on constructing an age-appropriate conversation, as this skill is not intuitive for everyone. 

Remember that you don’t have to do it alone. You can involve your partner or other adults who are aware of the situation and who you trust to remain calm.

Involving a qualified family therapist to mediate the discussion might sound scary or uncomfortable. Still, it can benefit older children with more complex emotions.

Key Points to Cover

Explain Addiction in Simple Terms

The key is to explain addiction as an illness or health issue, using easy-to-grasp language your child can understand based on their age.

For example, with a young child, you could say, “Addiction is like a sickness that makes it hard for me to make good choices sometimes, but I’m going to get help from doctors to get better.”

Focus on the positives without sugar-coating the issue, but don’t focus exclusively on the negatives. Remember that you are making an effort, and that’s what matters.

Reassure Your Love and Commitment

No matter their age, it’s crucial to emphasize that your addiction is absolutely not their fault and that you love them unconditionally. Many children of parents with substance use disorders can feel like they are the cause of the illness. Reassure them that this is not the case.

Express your dedication to treatment and recovery wholeheartedly for the sake and well-being of your family, even if the journey won’t be completely free of problems. There will be ups and downs, but reassure them that you are committed to getting healthy again.

Explain What to Expect During Treatment

Give an age-appropriate overview of what treatment will entail, including some idea of the time commitment and how family routines could change temporarily with a parent away. For example, you can reassure them by saying, “I’ll be going to a special place for a while to work hard on getting better” if you are part of an inpatient program.

Allow time to answer any questions they may have in a straightforward, honest manner, such as changes related to their schedules, interactions with you, or if someone will be coming to stay at home with you to help (like a relative or caregiver.)

Address Their Concerns and Questions

How children react could vary. Some may feel fear, anxiety, anger, confusion or any combination of emotions. This is normal and okay. 

Validate their feelings, providing comfort and reinforcing that the situation is temporary and that your love for them is not questioned. Encourage them to share their honest emotions and concerns.

With older kids, consider concepts like the “Seven Cs” for addiction:

  1. I didn’t cause it
  2. I can’t cure it
  3. I can’t control it, but
  4. I can care for myself
  5. by communicating my feelings,
  6. making healthy choices and
  7. by celebrating myself.

Most importantly, reassure them repeatedly that you love them and support is available.

Managing Emotional Responses

No matter their reaction, be patient and loving and keep reassuring them. You can work through the emotional upheaval together with time, open communication, and professional support like family counseling.

Consider the following strategies to manage some common emotional responses.

Handle Fear and Anxiety

Fear and anxiety are common reactions, as children may worry about being separated from you, disruptions to the family, or even their safety and well-being. Use techniques to reassure and comfort them:

  • Validate their feelings with comments like, “I understand you feel scared/anxious right now.”
  • Remind them this is temporary and focus on getting healthy again.
  • Reinforce that they will be cared for and have a stable routine.
  • Consider creating a memorial item like a stuffed animal to “hold” while you’re away.
  • Encourage them to express and work through their fears by drawing, journaling or talking openly.

Deal with Anger and Confusion

Anger and confusion are also very normal responses, especially in older children. They may not fully understand addiction and why you “choose” to keep using substances.

  • Show that you understand their emotions with reassurances like, “It’s okay to feel mad/confused. This is hard.”
  • Avoid dismissing or minimizing their feelings.
  • Explain again that addiction is an illness, not a choice, using age-appropriate terms.
  • Offer continuous support, affection, and check-ins to relieve anger/confusion.
  • Consider involving them in a family therapy session to have a moderated discussion.
  • Remind them you love them no matter what; this is about your recovery.

Provide Ongoing Support

Let your children know this is an ongoing conversation, not a one-time talk. Provide periodic updates during treatment, regularly check in, and maintain open communication. Involve them in family therapy and everyday family life as appropriate.

Having a consistent, supportive routine with open dialogue is vital during this period of uncertainty.

Involve Professional Help

Everyone benefits from professional help and support groups during addiction recovery. Consider the following therapeutic modalities and resources.

Family Therapy 

While the initial instinct to keep problems like this “within the family” is understandable, you don’t have to isolate yourself and your loved ones. Consider engaging in family therapy during and after treatment to help every family member, not just the children, to understand, process, and cope with your addiction in a unified way. A qualified family therapist can provide tools to facilitate healthy communication and rebuild trust.

Support Groups for Children

Look into community support groups where your children can share their experiences with other kids in similar situations who understand what they are going through. Frequent contact with people with similar experiences can help them feel less alone and learn positive peer coping strategies. Not only that, but it can also help destigmatize the concept of addiction as a whole.

Educational Resources

Read age-appropriate books together and explore websites, videos, and other multimedia tools to continue educating your children about addiction, recovery, and resilience in a supportive way. Some great options are online resources from the National Association for Children of Addiction and the Partnership to End Addiction.

SAMHSA also offers many resources on broaching these topics with your children here.

The Right Approach to This Difficult Conversation Can Make a Difference

The conversation about entering addiction treatment will understandably be difficult, but it is so essential for your children’s well-being. 

Proper preparation, honesty, openness, patience, the right professional support system, and love can help you maintain and strengthen the sacred parent-child bond during this challenging time.

Recovery impacts the whole family, so initiating open communications early can help facilitate healing for everyone.

Written by: The Freedom Center Editorial Team

The Freedom Center Editorial Team includes content experts that work along side our addiction counselors and recovery professionals. Editors and recovery experts carefully review our posts to ensure we are providing helpful and qualitative content to our audience. We pull our data from authority organizations such as SAMHSA and NIDA to ensure reads get the latest data, research, and information on substance use disorders and treatment.

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