Talking to your children about your addiction is daunting. Whether you are a parent grappling with an active addiction or have been in recovery for years, it is hard to know what to say or even when to say it.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach for deciding when it’s the right time to tell your children about your addiction. For example, should you have an honest conversation with them when you start addiction treatment? Is it better to wait until you’re further into your sobriety before coming clean to your kids? Or if you’ve been in long-term recovery, is your addiction history even relevant or worth mentioning?
Let’s unpack some of the complexities of parenting in addiction, focusing on when to talk about your substance use disorder and what to say.
The Sooner, The Better
It’s reasonable to wait to tell your kids about your addiction until you have progressed in your recovery. From a parent’s perspective, not sharing the truth is seen as a way to safeguard your kids from disappointment should you relapse. However, despite the intentions being good, withholding the truth can have a bad outcome.
The reality is that parenting with addiction, whether the parent is actively addicted or in recovery, will impact a child’s home life in some way. If you choose not to explain these problematic home dynamics are the result of your addiction, a child could assume they are somehow to blame.
Living with the false belief that they caused their parent’s problems can lead to anxiety, depression, explosive anger, or low self-esteem. Put simply: Honest communication can benefit the well-being of children with addicted parents in a far-reaching way.
Fighting the Stigma
Every parent who decides to be as transparent as possible about their substance use disorder contributes to normalizing dialogue about addiction. And creating an open dialogue about addiction plays a crucial role in destigmatizing it.
Research shows that nearly one in ten children in the US live in a home where at least one adult has a substance use disorder. This highlights the importance of promoting open and compassionate family conversations to help break down the stigma.
However, speaking to your kids about addiction can be tricky. Let’s consider what you can say and how to say it age-appropriately for your child.
How Do I Tell My Children They Have an Addicted Parent?
There are two things to remember when speaking to a child with an addicted parent. The first is to keep the conversation age-appropriate, and the second is to ensure you clearly articulate that the child is not at fault or to blame for the situation in any way.
Young kids, up until around ten years old, will need plenty of reassurance that they are still loved and that they could have done nothing to prevent what has happened. Explaining to a young child that mommy or daddy is sick and needs help getting better is vital.
Tweens are at a delicate developmental stage where they will try to assemble the information in a way that provides a reason for why this is happening. Do your best to prevent them from going down this route by being straightforward with the facts and reiterating they are not to blame.
With teenagers, be mindful of how the circumstances have influenced their lives. For example, have they been stepping in with extra chores or caring for younger siblings? Ask open-ended questions and listen to what they already know and how they feel before you talk.
Irrespective of age, there are specific things every child who has been impacted by addiction needs to know.
7 Things Kids of Addicted Parents Need to Know
Social support organizations, such as the National Association for Children of Addiction (NACOA), aim to reduce the detrimental impact of addiction on families. Developed by members of NACOA, The Seven C’s of Addiction are:
- I didn’t cause it
- I can’t control it
- I can’t cure it
- But I can help take care of myself
- By communicating my feelings
- Making healthy choices
- And celebrating me
These seven points provide a trusted framework for navigating conversations with children about addiction. When discussing the 7 Cs, remember to reassure the child that they are not alone. Help them identify their social support network of reliable adults (family members, friends, teachers, etc.) who will guide and care for them.
Let’s consider what parenting ‘post-addiction’ might look like.
Parenting and Long-Term Recovery: When Should I Tell My Kids About My Addiction History?
Talking with your child about the dangers of drug abuse and drinking – irrespective of your decision to mention your personal history or not – is essential. According to NCCAD, children who have an open dialogue about the dangers of alcohol and substance abuse with their parents are 50 percent less likely to use drugs.
If you are in long-term recovery, you might be wondering if it is necessary to ever bring up your addiction history. The answer is yes because it comes down to the role that genetics plays.
Addiction and Genetics
Studies show that genetics can make us vulnerable to addiction. This means children of addicted parents are at a heightened risk for developing substance abuse problems. As parents, we have a responsibility to ensure our children are fully informed so that when they are faced with a choice of experimenting with drugs, their awareness of the risks could make them more disinclined.
But when is the right time? It’s an even trickier question considering kids are experimenting with alcohol and drugs from as young as 10 or 11 years old, which could be an indication to have this discussion at a younger age.
Tips for Talking About Your Addiction History
Approach the conversation around genetics as matter-of-factly as you would any other hereditary illness. Addiction is a treatable disease so genetic vulnerability to addiction is really no different than a predisposition to a heart condition or cancer.
Another piece of advice comes from author and expert on youth substance use, Joseph Lee, M.D., who said: “It is not just hearing about a parent’s past mistakes that keep a kid safe. It is the interplay of education, risk and social cohort. A conversation about your past drug use isn’t really going to impact a teen’s decisions about their own substance use, but a strong relationship will.”
In other words, do not underestimate the importance of educating your children about the dangers of drugs, but when referring to your addiction, be mindful not to overestimate the role your story will play in safeguarding them either.
Simply share the facts while sparing unnecessary details, and then invest your emotional energy into building a strong and honest relationship with your children. Because kids with healthy relationships – especially in the adolescent years – are better equipped to make healthy life choices.
Is Your Child Battling Addiction? Never Alone Recovery Can Help With Drug Rehab Placement
Learning that your child struggles with substance abuse is deeply distressing. Never Alone Recovery offers support for finding nationwide rehab placement free of charge. Find us on Facebook for information on community support groups and other helpful resources.