Children of parents with substance use disorders (SUDs) are often entrenched in secrecy about situations that they have no control over. When left without explanations, they may start blaming themselves. Sometimes, due to the nature of addiction, their needs aren’t met and they might face physical or emotional neglect. They also can cope with problems like parentification where they take on the parenting role in the household. Without the proper understanding and support, children whose parents experience SUDs must fight to thrive.
If a child you care about is dealing with parental substance abuse, you might not know how to discuss the issue. It is important to talk to them to prevent them from internalizing shame or stigma. This article offers tips on how to discuss addiction with children.
Teach Them the Seven Cs
The seven Cs is a method used to educate and empower children of parents with SUDs. It was written by Jerry Moe, an Advisory Board member of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics. The seven Cs identify three aspects outside of a child’s control; it also gives four specific actions within their control.
The saying goes like this:
#1. I didn’t cause it.
#2. I can’t control it.
#3. I can’t cure it.
#4. I can help care for myself by
#5. communicating my emotions,
#6. making healthy choices,
#7. and celebrating myself.
While it was written with alcohol in mind, the saying also extends to more than just children with alcohol abuse in the household. Learning the seven Cs at a young age helps children cope with the emotional impact of all substance use disorders.
When a parent has a substance use disorder, their child may not know what to expect and when. Sometimes the parent will be loving. Other times they will be distant and unresponsive. The child’s attachment style often presents as insecure. These include dismissive-avoidant, anxious-preoccupied, and fearful-avoidant. Luckily, secondary attachment figures can help children develop a more secure attachment. This is especially true for younger kids whose brains are more capable of adapting to change. Their brains are constantly developing.
Insecure attachment forms from inconsistency, hostility, and lack of care. Adults need to provide stable reactions when discussing SUDs. Encourage children to share their emotions, sit with them, and comfort them. Adults can offer children a safe space to cry, laugh, or just be silent. Make sure they know that they have someone they can come and talk to. An adult’s support will assure them that they have a trustworthy source of comfort. Compassionate communication is key when speaking to children with SUDs in the home.
Don’t Disparage the Parent
The impulse to be negative about substance use disorders is influenced by societal stigmas. It is crucial to keep this in check when addressing addiction. A child tends to love their parent, no matter the neglect or maltreatment they face. There also can be enmeshment that prevents kids from developing an individual identity. Criticism of the parent can feel like criticism of them. Children from households with SUDs should not be made to feel isolated because their parents are painted in a bad light.
Separating the person from the behavior sets a good precedent. Adults can hold nuanced and opposing emotions much easier than kids. They can more easily see people as complex individuals, rather than good or bad. For a child, this isn’t so easy. The world is more black and white. Differentiation helps children process their parent’s mental illness. A child can preserve the love they feel for their parent without conflict. They’ll also be free to express the negative feelings they feel toward the substance use disorder.
Provide Assistive Literature
Sometimes, media can serve as a positive conversation starter. Books, in particular, introduce kids to new ideas in a more digestible way. They can function as a learning tool when a topic is hard to broach. Luckily, many books talk about substance use disorders with a young audience in mind.
This list of books can help adults discuss addiction with children of various age ranges:
- Timbi Talks About Addiction by Trish Healy Luna and Janet Healy Hellier (Age 3-9)
- I Wish Daddy Didn’t Drink So Much by Judith Vigna (Age 4-8)
- Mommy’s Disease: Helping Children Understand Alcoholism by Carolyn Hannan Bell, M.S., L.P.C. (Age 7-10)
- Addie’s Mom Isn’t Home Anymore by Genia Calvin, M.A., L.P.C., C.S.O.T.P. (Age 8-12)
- My Fate According to the Butterfly by Gail D. Villanueva (Age 8-12)
- Hey, Kiddo by Jarret J. Krosoczka (Age 12-18)
- Twelve Steps to Normal by Farrah Penn (Age 13-18)
These books can provide comfort and understanding to children whose parents deal with a substance use disorder. Giving them the book isn’t enough though; children need to discuss their emotional reactions and thoughts. Adults should also read the book so they can meaningfully engage in the conversation.
Children whose parents experience addiction often internalize incorrect and dangerous notions. They absorb the blame because they don’t understand the disease. As a caretaker, prioritize the discussion of substance use disorders. You also can assist the child’s parent when they are ready to seek help. Spero Recovery offers an affordable, 30- to 90-day treatment program based on 12-Step philosophy. The beautiful Colorado setting provides tranquility. We will teach patients coping mechanisms that will help them abstain from substances. They will be surrounded by supportive peers and alumni who understand the first-hand experience of treatment and recovery. Our experiential therapies will motivate them to discover joy outside of substance use. With your help, the client can focus on healing because they know their child is in good hands. Spero Recovery is ready to answer your questions. For more information, reach out to us at (303) 351-7888.