September 6, 2014

Addicts and Their Families: How to Talk to Your Kids About Addiction

How many of you grew up with an addict in the family? Do your remember Dad getting drunk and more and more mean to you or your mother as the evening wore on? Did Mom nod off in the middle of the day while your father made up stories about Mom being sick or tired even though that awful feeling in your stomach told you something worse was going on?


Even very young children sense the uneasiness and tension that fill the household of an addict. Young children cannot think much beyond themselves and so they tend to believe the problems  are their own fault? “Is Mommy mad at me”, is likely to be their thinking when Mom withdraws to her room or doesn’t come home. Sensitive children can be surprisingly aware and may approach the parent who is drinking with efforts to distract them, involve them in something besides the can of beer or the glass of wine.  It is not unusual to see emotional problems such as increased general fearfulness or aggression in young children who live in an environment that is colored with addiction.

For the youngest children, the parent who is not an addict needs to provide a lot of support and reassurance. A tense environment becomes common and while adults may adjust, children do not. Distracting younger children, taking them from the room when an addicted parent is acting out is important. Of course, the ultimate goal is to make the environment safe for children and that is the job of the adults. Let your children know that you are doing all you can to keep them safe and comfortable.


It is not at all unusual to find 8 to 12 year old children trying to protect younger siblings.  As the non-addicted parent becomes more consumed by trying to control, avoid or plead with the addict, children are often neglected and older children assume parental responsibility for the younger ones.  Another common pattern is when the non-addict tries to involve the children in their efforts to influence the addict to stop; “look at Mommy acting silly, we don’t like it when she does that, do we” or “Daddy must not loves us, he’s going to the bar again”. Guilt is never effective at getting an addict to stop. Feeling terrible about their behavior often induces them to get high to avoid how they are feeling. These comments are not only ineffective, they are damaging to children.

Don’t enlist your kids in your efforts to modify the behavior of the addict.  On the other hand, don’t make excuses or cover up for the addict. Depending on the awareness and maturity of the children, the appropriate message is that Mom or Dad has a problem, that it’s an adult problem that they have to solve and reassure children that you will protect them from addictive behavior that affects them.  There are age appropriate educational materials about addiction and these should be made available and discussed with children this age. Do not make it a taboo topic in the household.


Teenagers respond in a variety of common ways. Some will mimic the addict and use it as an excuse to begin a pattern of their own substance abuse. “Well Dad gets high and he’s still a successful…” (fill in the blank). Others may take on a parental role and try to lecture, argue or confront the addict. That’s not their job. Teenagers need to take care of themselves. Mom or Dad is the problem of the other adults.  In a single parent household extended family or other adult friends become essential supports.

Ala-teen and other programs targeting adolescent family members of addicts can be invaluable.

While teenagers can be spoken to as mature family members they should never be who the non-addict confides in or relies on for support. Unfortunately that happens all to often with the non-addicted parent justifying this behavior to themselves.  It is not the teenagers job to cope with or deal with the addict. A teenager can’t move out or act independently from an addicted parent with whom they live, avoiding enabling the addict can only be done by other adults. If you are the enabler, don’t justify your actions to your children. Use your own therapist, support group or friends to figure out how you will deal with the addict in the family.

Teenagers will often focus their anger on the non-addicted parent, blaming them for putting up with the addict. That anger is justified but even older children often do not understand the financial, legal and social variables that may be forcing the family to stay together even when it is unhealthy.  If you are taking steps to make the situation better, communicate that in an abbreviated form to your teenagers. If the addict has been verbally abusive to you, your teenager may mimic that behavior. Don’t be afraid to enforce discipline for this behavior, even if you feel guilty. Bullying a parent is never healthy for a child.


Support groups are enormously important resources. Talk to other parents in Families Anonymous, Al-Anon, etc to help you understand how to talk to your children when their is addict in the family. Get therapy for yourself. Addiction poses many complex problems for families. By learning how to help your children you help yourself as well as the addict.