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How to Talk to Kids About Addiction

One in four children in the United States has substance use disorder in their family, says the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). For children living with a family member with substance use disorder, home life can be chaotic, scary, lonely, and full of conflict and broken promises.

Talking to kids about substance use can be hard, but it’s so important. Without information, kids may often conclude the conflict and problems are their fault. It’s never too early to explain the negative effects of substance use to a child. In fact, to support the large number of kids and their families dealing with substance use disorder, Sesame Street has even introduced a puppet whose mom is in recovery.

Tailor your message to the age, maturity, and comfort level of the child. These guidelines can help:

Choose one person in the family, such as a parent or grandparent, to give the child information to avoid gossip and rumors. Help the child express and sort through his or her feelings. Let them know it’s OK to ask questions and bring concerns to that family member. Be careful not to place any blame on the person who has substance use disorder.

Explain addiction in a way the child can understand. You might start with the child’s experience of a negative event, such as, “You know how Dad is loud when everyone else is quiet?” or “Remember when Grandma was being strange at dinner?”

Children under age 10: You might explain that addiction to alcohol or drugs is a brain disease. People who use alcohol and drugs might lose control over how they act, and do and say things they usually wouldn’t.

Just like we don’t blame people for having a disease like diabetes or cancer, we do not blame people for having a brain disease like addiction. These people are not able to stop drinking or using drugs without special help from people trained to treat the disease.

Tweens and teens: Be open, honest, and direct, and give details if the tween or teen asks for them. Try not to lecture or speak down to teens, or they may tune you out.

The National Association for Children of Addiction suggests teaching the “Seven Cs:”

I didn’t cause it. Hearing that a loved one’s substance use is not their fault is very powerful for a child. It lets the child be a kid again.
I can’t cure it
I can’t control it
I can help take care of myself by
Communicating my feelings,
Making healthy choices, and
Celebrating me

Research shows substance use disorder is genetic, so children from families in which loved ones have struggled with substance use are at greater risk of using these substances themselves. Give kids healthy living skills as a helpful form of prevention.

You can find more information about substance use disorder and how to talk about it on the National Association for Children of Addiction’s website, www.nacoa.org.

Help is available now

If you or a loved one has a substance use disorder, there are many services in the District to help.

The Department of Behavioral Health’s Assessment and Referral Center (ARC), 1-202-727-8473, provides same-day treatment for substance use problems.

Aunt Bertha is an online search service that can help you link to resources in the District and across the United States. Go to www.auntbertha.com. Then, enter your ZIP code to find help near you. There are over 100 programs for addiction and recovery in the District.

AmeriHealth Caritas DC offers our enrollees several substance use disorder treatment options. Call Enrollee Services at 1-800-408-7511 (TTY 1-800-570-1190) for more information.

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This is to help you learn about your health condition. It is not to take the place of your primary care provider (PCP). If you have questions, talk with your PCP. If you think you need to see your PCP because of something you have read in this information, please contact your PCP. Never stop or wait to get medical attention because of something you have read in this information.

Sources:
National Association for Children of Addiction (NACOA), “The Seven Cs” and “Kit for Kids,” accessed Nov. 4, 2019, https://nacoa.org/resource/the-7cs/l and https://nacoa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Kit-for-kids-NACoA-2019.pdf.

National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Genetics: The Blueprint of Health and Disease,” accessed Jan. 5, 2019, www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/genetics-epigenetics-addiction.

All images are used under license for illustrative purposes only. Any individual depicted is a model.

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