Addiction is often referred to as a family disease because it impacts more than the person dealing with dependency. Discussing addiction, relapse, and recovery to anyone can be overwhelming, but it's especially complex to explain to a child. There are a number of factors that go into discussing addiction and sobriety with children, including the specific situation itself, your family dynamic, and the child's age.
Don't avoid talking about it.
"Depending on the age of your child, you may want to explain some symptoms you might experience, and what the family can do to help support you," says Dr. Neha Chaudhary, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. "At the end of the day, stressing that you as a parent are still there and that you're getting better from your illness is what is going to bring your child comfort."
Dr. Chaudhary says it's important to talk about addiction and recovery to your child as you would any other disease or medical illness: here's my issue and here's how I'll get better. Not avoiding the issue is key because whether or not a child will understand the full magnitude of an addiction, they will still be able to sense something is wrong.
Be as honest as possible.
"It is important to be honest with your child about what is going on, but also important to filter information based on the child’s age—what you tell a 7-year-old may be much different than what you tell a 15-year-old," says addiction specialist Aaron Sternlicht, LMHC, CASAC. "It is important that your own unique parenting and family dynamics are considered when explaining addiction recovery to a child. It is not good to hide things or lie to your child because it is doing them a disservice for learning about an important issue, and may also break trust with your child if they suspect something else is going on."
Preparation is key when speaking to your child about addiction and recovery. There will be questions and concerns posed, so having those answers, even if just a general idea, will offer peace of mind.
Keep communication open.
No matter the circumstance, communication is important. Keep the lines of communication open and allow your child to ask as many questions as they need. Try to validate their feelings, but don’t assume you know how they feel, either. Details can be spared or situations can be simplified for a more relatable conversation, but speaking to your child about the issue, even if it's as simple as "I am sick and need help" is better than ignoring it completely. Ignoring the issue may negatively impact your relationship with a child, who may begin to question their trust in you.
"Many times, addiction issues are looked at with shame and normalcy that won't make sense to a child until later on in life," says Dr. Logan Jones, a psychologist and founder of NYC Therapy + Wellness. "By explaining it in a way they understand, they will know that this is not a bad person, but just someone who is doing something that is bad for them and they need help."