Tips and Tools for Talking to Children About Addiction

December 2, 2019

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), in the United States more than 7 million children age 17 or younger live households with at least one parent who has a substance use disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder.  

Addiction is a complex condition, making it a difficult conversation topic for even mature adults. But it is also a family disease, impacting the entire family and making it increasingly important for all ages to be able to ask questions and be part of the recovery process.

Especially in the transition from detox or residential treatment, through levels of care and back to everyday life, the family unit is essential to giving their loved one the best chance for obtaining and maintaining sobriety. Involving spouses, children, siblings and other supports in treatment can significantly increase the likelihood of success and long-term recovery.

Perhaps family therapy allows all to discuss feelings, consequences, and plan for the future, or creating a holistic relapse prevention plan and group activities help create cohesiveness moving forward. For some, one of the main motivations for entering treatment for addiction may be family, and, in particular, children.

How do you explain addiction to a young mind?  

Is it okay to even talk about it with a child? Does it do more harm than good?

The National Association for the Children of Addiction (NACoA) and other organizations agree that allowing for conversation helps kids feel assured, understood, and able to seek help when big emotions or questions pop-up through a parent or family member’s addiction and recovery journey.

Here are four main points that can begin the education and healing process:

  • Addiction is a disease.
  • It’s not something you catch like a cold.
  • (for older children) It can run in families, so it’s important we all take good care of ourselves too.
  • You can’t cure it, but you can treat it.
  • Going away to a treatment center isn’t forever, it is helping them get better.
  • Sometimes the disease makes a person act differently or scary when they don’t mean to.
  • You didn’t cause this
  • Your (parent/etc.) addiction isn’t your fault.
  • You can’t control it or make it stop yourself, but we can all help them.
  • Using drugs or alcohol might be a way they try to feel better but it doesn’t work, and it isn’t due to anything you did or do.
  • Your (parent/etc.) loves you very much, the addiction is very strong and they need help to stop behaviors that hurt them so they can come back to us healthy.
  • You are not alone
  • This may be scary or confusing, and I am here with you.
  • They are away to be helped by doctors but we can ______ (call, text, email, visit).
  • There are other kids whose parents are or have struggled with addiction, just like you. It is nothing to be ashamed of.
  • You can talk about the problem
  • It’s okay to not have all the answers or not understand.
  • If you have any questions, you can ask me, and I’ll do my best to explain.
  • Talking about our feelings is good for us. If you are sad, mad, scared, or lonely, you can come to me.
  • Addiction is sometimes a grown-up topic, but I want you to feel comfortable discussing it with our family.
  • Things may be hard right now, and it won’t always be this way.

The strategy and language changes by age, where preschoolers may ask one question and be happy with a simple answer, while an elementary school child may have more concerns or need time to process.

Providing short explanations, using terms that are relatable to things they understand, such as someone being sick, and utilizing resources to illustrate the concepts in a visual or creative way can help kids of young ages.

A recent collaboration between Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the beloved Sesame Street characters, and partners including the Joan Ganz Cooney Fund for Vulnerable Children and NACoA has spurred a new set of videos to help children understand addiction.

The seven short visual stories, along with accompanying activities and resources for both families and professionals to use in tandem, bridges the topic from a child’s perspective by telling the story of muppet Karli, whose mother is struggling with addiction.

The series shows how Karli individually feels and copes with the challenges of having a parent working through addiction, how the other Sesame Street pals support her, and provides ways to answer common questions.

Other organizations such as Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization and Al-Anon aim to continue to provide resources to the families of those struggling with addiction and continuing through recovery. These are designed for those of older age but attending can give other parents/ older family members the tools to not only care for themselves but be better equipped to assist children in the family.  


No matter what stage of recovery– from the first steps to marking milestones and everywhere in between – support from and for families is integral. At Steps Recovery Centers, we are committed to giving you and your family the tools and education to step into a life of sobriety together. There is help – call 385-250-1701 today to learn more about our state-of-the-art Utah addiction treatment centers and get the help you and your family deserve.

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