Kids deserve to know the truth about addiction in the family, and they suffer with feelings of guilt and shame if their concerns and fears are never appropriately addressed.
It’s too bad that children get drawn into the whirlwind of family substance abuse, but when one or more parents is abusing drugs or alcohol, the effects on kids in the home can be profound, detrimental and lasting. Kids, even young kids, know something is wrong, and there is no way to shelter them from the realities of the household, and no way to spare them from the pain of the truth.
Children know there’s a problem, but younger children especially very likely don’t understand what it is, why it’s happening, or whose fault it is. The greatest risk is that children will internalize the pain of the abuse behaviors, and believe that they are somehow at fault for the behaviors of abusing parents. Children may accept any story given, but children will only truly believe and benefit from the truth, and by acknowledging the existence of a problem, and by letting kids know that it’s not their fault, they have a far greater chance of growing up happy, healthy and less likely to develop substance abuse problems of their own as they age through their teens.
The National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare recommends telling children:
- That addiction is a disease, and that their abusing parent is sick and the witnessed and sometimes scary behaviors are all a part of the disease.
- That lots of kids just like them also have a parent or even two parents who also suffer from the same disease.
- That it’s OK to talk about the problem, and there is no shame in discussing feelings with any trusted figure.
Giving kids truthful and accurate information about addiction in the family empowers them, relieves negative feelings of shame, responsibility and guilt; and removes some very adult feelings and burdens from narrow shoulders not meant to carry such weight. It’s too bad that any kid needs to suffer the pains of family addiction, but millions of kids live this reality everyday, and the best way to help them thrive is to bring the problem out of the closet, treat their concerns and fears as genuine and valid, and make sure that they understand that they are never at fault for anything that mom or dad does or says while using and abusing drugs or alcohol.
I feel such great shame at what I subjected my family, and particularly my kids to during my years of use and addiction, and although I was never a violent drunk, and never "took it out on the kids" I know they suffered from my neglect and from my sometimes erratic and confusing behaviors. I can’t take it back, but I can do the best I can for them now that I’m sober. Kids are always reason enough to get sober…and when you consider that about half of all alcoholics grew up in alcoholic homes, that’s surely motivation enough to get needed help and treatment.