Your children are not spared from everyday challenges that expose people to dangers of substance use and abuse. If you are waiting to make your children understand addiction in late teens, it could be too late. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a third of teens have had a drink by 15. People between ages 12 and 20, account for 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States.
Most adults are extremely protective of their children and do not think it is a good idea to expose them to information about addiction. On the contrary, children need this knowledge to help them cope if a parent is addicted, and to not fall into the trap later.
How you approach this discussion depends on whether the children have experience with addiction or not. While children and addiction is a difficult topic to approach, these four tips can help your children understand addiction.
Speak Early and Allow Questions to be Asked
It is better to start speaking to your children about addiction early. Begin as early as pre-school. It should be a continuous conversation incorporated into everyday activities at different developmental stages. Children are exposed to dangers at a very early age through medicine and sometimes addicted caregivers. It is important that they are aware of telltale signs.
While having conversations around addiction, children will have innocent but difficult questions. Allow them to ask and be curious. Be prepared to answer them with all honesty. Share any family history around addiction if there is any. Do not keep secrets.
Questions from your child will give you cues on how much they can handle. It will also help you see how they process this information. In the case of an addicted parent, the questions will help you see how they feel about your addiction and possibly how it has affected them.
- To help a child understand and cope with the addiction of a parent or a loved one, make them see it is not their fault using the ‘Seven C’s’ principle:
- I didn’t cause
- I can’t cure
- I can’t control
- I can help take care of myself by:
- Communicating my feelings, making healthy choices and celebrating me
Have Age-Appropriate Conversations
Give information that children can process. How children understand addiction has to do with their present age and development stage. Again, at different stages children are exposed to different threats. They also have different behavior patterns. Here is an example of how to communicate for each age
- 3 to 5 years: Talk about the benefits of healthy living and the problem of making unhealthy choices. Remind them staying healthy will help them remain energetic to play with friends. Teach them about the dangers of harmful substances such as adult medications or detergents. Use simple examples such as vitamins to demonstrate that medicine is good but can only be taken with care and the help of a caregiver.
- 5 to 8 years: They will be coming into contact with more children from different backgrounds and new influences. Talk about their friends and allow them to bring concerns and questions to you. You can be more direct about the dangers of drugs such as alcohol and cigarettes. When alcohol and drug scenes come up in movies, talk about the scenes.
- 9 years and above (preteen): At this age, children want more independence. Create rules about drugs. Talk about peer pressure. Your efforts should be directed towards building their self-confidence and self-esteem. Help them separate reality from fantasy. Give them facts about substance use and remain available and approachable for questions and fears.
- Teens- 13 to 18 years: Mature conversation needs to come into play. Enhance their power to walk away from situations and make decisions. Your conversations should bring a lot of validation. Tell your child what is wonderful about them. Get interested in their everyday struggles. Go all out on drug education; types of substances and their effects. Talk about mental health, the realities and how to enhance personal mental wellness. Encourage physical activity such as volunteering and sports and how they help in overcoming substance abuse. Take a stand against drugs.
- Young adults (19-25 years): They have observed you for a while, so they will follow your actions. Talk about mental health and advise them to stay vulnerable. As they move out, talk about coping on their own; freedom and challenges if things do not work out. Most importantly, emphasize on how to take care of their mental health. Talk about taking alcohol for luxury and how to draw the boundary. Be open about your negative experiences with alcohol and other drugs.
Use Simple Language – Do Not Lecture
Create a sense of trust and safety when discussing addiction to children. Using the age guidelines given earlier, find the right communication tools for each child. Know their language of love and make it an open discussion. Let the conversation evolve with their development and sense of knowledge.
Draw connections to things they understand. Use everyday examples such as food to demonstrate the causes and process of addiction. You can talk about how someone starts with one cookie, and they can’t control themselves and end up eating a whole plate. Before you know it they are sick from overeating cookies.
Scare tactics loaded with lengthy and firm lectures do not work with children. Do not say things like you will die or rot in jail if you use drugs. This scare might work for kids when they are little, but as they grow they will be looking for someone that died or was jailed. What if they do not find one? It will be time to explore what you were keeping from them.
Addiction is Still a Disease – Only that it Can be Prevented
When making children understand addiction, the rule remains – addiction is a disease. Emphasize that just because someone is addicted, it does not make them a bad person. On the contrary, they are sick. Go as far as discussing symptoms of each addiction type. Talk about withdrawal and different treatment plans. Remember, you should not use intimidating language.
Be clear that addiction is a difficult disease to recover from. But still, people can get better. They require a good doctor and proper support to treat and recover fully. With this understanding, children get fully aware of the consequences of substance abuse. It also helps lessen the resentment, fear or blame they may have towards an addicted parent or sibling.
Unlike what most people think, children listen to their parents. It is possible that you can impact how your children understand addiction. These tips will help you communicate effectively. If you still need help on how to prevent and handle addiction among teens, talk to us.