Growing up in a family in which a member is addicted to alcohol or drugs, can be chaotic and scary to a child. Witnessing the fights and the tears between the parents and the displaced anger they are inflicted upon many times make them believe that they are responsible for the drinking or using of their addicted parent. It is confusing. They can get reactive, aggressive angry. The academic studies are affected. They can become underachievers or overachievers to compensate for the helplessness and anger they feel. Many a time they too begin using addictive substances. They can be more mature for their age.
They are faced with repeated promises of giving up and being lied to and lied about by their addicted loved one. Taking care of one's needs in such situations seems not right for them.
How to speak to your child depends on their age. the primary premise being the child should be told the truth in an age-appropriate manner.
The following general guidelines can be followed:
The affection on the child and its impact have to be acknowledged and the child has to be encouraged to express its feelings.
The shame associated is to addressed. Many times the parent blames the child for their usage causing them to take on responsibility for their using. They need to be explained that the parent under influence is very different and they are also helpless about their use.
It takes time for a child of an addict to process their emotions to identify and express them without fear. An environment where they can do so should be created
Below 10 years- Children can identify with feeling an intense desire to want a toy and want it when they want it and throwing a tantrum when they are unable to get it and many times their mind tells them “no” but they cannot help themselves. It can be explained that their parent behaves in the same manner when they want to drink alcohol or use drugs. And even when they know they are making the wrong choice they still choose it.
Very young children can be told that their parent /loved one is ill from an addiction.
Early teens-They find it difficult to listen to long winding explanations. It is better to ask their understanding of the situation at home and answer their questions honestly.
Older teens: today are already seeing substance use and addiction around them in their friends so identifying the same in their parents is not difficult. Hence, trying to minimize their loved one's usage is not right. An opening to the conversation can be that “ you had seen your dad trip down the stairs and I had to help him get to bed. “ they will share a similar experience and from there it can be explained that the parent is afflicted by addiction, what it is, and how the effort is to motivate them to go for treatment to an alcohol/drug rehab.
One person of the family preferably a parent or a counsellor of the family trained in addiction and codependency treatment speaks to the child and passes on the facts. This prevents confusion and gossip to the kids.
The National Association for Children of Alcoholics, say, children need to know the “Seven Cs of Addiction”:
I didn’t Cause it.
I can’t Cure it.
I can’t Control it.
I can Care for myself
By Communicating my feelings,
Making healthy Choices, and
By Celebrating myself.
Every day a child lives with an addicted parent it is becoming damaged psychologically. Other sources of help need to be also taken- such as Al a Teen the self-help group for children of those addicted to substances. Also regular Counselling by an experiential Co dependency counsellor or one who has worked in the field for long needs to be done as when they see non-judgemental acceptance with love being imparted they feel safe to emote, trust and express and receive help.
We provide this facility in AH to all children of our clients and have seen them blossom with self-love and care.