How Can You Help A Child Whose Parents Are Struggling With Addiction?

Whether you are a teacher, a coach, or a concerned community member, finding the best way to help a child whose parent is struggling with addiction is a difficult challenge. Truthfully, there isn’t one “best” way to open a dialogue and be a supportive adult figure, but there are certainly several thoughts to keep in mind if the topic comes up. 

This post will explore some tips supportive adults can take to help a child whose parents are struggling with addiction.

Be a Caring and Consistent Adult Rolemodel

No matter what your role is—whether you are a teacher or a neighbor—you can definitely make a positive difference in a child’s life. Sometimes the best way to help a child is to simply be a consistent and caring positive role model.

For reasons discussed down below, you’ll want to avoid prying and directly confronting children about their parent’s substance abuse issues. Instead of directly probing the issue, simply be a positive and consistent role model. They will talk to you about it if and when they are ready.

If you are a teacher, you can take note of their personal interests—like observing whether they like to draw, read, or play sports. By nurturing their interests, you are supporting them and helping them build confidence in activities they enjoy.

This might not seem relevant to helping a child whose parent has a drug addiction, but by supporting the child’s natural interests, you are helping them build resiliency.

If you are a neighbor, you can offer to show them gardening or some other valuable skills. Some children whose parents are addicts don’t get to spend quality time with an adult figure. By simply being a consistent and caring figure in their lives, you can make a difference.  

Don’t Try To Get To The Bottom of Their Parent’s Addiction

We mentioned above that it isn’t a good idea to pry too strongly into the child’s home life. There is a common misconception that every adult needs to be an interrogator. But, this can have the effect of pushing a child away and negating any positive influence you may have had.

The reasons why asking too many questions might push a child away are varied—their parent’s drug issues might be a sore point of contention at home. Or, they may feel defensive and protective of their parent and wish to conceal their stress and hardship to appear more adult-like (more about that one later).

Instead of prying directly, frame yourself as someone who is available to listen if they ever need to talk. You can ask non-personal questions like, “What did you do today?” or “Anything exciting happening this weekend?”

This allows them to address their parent’s addiction on their own and keeps the gravity of the conversation under their control.

Help Them Understand Addiction As a Disease

If they do decide to talk about it, you’ll want to help them understand addiction according to the latest medical consensus. Addiction is a chronic brain disease with similar attributes to other chronic illnesses like type II diabetes or cardiovascular disease. People with addiction are not morally flawed or compromised, they are suffering from an illness.

It can be hard to make this information digestible for a child, but there are some ways you can help them to understand it.

Use Analogies

Children who know what it means to crave candy, or a new toy are one step away from understanding addiction cravings. You can use this analogy to describe how their parent’s addiction might make them feel.

“Have you ever craved candy (or a new toy)? Do you remember not being able to focus on anything else but getting candy (or a new toy)?

Imagine if eating all the candy in the world didn’t stop these cravings. Addiction works like this—your parent has an illness where they can’t stop these cravings from taking over and affecting their ability to make good decisions.”

Another analogy you can use is the sickness analogy. Every kid knows what it feels like to be sick—it makes it hard for them to play, focus on school, and be themselves. You can use this analogy to help explain to kids why their parent isn’t acting like themselves.

“Remember what it was like when you were sick and had to miss school? You felt bad and not at all like yourself, right? You couldn’t enjoy doing the things you did when you were well, right? Addiction is a kind of sickness. Your parent doesn’t feel good and isn’t acting like themselves because they are sick right now.”

Children Can Still Love Their Parents and Not Love the Disease

Children who are mistreated or neglected because of a parent’s drug addiction will often feel torn between the love for their parents and the misfortune of their situation. Reinforce the idea that they can love their parents and still feel upset about their parent’s addiction.

Helping them healthily separate their love for their parents and their criticism of addiction gives them the mental space to voice their feelings regarding their situation. Children need to be able to voice their anger, fear, embarrassment, and pain, but this can be hard if they haven’t separated their love for their parent from their parent’s addiction.

Keep Insisting it Isn’t Their Fault

The most typical reaction of children whose parents have an addiction is for them to blame themselves for the problems facing the family. Children will often rationalize that they are the reason that their parent is ill, sick, acting strange, or avoiding home.

One of the best things you can do is to remind them that they are in no way the cause of their parent’s drug addiction. They are not responsible for the hardships and emotional strain on their family.

Help Them Overcome “Parentification”

As alluded to above, some children of addicts feel the need to act more adult-like because they often find themselves caring for a parent or younger siblings. This “parentification” is a process that robs children of the ability to simply be a kid. They may feel the need to be serious and take on more responsibility than any kid should have to endure.

One way to help them is to remind them that they can be silly and still have fun. Encourage them to act like a kid and shake off the mantle of “young adult,” even if it’s only temporary. Helping them put aside their responsibilities can relieve the burden of needing to take care of parents or siblings.

Jenn Walker is a freelance writer, blogger, dog-enthusiast, and avid beachgoer operating out of Southern New Jersey. She writes for Maryville, an addiction treatment center in NJ.

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