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Discussing your substance use disorder (SUD) with your children can be difficult. Depending on their age, navigating the conversation that helps them understand what you are experiencing can be especially hard. The key to successfully navigating what can feel like an emotional minefield is to keep things age-appropriate. 

Resist the urge to lie or cover because of fear of stigma. The only way the stigma around SUD disappears for good is through education. Given that problematic using and drinking runs in and affects entire family units, having honest yet appropriate conversations around SUD is crucial for everyone involved. Here are some of our tips about talking to your children, whether you have toddlers, teens, or kids over 18.

Talking With Young Children About SUD

Children under the age of seven may be unable to comprehend substances, let alone SUD. However, that doesn’t mean their lives aren’t affected. Most children this young perceive their own needs first. This means they are unlikely to understand the complexities of treatment but certainly will notice a parental absence. Food and care are relevant at any age, as is the presence of or change in caregiver.

We encourage frank, honest discussion of SUD with kids. Gone are the days of the convenient lie. While it may feel easier to simply tell a five-year-old, “Mommy is gone because she is working/traveling,” the reality is that lying damages trust in all relationships. 

However, you need not expose your child to the concept of drinking or using before they are old enough to understand it. You can give a version of the truth of SUD topics in a manner kids understand. “Mommy is getting help for a problem” or even “in the hospital” is a much more direct and clear way to explain the parental absence. Though West Coast Recovery Centers discourages thinking of addictions as lifelong afflictions, you may find the disease model helpful for explaining issues. Even very young children can grasp “getting better.”

Discussing SUD Issues With Older Children

Children between eight and 12 may have a greater understanding of SUD than their younger counterparts. However, it is still your job as a parent to determine what is appropriate for them to know and not know about the dangers they will eventually encounter. 

As with younger kids, keeping the discussion relevant to how your child is impacted by your SUD is key. Children of this age are more prone to blaming themselves for family issues beyond their control, such as marriage problems and custody. Assuring children of all ages that they are not being abandoned or at fault secures healthy attachment. 

Older kids are likely to have more questions or get upset about SUD and its fallout. That’s okay. Remember that your child is entitled to their feelings, and you can work on regulating these difficult emotions together. Some children best understand SUD by analogy to their own problems or those of others. An angry child can understand coping mechanisms you have taught them, or even in terms of why rocking a baby makes it stop crying.

Balancing honesty with boundaries around SUD is tricky but not impossible. Remember that you’re in a relationship, not a deposition. If you don’t want your nine-year-old to know about injection drug use, it is okay to omit this or details about your substance of choice. Just be aware that you will likely eventually need to disclose your truth when the time and maturity levels are right. 

Navigating SUD With Your Teenager

Teenagers are generally old enough to have been exposed to SUD in person or via the media. They may even be biased. Whether your teen is aware of your use or not, being frank and a good role model in recovery is crucial. Be blunt about your shortcomings and clear about what you intend to do differently. Expect some well-articulated hard truths about how your SUD affects your kids.

Speaking candidly with your teenager about SUD may be easier on a logical level but more difficult emotionally than managing a young child. While teenagers clearly have a higher level of comprehension, they are impulsive, volatile, and highly reactive by nature. 

Keep in mind you must model calm honesty. You may find you must talk to your teen about their own drug or alcohol use as the discussion unfolds. Remember to exercise compassion. You may wish to jump out of your skin if your 14-year-old states they just tried marijuana for the first time. However, it is better not to overreact or project your own experience onto your child. 

Instead, focus on what you know about your SUD, share your problems with substances, and discuss how you are learning to manage them. The golden rule applies to kids and teens, too. Nobody wants to be judged. It is okay to express fear for your children and warn them of danger. Just be mindful of doing so in a way that destroys stigma. If you’re asked direct questions, answer them directly. Be honest within the boundaries. If you’re putting certain subjects off limits, discussing them with a qualified counselor or therapist may be best.

Resources for Adult Children Dealing With SUD or Family Dysfunction

Adult children may have their own experiences with SUD or know little to nothing about it. Some parents have lengthy histories, while others begin having problems drinking or using after their children leave the house. Regardless of the level of exposure your adult children have had to your SUD, being frank with them and accountable for the pain you have caused is crucial. 

One of the best free public resources for adult children affected by SUD is the group Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families. If your parents’ history influenced yours, you might benefit from the program too. Be brave and break the cycle. Most of us have something to learn from this public support group.

Rare is the person who has engaged in problem drinking or using without consequences in multiple areas of life. However, a substance use problem does not mean your family is permanently destroyed or that your children will be traumatized for life. Relationships strained by substance misuse can repair and blossom in recovery. At West Coast Recovery Centers, we strive to support our clients through family issues as well as their SUD recovery. Our clients have access to qualified therapists, many modalities of recovery, and the right to select and forge their own paths. Learn more about the benefits of partnering with West Coast Recovery Centers or call us with your questions today at (760) 492-6509.

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