Addiction within the family can be devastating. Everyone suffers including parents, siblings, extended family members, but perhaps children most of all. The worst scenario for a child is facing the addiction of a parent, but addiction in any family member can be disruptive, upsetting, and life-changing. Being open and discussing addiction, recovery, and all of the repercussions of the disease is very important to making children feel better and to help them make good choices. Preteens are on the precipice of being young adults and are very vulnerable to peer pressure and using drugs and alcohol. Talking to them about addiction is essential for helping them to cope and to make good choices.
How Much is too Much?
It can be tough to know just what to say to children, how to say it, and how much information to divulge. Young children don’t need to know many details about drugs and alcohol and their effects. Teenagers can take in quite a bit of information and details and it is important to talk to them more like adults. Preteens are in the middle, but as a parent you must understand that they know more than you did at their age. Kids today hear and see more than we ever did, so one mistake is to treat them as if they are too young to hear some of the details. On the other hand, you should leave out some of the more adult aspects of abuse and addiction. It is very important for you to weigh the risks and benefits of sharing with your preteen and to determine how much information she can handle based on her maturity level. No one knows your child better than you.
Because preteens are at a critical point in their lives, now is the time to talk to them about their own choices. Most addicts begin using between the ages of 12 and 18. It is crucial that you talk to your child about addiction before he faces making that choice. If you have a family member struggling with addiction, and hopefully in recovery, this can be a great starting point. Talk to your preteen about how this family member made a choice that led to addiction. Make sure your child knows that he has the power to make the right choice.
Discuss making choices in a variety of contexts. The whole conversation need not be about addiction. Talk about choices that people make throughout life and those that are relevant to a preteen such as choosing friends, making choices about bullying, choosing to be studious or choosing to slack off and not do schoolwork. Now is the critical time to make sure that your preteen understands choices and their consequences.
When Addiction Involves the Parent
If you are the one struggling with addiction and recovery, or your spouse is, talking with your preteen takes on a new level of importance. You should still discuss choices and weigh how many details to give her, but now there is a much more personal element. Children of addiction face a host of problems. They often feel as if they have done something wrong. They may feel neglected. And they will undoubtedly feel very alone.
Children may also feel angry about a parent’s addiction. A child of addiction may have experienced neglect or worse from his addicted parent. The first thing that your preteen should understand about your addiction is that it is a disease. He needs to know how difficult it is to get over addiction and to get into recovery. He also needs to know that addicts are not bad people. His addicted parent made some bad choices and is now struggling with the consequences, but is not a bad person. Your preteen should also know that the addiction is not his fault. Children blame themselves for all kinds of things and they need to know that they are never the cause.
Being social is a crucial part of a preteen’s life, so make sure that your child knows that she is not alone. Consider introducing her to a support group with other children and family members of addicts, such as Al-Anon, Al-Ateen or Adult Children of Alcoholics. Just knowing that others are going through the same difficulties can be enormously comforting. Finally, your preteen needs to know that the lines of communication are open. Children tend to bottle up their feelings when dealing with addiction. Make sure she understands that she can talk to you about anything including your addiction or that of your spouse.