How you speak to a child about addiction varies with the age of the child, of course. Kids are very aware of what goes on around them. For young children, a good opening line may be to ask if they’ve ever seen someone acting sleepy, or if they’ve noticed Daddy being loud and goofy when everyone else is not. Kids can process how they feel in a situation. “Often, asking them how they feel in a situation is the easiest way to start a conversation on a difficult subject.”
Experts stress that it’s important to tell kids the truth. They know when you’re lying, says John Mayer, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in treating adolescents, children, families and substance abusers. “Kids know about addiction because of social media and the Internet. They will see through any deception you try to cover up addiction.” Which is not to say, though, that kids of all ages (or any age, for that matter), need to know all the details of what’s happening; just that you should not lie or mislead them.
Prior to age 10: Young children deserve to be spoken to so that they have the chance and a feeling of safety to speak directly to how they feel and to express their fears. Young kids and [even] teens can relate to the feeling of wanting something so bad and, no matter how much your brain told you ‘no,’ you still wanted it. Start with an example like this, then tell them it’s the same way with drugs and alcohol, and that even parents, relatives and family friends have things that they want so much they can’t seem to say no, or make a better choice. Blais suggests saying something like, “Right now, Mom [or Dad] is dealing with the same thing. Sometimes we make really good choices and sometimes, even when we know better, we choose the one thing that will hurt us.” Very young children should simply be told that “so-and-so is ill, and they get ill from this addiction,” adds Dr. Mayer.
Provide details if your son or daughter is interested in them, but don’t use this time to deliver a lecture about the evils of addiction. The child will turn off hearing the important information you have to give them. Stick to the facts and what you know is true. Be truthful and transparent about, the illness, which has been caused by an addiction to [X substance].”
Teens: Speaking with older kids requires being honest and forthright. “Teens can see right through you when you’re trying to gloss over the situation. They will quickly check out if they feel you’re not being honest with them or are speaking down to them.” A great opener for teens may be, “Dad and I have been talking about what he drinks after dinner.” Or, “Do you remember the time I had to put Mom to bed after she came home acting really strangely?” “Begin with the kid’s experience of the event and then speak directly to the situation,” recommends Blais.