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Tips for Explaining Addiction to a Child

Finding age-appropriate tips for explaining addiction to a child can be challenging, but it’s necessary. Conversations about Mom or Dad going to rehab or relapsing back into dysfunctional behaviors are not easy, but most children raised in an environment where addiction is a major factor simply don’t discuss the problems they live with each day.

5 Minute Read | Published Aug 12 2023 | Updated Feb 21 2024 Expert Verified
Emma Collins
Written by
Dameisha Gibson
Reviewed by
Emma Collins
Written by
Dameisha Gibson
Reviewed by

7 Tips for Explaining Addiction to a Child

In 2006 it was estimated that more than 28 million American children live with alcoholics (1). Research indicates that those children have an increased risk of experiencing abuse and neglect, of witnessing domestic violence or of growing up to marry an addict as adults.

Many children of addicted parents are often left to fend for themselves, leading most to develop tough self-preservation instincts. At the same time, children may feel guilt or a range of other conflicting emotions while trying to deal with family loyalty and cope with watching a parent spiral out of control.

To many people, explaining addiction to a child in difficult circumstances might seem as though you’re making the situation worse or causing the child distress. In reality, it’s a conversation that can help the child find more positive ways to deal with what’s really going on in their life.


Educating yourself about the true nature of addiction can make it easier to find the right words to use to explain addiction to a child. It’s common for many adults to assume that a person who is addicted to drugs should simply exert a bit of willpower and quit using.

In reality, addiction is a chronic disease of the brain characterized by occasional relapses that require ongoing management. If a person has developed a dependency or addiction to drugs or alcohol, it’s likely that significant changes in the brain’s chemistry have occurred. If the person tries to stop using suddenly, the brain can’t adapt, causing it to enter into a hyper-excitable state.

When you understand more about what drives an addicted person to continue or return to self-destructive behaviors, it becomes easier to find the right words when explaining addiction to a child.

Seek Professional Support

Before you begin explaining parent addiction to a child, take the time to seek out sources of professional support. Better Addiction Care provides resources and support for families affected by addiction that can make it easier to have those difficult conversations with confidence.

Depending on the child’s age, there are also some helpful children’s books about being drug-free that could help the child understand more about the situation.


Explaining parent addiction to a child needs to be handled in an age-appropriate manner. Children are often capable of dealing with quite advanced concepts, as long as the words used, the detail involved and manner of delivery of appropriate to the child’s age and maturity level.

Work on finding ways to break the issues down as directly and truthfully as possible. Keep it simple and end your discussion with a positive message of hope.

Truth and Honesty

There’s no point trying to sugar-coat the issues a child lives with each day. Instead, be truthful about the problem. Children are extraordinarily adept at reading when adults are lying, so be honest about what you know about the disease when explaining parent addiction to a child and discuss how proper treatment can help make them better again.

Absolve Guilt

Many children living with addicted parents feel a deep sense of guilt. They somehow feel as though their parents’ behavior is their fault. When you’re explaining addiction to a child, be sure to find ways to help them absolve feelings of guilt.

After all, the addiction is not their fault and the parent’s behavior while they are affected by drugs is also not their fault.

Release Shame

Children commonly struggle with feelings of shame when their parent acts out while under the influence. They worry that they somehow caused the parent to behave this way and they are ashamed that they can’t find the right words or actions to help make the parent better.

If you’re explaining parent addiction to a child, help them release some of the shame they feel. Children need to understand that things the addict says and does while affected by drugs isn’t who they really are or what they really think.

Encourage Feedback

When you’re explaining addiction to a child, it’s common to dominate the conversation with your thoughts and the ideas you want to convey. It’s important to encourage feedback and invite dialogue from the child. Ask them to be honest about their thoughts and feelings and give them space to discuss their feelings without fear of being criticized or judged.

Talking about difficult topics can be challenging, but it’s important to approach them with honesty and care. Children’s books about being drug-free are a good starting point for some kids, while others may simply need someone to acknowledge the impact their parents’ behavior has had on their life.

Children can benefit enormously by knowing they have someone at hand who understands the stress and difficulty they live through. They also benefit from having support and acknowledgment. Your honest discussion about a parent’s addiction could be the positive discussion a child needs.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, get help right away. Make a phone call that will connect you to a professional drug treatment center. The call you make may save your life or the life of someone you love. Call us today at (800) 429-7690.


bullet National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019).
"How to Talk to Children and Teens about Drugs."
Retrieved on October 27, 2017
bullet National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020).
"Talking to Kids about Substance Use."
Retrieved on October 27, 2017
bullet Partnership to End Addiction. (n.d.).
"How to Talk to Kids about Drugs."
Retrieved on October 27, 2017
bullet Saisan, J., Smith, M., & Segal, J. (2020).
"Talking to Kids about Substance Abuse. HelpGuide."
Retrieved on October 27, 2017
bullet Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017).
"Talking to Children and Youth About Substance Use Disorders."
Retrieved on October 27, 2017
bullet The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. (n.d.).
"Explaining Addiction to Kids."
Retrieved on October 27, 2017
bullet University of Rochester Medical Center. (n.d.).
"How to Talk to Your Child about Substance Abuse."
Retrieved on October 27, 2017
bullet Washington State Department of Health. (n.d.).
"Talking to Your Child about Alcohol and Drugs."
Retrieved on October 27, 2017

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