Explaining Addiction to Children

Substance abuse problems affect millions of households. In the United States, one in four children is exposed to alcohol abuse or dependence within their family. Talking to a child about a parent’s addiction can be heart-wrenching and complicated—especially when the child seems too young to grapple with addiction.


How can you help a child understand what their parent is facing? Consider these thoughts on explaining addiction to children.

Identifying the disease

Understanding addiction as a disease is key to interpreting how a loved one is thinking and processing their desire for drugs and alcohol. Rather than treating addiction as a character flaw, addiction is more appropriately described and treated as a chronic disease. Just as parents, partners, and spouses are encouraged to take this approach, our youngest loved ones can be taught to think this way, too.

While teaching children about addiction may sound premature or disheartening, those conversations are important opportunities to shape their thinking. With limited exposure to how addiction is viewed by others, a child’s perspective can be framed by learning about addiction as a disease. Just as other mental health issues will come into their vocabulary over time, addiction can be explained in the same way, allowing the child develop an awareness and understanding of their parent’s illness.

Talking through examples

How do you phrase things for a child to understand, while also being sensitive to their age and innocence? While you might give more context and information to teens, consider using this type of language with younger audiences:

  • When your mom or dad is drunk or high, they might say mean things or comments that don’t make sense. It’s not okay that they say those things, but it’s also part of being sick.
  • The reason they drink too much or use drugs is never because of something you did wrong. It’s never your fault. Addiction just means they are sick.
  • Someone who is an addict is not a bad person, but they will stay sick if they don’t get help.

Teaching a child to recognize those moments as examples of addiction’s symptoms can help the child form thoughts around why these problems are happening.

Teaching life skills

Children of addicts often face unique challenges in which they must take care of their own needs at a young age. Many refer to situations like this as times when a child needs to “grow up quickly.” But as heartbreaking as those cases may be, expanding the child’s life skills can help them problem-solve in tough circumstances.

If a parent’s lifestyle is volatile, the child may need earlier education on adult responsibilities. Teaching basic skills on how to independently take care of themselves can help equip and protect the child in times when their parent is negligent or absent. Examples include how to make certain meals, good habits for bedtime and morning routines, and ways to work with teachers to keep homework organized. Acquiring these skills can help the child better cope with their situation.

Pointing out resources

Various situations can make a child feel lonely. Perhaps the child comes home to an empty house after school. Maybe their parent is missing for periods of time without communication or supervision. Perhaps the family has split up because of substance abuse problems. Each of these problems can hurt a child’s self-esteem and provoke unfair feelings of shame or guilt.

As a co-parent, neighbor, coach, or mentor, what should you be watching for? If you notice a child in one of these situations, helping them identify their resources is important to their well-being and safety. For times when they are unexpectedly alone, make sure they always have phone numbers of family members and friends who can be accessed for support. If they ever feel unsafe, teach them what to do in case of an emergency. Learn more about helping children in families of substance abuse.