How to Help Your Kids Understand Addiction

For children, the concept of addiction as a disease is a tough one. In fact, it’s not always easy for adults to understand either. As a parent it is your job to talk to your kids about addiction if someone in their lives has a substance abuse problem. Whether it is a parent, a sibling or a more distant relative, you have to help your kids try to make sense of what seems so difficult to understand. Start a discussion about addiction at a level that is age-appropriate and then make sure your kids have the necessary coping strategies to deal with having an addict in the family.

What Is Addiction?

Before you can even attempt to help your children understand this disease you need to untangle it yourself. Find resources that are reputable and informative and read up on the disease of addiction. Learn about the science behind addiction, how drugs and alcohol affect the brain and body, how it can be treated, and the evidence that indicates addiction is a disease rather than a moral failing. Having the answers ready to the questions your kids will undoubtedly ask will help you to have a more productive conversation with them.

Be Honest and Age Appropriate

It may be tempting to avoid the entire ugly truth about addiction, to temper it with a prettier picture, but kids know when you’re not being honest. Even as you attempt to frame the conversation for younger children, avoid lying. You may need to leave some of the grittier details out, or change some of the wording for a young child, but you can and should be truthful. The older your kids are the more details you can give them about addiction and how it is impacts the person with the disease and everyone around him.

Avoid Shaming, but Acknowledge Choices

As you explain to your children that addiction is a disease and that drugs and alcohol have a major impact on the brain, it is important to strike a fair balance. Make sure that your kids learn not to shame addicts or to treat them with disrespect. On the other hand, they should also know that everyone makes choices, and sometimes they make poor ones. Teach your kids to have compassion for those who are addicted, but also to make better choices when they are faced with the possibility of trying drugs or alcohol.


Make your conversation about addiction two-sided. Present the information, give them your perspective and then invite your kids to speak and ask questions. They will have some strong feelings about what they have observed about an addicted loved one and talking about it will help them sort through those emotions. Also be prepared to answer any questions they have. If you don’t have the answer, assure them that you will find it together.

Seek Support

Finally, it is so important for your kids to know that they are not alone in having a loved one succumb to drug or alcohol addiction. Together, look for support groups that will help them meet other people going through the same thing. This is especially important if the addict in their lives is a parent. Sharing their experiences with other children in the same situation can be very powerful. Most important is to be there for your children. No matter who the person is in their lives that struggles with addiction, you can be a supportive and caring role model and someone to whom they can turn. Having this conversation about addiction may not be easy for you, but it will help your kids to better understand what is happening to someone they love.

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