Families and Substance Abuse: How to Explain Addiction to a Child

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We all want to protect children. But there comes a time when you can no longer shield them from the harsh realities of life. One of those realities is addiction. The question is: how do you handle this difficult issue with your child? If you are wondering how to explain addiction to a child, read on.

How Does Addiction Affect Children?

While we sometimes think our choices only affect us, the truth is our actions impact the people around us. When it comes to addiction, the consequences are felt by the whole family – especially children.

Here are some facts regarding the impact of addiction on children:

  • One in five children grow up in a home where one or both parents abuse drugs or alcohol.
  • More than 400,000 infants each year are born exposed to substances prenatally.
  • A parent with an addiction is three times more likely to physically or sexually abuse their child.
  • Juveniles from these households are 40% more likely to commit violent crimes and 50% more likely to end up in the justice system.
  • Children of addicted parents are at four times greater risk of neglect.

Children from these environments tend to experience higher levels of anxiety and stress. The stress over the situation can interfere with the child’s ability to function, leading to behavioral issues and criminal activity. School performance may suffer and the child may socially withdraw.

In severe cases, addiction can also lead to physical neglect, where a child’s basic needs, such as food, hygiene, and safety, are not adequately met. Children can also end up being abused, either by the parent or by people the parent brings into their lives.

Unsurprisingly, children of addicted parents are at a higher risk of developing substance abuse issues themselves. This can be due not only to genetic factors but also environmental influences. Children watch the adults in their lives keenly to learn what is acceptable behavior. If they see a parent abusing drugs or alcohol, they may be more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol at a younger age themselves.

Can Children Blame Themselves for Addiction?

Children can indeed blame themselves for their parents’ addiction problems. This often happens because kids might not fully understand what addiction is and they tend to think everything revolves around them. They might think they did something to cause the addiction.

This can lead to lowered self-esteem, higher stress, and negatively impacted personal development.

It’s important to explain to the child this is not their fault. That means having age-appropriate conversations about the nature of addiction and letting them know the reasons for addiction are complex. Make sure the child understands they are not responsible for their parent’s addiction. Encouragement and positive reinforcement can help rebuild self-esteem damaged by guilt and blame.

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How to Explain Addiction to a Child

Explaining addiction to a child can be challenging, but it’s important to help them understand in a way that is appropriate for their age and emotional development.

Here are some tips and key points to consider when talking to kids about addiction:

  1. Use Simple, Clear Language

Avoid technical terms or complex explanations. Instead, use language that a child can easily understand. For example, you might say, “Addiction is when someone cannot stop doing something, even when it’s causing them harm.”

  1. Emphasize That It’s Not Their Fault

Children often blame themselves for their parents’ problems. Make it clear that the addiction is not their fault and that there’s nothing they could have done to prevent it. Reassure them that they are not responsible for fixing it, either.

  1. Explain Addiction as a Sickness

Describe addiction as a kind of sickness that affects the brain. You could say something like, “Just like people get sick with a cold and can’t control their sneezing, people with addiction can’t control their need for a certain substance or behavior, even though it makes them feel bad.”

  1. Be Honest but Age-Appropriate

Provide truthful information without going into unnecessary detail that might be confusing or distressing. It’s okay to say you don’t have all the answers. The goal is to be open to questions and provide comfort.

  1. Highlight the Role of Treatment and Support

Explain that there are ways to help people with addiction through doctors, counselors, and support groups. Emphasize the importance of seeking help and the possibility of getting better with the right treatment.

  1. Promote Open Communication

Encourage them to ask questions and express their feelings. They must know they can talk to you about anything they’re curious or concerned about.

  1. Use Stories or Analogies

Sometimes a story or analogy can help make complex ideas more relatable. For example, comparing addiction to being unable to stop playing a video game, even when it’s time to eat or sleep, might help them grasp the compulsive nature of addiction.

  1. Ensure They Feel Loved and Secure

Throughout your discussion, reassure them of your love and support. Knowing they have a stable and secure environment can help mitigate any fears or anxieties they may have about the situation.

  1. Focus on the Importance of Healthy Coping Strategies

Discuss the importance of dealing with problems in healthy ways, such as talking about feelings, exercising, or engaging in hobbies. This not only helps them understand how to support someone with addiction but also equips them with tools to handle their challenges.

  1. Seek Support if Needed

If you’re finding it difficult to explain or if the child is struggling to understand or cope, consider seeking support from a professional who is experienced in working with children affected by addiction.

By keeping these points in mind, you can help children understand addiction in a compassionate and supportive way, ensuring they feel safe and informed.

Are There Resources for Teaching Kids About Addiction?

If you find yourself at a loss on how to explain addiction to a child, know that there are various resources available to help. These range from books and websites to programs and support groups designed to educate children and support those who have family members struggling with addiction.

Here are some books for explaining addiction to a child:

  • “An Elephant In the Living Room” by Jill M. Hastings and Marion H. Typpo: A book designed for children who are dealing with alcoholism in their family. It uses the story of an elephant as a metaphor for the problem that everyone is ignoring.
  • “My Dad Loves Me, My Dad Has a Disease” by Claudia Black: This book explains addiction and its effects on families in a way that children can understand.
  • “Daddy’s Disease” by Carolyn Hannan Bell: Focused on explaining alcoholism to children, this book helps them understand the disease and reassures them that their parent’s addiction is not their fault.


There are also various support programs available, such as:

  • Alateen: Part of the Al-Anon Family Groups, Alateen is a fellowship of young people (usually teenagers) whose lives have been affected by someone else’s drinking. They offer a safe place to share and learn from each other.
  • Children’s Program Kit by Hazelden: Designed for professionals working with children aged 6-12 who are living in a family affected by addiction, the Children’s Program Kit by Hazelden provides activities and discussions geared towards helping children understand and cope with these issues.


When using these resources, it’s important to review them first to ensure they’re suitable for the child’s age and maturity level, as well as the specific circumstances of their exposure to addiction. These resources can be a starting point for discussions and can help children feel less alone and more supported in dealing with addiction in their families.

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Addiction Treatment at South Coast Behavioral Health

If you or a loved one are seeking addiction treatment, South Coast Behavioral Health is here to help. The first step in treating addiction is a medical detox. This means using drugs to manage withdrawal symptoms.

Our medical detox program in California is staffed by caring and compassionate professionals who can provide you with medications to manage your withdrawal symptoms.

At South Coast, we take pride in offering care that is closely tailored to specific issues. To that end, we offer gender-specific detox programs, with medical detox for men in Irvine, CA, and medical detox for women in Huntington Beach, CA.

After detoxing, proper treatment can begin.

Treatment for substance abuse takes place along an entire spectrum of care. Along that entire spectrum are various behavioral therapies, support groups, and the use of medically-assisted treatment (MAT).

These levels of treatment are, in order, as follows:

Residential Treatment in California

After completing medical detox, you’ll receive inpatient treatment in Orange County California. There, you’ll receive medically-assisted treatment and dual diagnosis treatment to deal with any cravings or co-occurring mental health issues you may be battling.

We also offer residential treatment facilities in Costa Mesa, Irvine, and Huntington Beach for those who desire gender-specific treatment. There, patients get round-the-clock medical attention and monitoring while living at the institution full-time.

In addition to individual and group counseling and medication management, you’ll also have access to leisure activities and family support services.

Partial Hospitalization in California

Most clients start substance abuse treatment with South Coast in our residential treatment program. After completing that, many desire something that still provides structure and support, but with extra space and time to oneself. For that, we offer Partial Hospitalization in Newport Beach.

A step down from inpatient care but with more structure than conventional outpatient programs, partial hospitalization offers a good balance for those looking to ease back into normal life. Clients can receive care five to seven days a week for several hours each day, returning to their homes in the evening.

This way, they can recover without putting their daily lives completely on hold, receiving intense therapeutic interventions like group and individual therapy, skill development, and medication management as necessary.

Intensive Outpatient Treatment in California

For those leaving inpatient residential treatment or partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient programs (IOP) are yet another gradual step forward on the road to recovery.

With a focus on group therapy, individual counseling, and education, clients undergoing Intensive Outpatient Treatment in Newport Beach can meet three to five days a week. Each session lasts three hours.

This level of care requires the least amount of attendance at a facility.

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If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction but wonder how long treatment takes or have other questions, call us at 866-881-1184 or contact us here. Our highly qualified staff will be happy to help give you an idea of what to expect from your addiction recovery timeline, verify your insurance, and assist with any other questions you may have.

Pierce Willans
Kelly McIntyre
Medically Reviewed by Kelly McIntyre, MS, LMFT
Read More About addiction Treatment & Recovery
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