How to Tell Your Child You Need Help for an Addiction
It’s a dilemma that many parents dread: When you’re in need of addiction treatment, how do you break the news to your kids? Discover some helpful and reassuring strategies for broaching the subject:
Informing your child that you have an addiction and need to get help to overcome it may seem like a Herculean task. You wonder if there is any appropriate and safe way to accomplish this necessary but dreaded task. After all, you don’t want to frighten your child or leave him or her with the impression that they’ll have to fend for themselves while you get treatment. Yet, you recognize that it’s important to be as honest as you can with your child, given consideration for his or her age and any prior knowledge of the difficulties you’ve experienced with addiction.
While there’s no single simple formula for how to tell your child that you need help for an addiction, here are some general recommendations that are worth a look.
FIRST, BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF
Before you can communicate with your child about your need for treatment, do a self-check of your motivation to follow through on your decision to get help. Are you committed to getting clean and sober, or are you testing the kind of reception such news might get from your child? If you’re not certain you’re going to get help, anything you say to your child about taking care of your responsibility and then not following through on it will leave him or her confused, doubtful that you’ll keep your word in other things, and worried about the consequences of you not getting treatment. Thus, it’s crucial that you are honest with yourself. If you know you need help for an addiction, now is the time to make plans to get it. It’s also the right time to let your child know what’s coming, and follow up with reassurance and loving actions so that the message is received in the best possible manner.
CHOOSE TREATMENT THAT’S BEST FOR YOU AND YOUR FAMILY
There are many options for addiction treatment. When you make the decision to get help for an addiction, you must choose the type of treatment that’s best for you and your family, including your child. It may not be practical for you to be away for a substantial length of time for several reasons. You may be the sole support for your child, your job could be in jeopardy if you are absent, putting your family at financial risk, or your child has needs that only you can reliably tend to. In this case, outpatient treatment may be best.
If, however, you have the support of family and/or friends or can arrange for outside help to care for your child while you’re in treatment, perhaps the best treatment for you is residential addiction treatment. Whatever treatment you choose, be sure it’s one that you consider best for you and your family.
PICK AN APPROPRIATE TIME FOR THE CONVERSATION
As with any important discussion, there’s an appropriate time to conduct it. With a conversation as delicate and emotional as talking with your child about your need for addiction treatment, you want to be sure that you arrange to have it at a time when your child feels safe and loved, there are no unavoidable outside interruptions, you’re not rushing off to work or in the car on the way to taking him or her to school, or when your child is in the middle of a crisis, upset or just about to go to sleep. It’s also wise to prepare yourself emotionally for the conversation, calming your nerves with some meditation, prayer, yoga, deep breathing, possibly a walk outside in nature. How you present yourself to your child for this talk will have an immediate effect on the likelihood that it will be well received.
For many parents, this may be a morning conversation, or one after attending religious services, possibly after an enjoyable family excursion or activity. Timing is important for this discussion, and so are other considerations.
WATCH YOUR TONE AND BODY LANGUAGE
Keep your voice level and choose your words carefully. Also watch your body language so that you don’t inadvertently convey undue nervousness, anxiety or doubt. Your child will instantly pick up on both the tone of your voice and the way you appear before him or her. Your intent should be to interact with your child in a matter-of-fact, but firm and loving way so that there’s no mistaking you mean what you say. Tone, word choice and body language are part of the way you prepare to let your child know you need to get help for an addiction.
START OFF WITH REASSURANCE
What do children fear most? Generally, it’s being abandoned by their parents, left alone in the world. While unspoken, these fears can decimate a child’s sense of confidence and well-being. This is the last thing you want to occur when you speak with your child about your need for treatment. Therefore, before you say anything else, begin your conversation with reassuring words of love to your child. Let him or her know by both what you say and how you deliver it that you will always be there for him or her. Also say that you’ve taken steps to ensure your child is well cared for and that you will only need to be away for a short while. Keep in mind that even a few days can seem an eternity to a child, especially young children. Mention how you’ll stay in touch during your absence, after learning from the treatment facility when and where you’ll have access to phones, the Internet, and personal visits.
LISTEN TO YOUR CHILD’S CONCERNS
This discussion must be a two-way street. It’s not enough for you to inform your child that you need help for an addiction and discuss your plans for getting treatment. You also must listen to your child’s concerns. He or she will undoubtedly have many questions, each of which deserves the time and attention you can give. What you say and how you say it will go a long way toward dispelling fear and uncertainty in your child about what’s going to happen while you’re away.
Sometimes children are secretly afraid that Daddy or Mommy’s drinking or drug use will happen to them, too. Make sure your child knows that, while you need help for a problem with alcohol or drugs, it’s not a contagious condition and they won’t get “sick.”
Also, be aware that children often feel somehow responsible for a parent’s drinking or drug use, that they may have caused it by their behavior. Assure them that your difficulties requiring treatment have nothing to do with them, they didn’t cause it and aren’t responsible for it. Furthermore, note any protective attitude or actions your child displays, as children frequently want to “take care of” a parent undergoing problems, even though the child is incapable of shouldering such a responsibility. In this case, let your child know that you are getting help from professionals who specialize in treating the type of addiction you have. Offer more reassurance that you will benefit from such treatment and will come back stronger, healthier and better able to resume your role as their loving mother or father.
SHARE APPROPRIATE INFORMATION
If your child is older, you could talk about the dangers of alcohol and drug use, what it does to the body, how it can lead to addiction, what addiction is and so on. Use age-appropriate language and offer resources for additional information if your child wants or needs it. Check out reputable information sources such as the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and other organizations, all of which have online resources that provide a great deal of information you can use to share with your child.
Remember, becoming as knowledgeable as you can about alcohol and drug abuse will greatly assist your preparations for this all-important discussion with your child.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Retrieved June 29, 2017
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.” Retrieved June 29, 2017
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.” Retrieved June 29, 2017
Psychology Today, “Does It Really Matter How We Talk About Addiction?” Retrieved June 29, 2017
Psychology Today, “Mindfulness, Meditation, and Addiction.” Retrieved June 29, 2017
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Retrieved June 29, 2017