When Elizabeth Maracut entered rehab for alcohol use disorder in 2015, she knew she had to tell her daughter and son, then in kindergarten and second grade respectively, why mommy was going away for a while. 

“I just told them that I was sick and needed help,” Maracut recalls, “But even then, my daughter was really intuitive and wanted to know more, so I told her that when I drank wine, it made me sick, and I had to get help for that.”

Maracut’s young daughter still pressed on with questions, and Maracut remembers responding with honesty and hoping for the best. “Sometimes, you really just don’t know what to say.”

This is a struggle that many who suffer from substance use disorder face. Talking to our children about having an issue with substances can feel overwhelming. Some parents will want to shy away from the topic altogether. Others will want to be as vague as possible.

So what, exactly, is the best protocol when it comes to talking to children about substance use disorder?

“As with any touchy subject, parents must approach the subject in a way that’s relative to the child’s stage of development,” says Lisa Savage, a licensed mental health counselor and the owner of The Center for Childhood Development in Newark, Delaware.

Savage also points out that children are sensitive to how their parents act and will know when something alters a parent’s behavior — like getting sober — so talking to them is a must.

Let go of the shame.

For decades, shame and guilt have been associated with addiction, which makes it difficult to start a conversation with anyone, let alone your own children. Savage acknowledges this, but says it’s important to let all of that go before talking to kids.

“In families where there is addiction, a child often feels responsible and out of control because  chaos that associated with substance abuse,” Savage says. Talking openly about it, without a veil of guilt or shame, is a good way to help a child understand the nature of substance use disorder. It also helps a child relinquish the responsibility they might feel for their parent’s drug or alcohol use. 

Keep it age-appropriate.

Younger kids don’t have the same capacity for understanding that a preteen or teenager might have. It’s important to keep the conversation at a level that the child can understand. No one knows their child better than a parent, so gauging a child’s stage of development is personal but there are some standard guidelines to follow.

For younger children, Savage suggests explaining substance use disorder by using examples that they can relate to. 

“You can say: ‘You may have noticed that when I drink out of these glasses (or this blue can or drink this red drink) that I act differently. I might have been tired or silly. I might have been angry with you. I want you to know that I’m not drinking anything that will change the way I act anymore.’”

Maybe you didn’t drink, but used drugs instead. The same concept applies. Maybe you left the house for a couple of days or took a pill and then got sleepy. You can use this example in place of the drink example.

For older kids — those in the preteen and teenage years — Savage says it’s important to be frank and honest. 

“The preteen years are crucial as this is a time when children are becoming aware of drugs and alcohol. They likely know peers who are using, or they are experimenting themselves. Parents should be explicit that while they understand the curiosity, that they would prefer their child not to use drugs or alcohol. It’s also important to speak about potential long-term consequences.”

This kind of discussion, she says, isn’t meant to frighten children to not use drugs or alcohol but to increase the child’s awareness. This is especially important since kids who have parents with substance use issues are eight times more likely to develop an addiction issue.

Make room for questions.

It’s likely that when you talk to a child about substance use disorder, questions will come up. It’s important to keep that door open.

“Encourage them to be honest and ask what’s on their mind,” Savage says. “But be mindful of what you share.”

Children, of course, have no control over a parent’s substance use but, even after that’s been explained, children might still feel like they need to help fix problems that are a result of substance use.

“It’s important not to mention something a child has no power over,” says Savage. “For example, financial problems that are a result of substance use need not be discussed with a child.”

As a child gets older, more questions will likely arise. Savage says its important to ensure a child knows that asking questions any time they arise is okay. Parents should be honest, frank, and loving in their responses. 

Reassure, reassure, reassure.

As mentioned above, children that grow up with a parent or family member that struggle with substance use disorder might feel responsible or guilty. It’s important to reassure children that the issue is nothing they can control, not something they caused, and not a problem they need to take on as their own.

Savage says it’s also important that children know it isn’t their job to keep their parents sober either. Relapse happens, and kids might feel responsible.

“This is why it’s so important to talk about addiction as a disease,” Savage says.

Seek professional help for the family.

Sometimes, a third party is needed. Talking to kids about substance use is important, but Savage relays, it might also be necessary to seek professional help for the family.

“Family therapy and individual therapy can be the saving grace when there’s addiction in the house.” An objective perspective could be easier for a child to hear. Oftentimes, the emotional bond a child has to his or her family member can cloud perception and understanding.

If speaking to someone one-on-one overwhelms the child, support groups for children of parents with substance use issues are another alternative. A group setting offers an opportunity for a child to see that he or she is not alone.

Talking about substance use disorder with children can be hard at first, but it’s necessary and important to the mental wellbeing of the child and of the family.

“This cloak of silence maintains the shame and increases the emotional pain,” Savage says. “Be open about the choices you’ve made to live your life differently. Talking about it helps to decrease the shame and feelings of isolation that children face.”