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Explaining alcohol and drug use

From a young age, children generally know a lot about their parents’ AOD use - more than most adults realise, so it’s important to tell them the truth.

Talking to children about this can become the foundation of a relationship based on honesty and trust. Information can help children make sense of the events that have occurred within their family and can prevent them from developing assumptions about their parents’ behaviour.

Sharing information with children about their parents’ problems may make them feel different to their friends, which may increase the anxiety and worry they already have. Children don’t need to know all the details of what is happening, but practitioners should not lie to or mislead them.

When you talk to children about the nature of their parents’ AOD use, there are a number of points that can help you to engage with them and not make them feel overwhelmed, fearful and anxious. In particular:

  • ask about and listen to what they say about how their parents’ AOD use affects their life
  • match your explanations about their parents’ AOD use to the children’s ages and developmental stages
  • explain in clear and simple terms that they are not responsible for their parents’ AOD use
  • communicate that their parents still love them
  • connect them to other people if they wish or ask to speak with them
  • tell them about their parents’ attempts to overcome their problems and change their behaviour, as this may alleviate some of their worries and help them believe change is possible.

Practice prompt

Children as young as 4 can tell the difference between wine and beer based on the shape of the bottle. Children as young as 6 can tell the difference between types of alcohol by smell.

(Alcohol and Drug Foundation, 2019)

Tell children the truth

Explain to the child that their parent has a problem with using alcohol or drugs and that this means their parent finds it hard to avoid and control the amount of alcohol or drugs they take. Let them know that this problem causes the parent to behave differently.

Ask the child:

  • Have you noticed this?
  • How is your mum or dad different when they drink or take drugs?
  • What kinds of things do they do?
  • What things do they normally do that they don’t do when they drink or use drugs?’

Ask a child how it makes them feel. Many children who have a parent with problematic AOD use feel lonely. They may wish they could have a ‘normal’ home life like they think their friends have. Let them know Child Safety worka with other children like them and these children feel the same way, too.

Ask the child:

  • How does it make you feel when mum or dad drinks or uses drugs?
  • What do you think when mum or dad drinks or uses drugs?
  • What do you notice about the way mum or dad acts?

Tip

Ask the child what they do when their parent is using alcohol or other drugs. This question reveals the child's strengths, acts of protection and empowers them to see their strength in coping and surviving.

Assure the child that they are not the cause of their parent’s AOD use. Children often feel they are to blame for a parent’s drinking or drug use. Let them know this is a problem that the parent has, and it’s up to the parent to make it better. It is better not to tell them that a parent is sick or has a disease, as this might prompt the child to become a caretaker and misunderstand what is happening. Ask the child if there have been times when they thought or felt it was their fault.

A child is not responsible for getting their parent to stop using. Children need to hear from you and other adults that they are not responsible for getting their parent to stop using drugs or drinking.

Ask the child:

  • Have there been times you thought you could make them stop?
  • What did you do?

It is important that children hear consistent messages and information. Talk with parents and support networks about who will provide information to the child, so they get clear messages. This may be you, a parent, a carer or another adult in the child’s network. As parents recover, they may become more involved in these conversations to support their child.

Include children in the safety planning process, including the development of non-negotiables around safety by:

  • giving them something they can take with them. Making a booklet with them or using the Safety House Tool can give a child something concrete to walk away with. They have something to refer to when you or other supportive adults are not there, and it helps other adults give the same messages
  • talking about a parent’s treatment and recovery. Children and young people will need to know why their parents are seeking treatment and the details of what this will look like, including:
    • what treatment and recovery will mean for them and their parent
    • what the care arrangements will be while their parent is getting treatment
    • how they can stay connected with their parent if they are not seeing them for a while.

A child will also need help to make sense of their parent’s treatment and recovery. Check in regularly about how the child’s or young person’s feeling, worries and needs as they walk alongside their parent’s treatment and recovery.

When talking about a parent’s relapse, explain to the child what has happened and what it means. Be clear that relapse is common for people recovering from AOD use and it does not mean things have failed. If a child is living with their parent during treatment and recovery, talk to the child about any fears and worries they may have, including any pressure to keep their parent’s relapses a secret.

Explaining problematic alcohol and drug use to different age groups

Below are ways to explain a parent's problematic AOD use according to the child's age.

Children aged under 10 years

Children and young people can relate to the question: Have you ever wanted something so bad, no matter how much your brain told you ‘no’, you still wanted it?. You can show the child the marshmallow test as a conversation starter. It shows that sometimes people make choices they know they are not the best choice to make, but they can’t stop themselves.

The marshmallow test: can children learn self control?

After you have watched the clip together, ask the child questions about how hard it was for the child to wait. Even though the better choice is to wait, a person’s brain is not always able to make that choice. This example can help a child connect with the struggle their parent has with alcohol and drugs.

You can say to the child: "It is a bit the same way with drugs and alcohol. Even parents have things they want so much they can’t seem to say no. Right now, Mum or Dad is dealing with the same thing. Sometimes we make really good choices and sometimes, even when we know better, we don’t make the best choice, like in the video".

Resources you can use:

When a parent drinks too much alcohol… what kids want to know is a guide from The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health that may help you when talking to children about their parents’ problematic alcohol use. It has suggestions on how to answer questions such as:

  • Why does my mum or dad drink so much?
  • What does it feel like to drink alcohol? How does it feel to be drunk?
  • Why am I so confused about how I feel? Why do I worry so much?
  • Why is the alcohol problem a secret?
  • Can my mum or dad stop drinking so much? Can people get better?
  • Is there anything I can do to make my mum or dad better?
  • Why do people drink so much when they know it will hurt them or others?
  • When I grow up, will I have an alcohol problem too?
  • What can I do so that I do not ever have an alcohol problem?

The Flying Dream This is a children’s book about children who re-enter foster care because of their mother’s problems with drugs and mental illness.

Help me understand: A booklet to help children, young people and workers talk about an adult’s alcohol and drug treatment. This booklet is suitable for children and young people who are affected by the alcohol or drug use of an adult in their life. It provides useful information to help start conversations with children and young people as well as helpful tools to capture information about the child’s thoughts, feelings and needs.

Children aged 9 to 12 years

Children who are in middle childhood are more aware of what’s happening around them than younger children. Consider this and give them relevant information. Ask them what they already know and then fill in the gaps. Stick to the facts and what you know is true. Use the child’s words when talking with them.

Conversation ideas:

  • So you said that Dad drinks beer. I am wondering if you can tell me everything you know about that. Thn I can help you understand things a bit better with what I know.
  • Okay, so you said Dad starts drinking in the morning and is still drinking at night. I’m curious what that’s like for you. If you did not see Dad drinking beer, how else would you know he has been drinking beer? What do you notice about the times Dad drinks beer from morning to night?
  • Some people have had some worries about your dad drinking beer from morning to night. What do you think other people are worried about?
  • If we look at all the important people in your life at home and outside of the home, I am wondering what worries they may have. I am also really keen to know if you have any worries.
  • You are right, when people drink alcohol the way they think and act can change, depending on how much alcohol they drink. You mentioned that you’ve asked your dad to stop drinking and he hasn’t. What do you think that is about?
  • When people have talked about alcohol, have you ever heard someone say ‘They are dependent on alcohol’? Is it okay if we talk a bit about this? I think it could really help you understand what is going on with your dad.

Resource you can use:

You are not on your own: a booklet to help children and adults talk about a parent’s drinking is aimed at children aged 8 to 12 and has exercises for them to complete. It can also help you when talking to children. (Please note this booklet is from the United Kingdom and contains UK references.)

Young people aged 13 to 17 years

Young people need you to be honest and up-front about their parents’ problematic AOD use. If they feel you are not being honest with them or are speaking down to them, they will quickly ‘check out’. Glossing over things may lead to distrust. Try starting the conversation with what they know about their parents’ substance use or how they have been experienced it.

Conversation ideas:

  • Has your mum or dad ever talked to you about their alcohol or drug use? Do you remember you telling me about when dad was so drunk he fell over or when you thought mum was acting weird?
  • You may have heard the word ‘addict’ or ‘addiction’? These are not words we like to use, but some people do call it this. We call alcohol or drug dependence a disorder. It is when a person cannot control how much they drink or use, and it hurts them or the people they care about. It can feel like they cannot live without it. They have to have it at all costs.
  • Someone who drinks or uses drugs may be more aggressive, or have mood swings. They may act in a way that is embarrassing to them or other people. When your mum or dad drinks or uses, how does it affect them / you / your siblings?
  • A person can’t cause another person to become dependent on drugs or alcohol, but sometimes it’s hard for someone to accept they have a problem and they can blame others. You cannot make someone drink, use or stop. Have you ever felt blame for your mum’s or dad’s use of alcohol or drugs? Why do you feel so bad about it? What worries you the most about it?

Resource you can use:

Useful tools for gathering and mapping historical information include:

  • genograms, which provide a visual display of a child's family relationships and medical history
  • chronologies, which provide a timeline of important events in a child’s life and milestones achieved
  • ecomaps, which provide a visual display of important relationships between a child, their family and their social network.

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