Explaining a Parent's Substance Abuse to Children - PAX Riverbend

How to Explain a Parent’s Substance Abuse to Children

parents with their child

Addiction is widely known as a family disease – and for good reason. Substance abuse not only affects the individual, as it tends to also affect the people closest to them. Unfortunately, when a parent suffers from substance abuse, their children will feel the effects of it as well. For instance, children living in homes with parents who suffer from addiction might find life difficult, unpredictable, and confusing. Sometimes, children even fault themselves for their parent’s drug or alcohol abuse.

In order to prevent a child from feeling guilty about their parent’s drug abuse, it is important to open up a conversation with them. However, we know that no one is ever prepared to have this sort of conversation with a child. Additionally, trying to explain such a complicated topic like addiction to a child is very difficult. Therefore, the following text will cover the information, tips, and resources needed in order to successfully talk to a child about their parent’s substance abuse. 

What to Tell Children about Substance Abuse in the Family

Sometimes, when children are living in a home with parents who have issues with substance abuse, they are removed from the home. When children live in a house with parents who abuse drugs or alcohol, they can become shy and withdrawn. On the other hand, some children react explosively and violently. Additionally, these children often suffer from self-esteem, autonomy, trust, and attachment issues.

If you have or are a caretaker of a child who dealt with substance abuse in their home, it can be hard to explain addiction to them in a way they will comprehend. The first step in explaining a parent’s substance abuse issues is to be as honest and transparent as possible. According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA), there are four main messages that children of parents with substance abuse issues need to hear:

Addiction is a Disease

When a parent struggles with addiction, they will often be drunk or high in front of their kids. This means that they may behave oddly and sometimes act in an irate manner. Typically, the negative behavior that parents struggling with addiction may display is a direct result of being drunk or high. For example, some alcoholics become hostile when they drink. However, they are completely nice and rational while sober. Children need to know that their parents were only sick, rather than actually being a “bad” person. Therefore, it is extremely important to educate children about how addiction has been proven to be a disease.

It’s Not Your Fault

Oftentimes, when children grow up with parents struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, they begin to think it is their fault. For example, kids often internalize their parent’s drug use as something they are doing because their kid is bad or a burden. While this is not the case, this is a common thing for children of alcoholics and addicts to experience. In order to prevent thoughts like these, it is important to remind children that addiction is no one’s fault, especially not their’s. 

You Are Not Alone

It is extremely important for kids of addicts and alcoholics to understand that they are not alone. Explaining to them that many children have also witnessed their parent(s) battle with addiction may help them to feel less isolated. In fact, there are also helpful support groups for children of alcoholics and addicts that would allow them to interact with and vent to other kids in the same situation as them. 

It’s Okay to Talk

Unfortunately, many children who experience substance abuse in their homes feel the need to lie about what really goes on. Whether they are ashamed, fearful, or embarrassed to open up to others – staying silent about their traumas can be extremely mentally damaging. Therefore, children should be encouraged to talk to trusted peers and adults about their parent’s substance abuse. For example, talking to other family members, counselors, members of peer support groups, and even teachers could be very helpful for these children. 

The Seven C’s 

Another useful tool when talking to children about their parent’s substance abuse is the “Seven C’s of Addiction”:

I didn’t cause it.

I can’t cure it. 

I can’t control it.

I can care for myself

By communicating my feelings,

Making healthy choices, and 

By celebrating myself.

Children who have or are currently dealing with parental substance abuse often feel scared, alone, and even sometimes isolated from society. However, having someone to vent to and get advice from can greatly improve a child’s mindset and outlook on their life. Additionally, if you are talking to a child about their parent’s substance abuse, you should not expect the conversation to go perfectly. As long as the child has someone to trust and talk to, they will feel an immense weight lifted from their shoulders. 

Substance Abuse Treatment 

If you or a loved one are suffering from substance abuse issues, there is still hope. Recovery is possible and attainable through hard work, dedication, and time. Additionally, if you are a parent of a child and you are suffering from the disease of addiction, please call us today. Oftentimes, our children can be a great help in becoming motivated to start a new life of sobriety.

Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.