Talking to Kids Affected by Parental Addiction

Dad talking to young son holding a skateboard

By: Cindy Coloma
Addie is late to class again. She reminded her mom about the Valentine’s Day party but ended up leaving for the bus with her still asleep on the couch. Just like last year, Addie dreads walking into school with no Valentine’s cards to pass out to her classmates and no goodies to share. She thinks about hiding in the bathroom, but Miss McCauley is standing in the hallway talking to a parent. Addie is afraid her teacher will start asking questions again. She feels sick to her stomach and walks to the office to see the nurse.

Addiction is like a spider’s web with threads that stretch and wind around family, friends and community alike. The most innocent victims caught in the web of addiction are children. Stuck in a circumstance that is not of their own choosing, children live with the consequences of their addicted loved one’s disease.

According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, there are an estimated 26.8 million Americans with alcoholic parents. Some early research indicates that 11 million of these are children under the age of 18.1

As these kids grow up, they face unique challenges. According to the Huffington Post, children of adults struggling with addiction tend to have more behavioral and academic issues, and they are four times more likely to become addicts.2

These statistics leave caring adults asking, what can be done? Is there a way to come alongside these children and make a difference?

The best way to address the pain and struggle these kids are living with is to talk to them. However, getting a child to talk about their feelings about a parent’s addiction is no small feat. Most of these children learn at an early age to hide the truth. They feel shame and embarrassment, and sometimes they even feel guilty. But talking these feelings over with a caring, healthy adult can make a positive difference in how they navigate their formative years.

So how do you approach the task of having a meaningful conversation with a child who has parents dealing with addiction?

Here are a few tips:

  • Be honest. A child has an uncanny way of knowing when you’re not telling the truth. Take into account their age and maturity level, and be as honest as you can about what’s happening. This will build trust and let them know they can really count on you.
  • Validate their feelings. Don’t try to say things to fix it. Don’t try to make the child feel any different than they are feeling at the moment. Acknowledge the impact of the pain they feel and give them time and space to say exactly how they feel without being judged.
  • Help them strengthen their perspective. Educate yourself about the disease of addiction and speak up when you hear the child say things that are untrue. For example, a child may feel like their family is the only one impacted by addiction. You could take the opportunity to show them that millions of children struggle. Knowing they’re not alone may help them be open to talking further. For a child such as Addie, knowing she is not alone would help her engage and celebrate with her classmates without feeling as much embarrassment.

Supporting a child when their parents are struggling with addiction can mean all the difference.

Here are some additional ways you might show them support:

  • Be reliable. As the child of someone who misuses drugs or alcohol, they are used to false promises and disappointment. Do your best to follow through with plans you make with the child. Reliability builds trust and creates a sense of safety in your relationship.
  • Provide resources. Building a tribe of support around a child is a crucial step in navigating the tough road ahead. Work with the child to utilize school resources if they feel comfortable doing so. Local government agencies and support groups such as Alateen may help the child with effective support as well.
  • Help them be a kid. Often, children who come from homes where adults have struggled with addiction are not allowed to enjoy being a kid. They often are left to fend for themselves or care for younger siblings. Any way that you can help them have fun, laugh and play like a child even for a short time will be a gift and creates childhood memories to cherish.

While there’s no way to erase the effects parental addiction has on children, there are ways to strengthen connections with healthy support systems. For more ideas on how to impact the lives of families struggling with addiction and recovery, or to find out more about the programs available at Valley Hospital, please visit our website.


  • 1 Children of Alcoholics: Important Facts. National Association for the Children of Alcoholics. Accessed January 1, 2018.
  • 2 Sack, David. “How to Talk to a Child About a Parent’s Addiction.” Huffington Post, January 31, 2013.
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