Dealing with alcoholism is undoubtedly one of the most challenging, burdensome things a person or a family can go through. Alcoholism manages to destroy relationships including marriages, break apart families, and ruin careers. It’s hard for adults to understand why alcoholism is happening to their loved one, or why they themselves can’t seem to control their own drinking.

With that in mind, the concept of explaining alcoholism to a child is even more difficult. Children may see the effects of alcoholism, perhaps in their parents or other family members, but they may not fully understand it.

When kids are in an environment where alcoholism is present, it can increase their own risk of also having a substance abuse problem. This can be because of genetic components, but also the environment. They may start to see alcohol abuse as normal or acceptable, or their lives might be chaotic and seem out of control, and they can start to internalize this or feel like it’s somehow their fault.

For many children, they also feel as if their family member’s alcoholism is something shameful that they need to keep secret, or that their parents are neglecting them for their addiction.

It can be helpful to explain alcoholism to a child, but it’s important to be aware of their age and exactly what to tell them and how to do it.

Alcoholism and Children

There are a staggering 28 million American children who have one or more parent who’s an alcoholic, yet it’s infrequently discussed, leaving these children confused and facing the consequences throughout their life.

When a child is in a home with alcoholism, they’re more likely to have a slew of problems including emotional, behavioral and academic problems, and they chances of them becoming addicts themselves are four times higher than their peers. They’re also at a higher risk for suffering from abuse or witnessing domestic violence, and they’re more likely to marry an addict eventually.

Related Topic: Why alcoholism runs in families

Children growing up around alcoholism tend to feel confused and as if their lives are spiraling out of control. They’re also often disappointed by their parent who likely keeps promising to quit drinking.

Tips for Explaining Alcoholism To A Child

With children who live around alcoholism, there’s really no good scenario. They’re witnessing things they can’t yet understand, and it’s difficult, to say the least. While explaining alcoholism to a child might not be a remedy for what they’re experiencing, it can be helpful to at least guide them through what’s happening and help them understand that it’s neither “normal” nor their fault.

  • It’s important to approach the process of explaining alcoholism to a child from the context that alcoholism is a disease. There needs to be an understanding that someone with alcoholism is unwell, but not necessarily a bad person.
  • The fact that it’s not the child’s fault needs to be reinforced, and they need to know that they neither caused the addiction nor can they do anything to stop it.
  • It’s important for children who grow up in homes where alcoholism is an issue to know that they don’t have to feel ashamed, and they don’t need to feel like they’re responsible for covering the family secret.

The National Association for Children of Alcoholics something called the “7 Cs of Addiction,” which can be reinforced when explaining alcoholism to children. These include:

  • 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

Age Appropriate Tips for Explaining Alcoholism to A Child

When you’re explaining alcoholism to a child,  not only are the tips above important but making sure that you’re approaching it from an age-appropriate standpoint is also important.

For children under ten, it’s important to speak in a way that emphasizes safety and gives the child the opportunity to share their feelings and their fears. For children that are older than ten but not yet teens, it’s important that explaining alcoholism not become a lecture about substance abuse, but instead, the conversation should be focused on direct honesty, and explaining the facts of the situation. Otherwise, tweens are likely to tune out what’s being said.

With older teens, honesty is essential, and it’s important they don’t feel like they’re being spoken down to.

Explaining alcoholism to a child is tough but important. By being honest and open, no matter how hard, it can help avoid some of the negative effects of growing up in a household with alcoholism. It can help the child avoid things like growing up accepting alcoholism as normal or copying the behavior they see, and it can help them avoid the low self-esteem that can occur when a child believes they’re at fault for their loved one’s alcoholism.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.