Ask an Expert: How Do I Talk To My Child About His Father's Addiction?

By Doreen Maller 01/08/15
Today's question is on how to tell your son or daughter about another parent's harmful habit.

How do I talk to my young child about his father's drug addiction?

Doreen Maller: While every family’s addiction journey is different, in general kids do well when someone is able to listen to their needs and curiosity, and relate information back to them in an age-appropriate way. Depending on the level of drug use and its impact on the family, there is a handful of ways that conversation can be initiated.

If there are safety concerns, all efforts should be made to keep the child safe, including leaving the home. In issues regarding safety you can say, “When Daddy is using drugs we aren’t safe around him, we need to go away until he is safer to be with.” Sometimes the child’s own behaviors are impacted by the tension in the home. Children are often confused by erratic adult behaviors and can feel frightened or unsafe when they witness family tension and drama. As a child and family therapist, my goal is to help the child integrate what he or she has seen and heard into something that makes sense from a child’s perspective so that they can return to the behaviors and tasks necessary in their own lives (like school, exercise and sleep). 

Children often miss the absent parent. Being able to talk about the person, separate from their behaviors, can help a child feel more grounded, “When my Daddy drinks I get scared, but I miss him anyway…” Therapy can provide an opportunity for the child to explore their curiosity or strong feelings with a neutral party.

If a family is comfortable with a medical model for intervention, an addiction can be characterized as an ailment - “Daddy has an allergy to alcohol.” Or if the addiction began as pain management, “Daddy hurt his leg and now he has a problem with his leg and his medicine too.” 

There are studies that show that people who can control their impulses and postpone pleasure for a greater reward have more success in life. With that in mind, addiction can be discussed as an impulsive action, “Mommy has a hard time stopping when she starts drinking. Do you ever have a hard time stopping something? How do you stop something once you start it?” 

If incarceration is part of the process, “Mommy had such a hard time with her addiction that she got in so much trouble and has to go away for a while.”  Hospitalization may require another type of explanation, “Daddy was having a hard time and needs some extra help feeling better and getting better. Sometimes you have to go someplace else to do that.”  

Truth telling, though difficult, can help set clear expectations. A child may be concerned and ask "Will Mommy come home soon?" A response might be “We sure hope so, getting better is difficult and takes a lot of work, for now, we want to be sure you are OK and doing all the things a kid needs to be doing, and that Mommy is safe and doing what she needs to do and can come home when she is ready…”

Asking the child how he or she feels can be helpful; “Mommy is having a hard day today, how are you doing?” Young children can find adult behaviors confusing, or they may want to provide comfort, or they may get angry. Helping the child express their feelings: “I know you get angry when Daddy is out of control. I do too. And I think Daddy maybe too." "We need to be sure you’re OK even when Daddy isn’t.” Or: “We need to go be with Grandma to be safe until Mommy can be safer to be around” is a good place to start. The goal is to create a safe place for the child to talk about and process her or his feelings, rather than internalize or deny them. 

As a therapist I often rely on therapeutic children’s books to help combat the natural isolation some kids feel when dealing with issues in their family. I have a collection of books that discuss what jail is like, and how to act on visiting day. I have books that explore trauma though a child’s eyes and help explain how they may act out as a result. Some of the books even help introduce kids to working with and talking to a therapist. Knowing that there are other kids out there experiencing similar issues can give a child a sense of comfort. 

Working with families to provide structure, clear expectations, extra support, pro-social activities (exercise, good nutrition, time outdoors) during particularly stressful times can be very helpful for families working though issues, experiencing loss or adjusting to change.  Allowing the child to share their thoughts and feelings in a calm non-judgmental way can help relieve some internal tensions.

Here are some great kid’s books:

Overview of Kids and Trauma: A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M. HolmesSasha J. MudlaffCary Pillo

Family in Divorce Transition: Dinosaur’s Divorce by Marc Brown and Laurie Krasny Brown

Incarceration: My Daddy Is in Jail by Janet M. Bender

Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson and James Ransome



Doreen Maller, MFT, PhD, began her practice in community mental health with a specialty in high-risk children and their families, including numerous families coping with addiction issues. Dr. Maller is the series editor of the three-volume Praeger Handbook of Community Mental Health Practice. See    Full Bio.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix