In 2016, a federal report found that nearly 21 million Americans over the age of 12 struggle with substance addictions. In recent months, stories of celebrity overdoses and the opioid epidemic have inundated the news. And in the United States, an estimated 8.7 million children under the age of 18 live with at least one parent with a substance use disorder.
Needless to say, addiction is something that touches almost everyone in some way, whether it’s directly through a family member or indirectly through news consumption. While parents want to address drugs and addiction with their kids, they often don’t know when or how to broach the subject. But it’s immensely important that they do.
To offer some guidance, HuffPost spoke to prevention and mental health experts, like John Sovec, a therapist based in Pasadena, California.
“Kids are much more savvy today, and open, honest conversations that take place now can set up the groundwork for keeping substances out of their future,” Sovec said.
With that in mind, here are nine things to know about talking to your children about addiction.
“The important thing is that this is a conversation that needs to start long before any child is exposed to substances in their peer groups,” Lindsey Prevost, the director of prevention services at the Council on Alcohol & Drug Abuse for Greater New Orleans, told HuffPost. “You can start talking to preschoolers and younger kids and highlighting some of these things.”
By starting the conversation early, parents can instill the notion that they will always be a resource and that their children can come to them with any questions or concerns. “Always bring it back to, ‘We love you. We care about you. And if we don’t know the answer, that’s OK. We’ll figure it out.’”
Keep It Age Appropriate
Of course, starting early doesn’t mean going into all of the ins and outs of addiction. Prevost emphasized keeping the discussion age appropriate.
“With toddlers or preschool kids, you can start the conversation simply by saying, ‘Hey, while I’m giving you this vitamin, this is really important to help you grow, but it’s also really important that you never take this by yourself,’” she explained. It’s helpful to note that taking too many vitamins ― or taking vitamins or medicine meant for someone else ― could make you feel sick.
“It can start with medicine safety, telling them that just because this is our family medicine cabinet doesn’t mean all of the medicine is for you, and we are responsible for taking care of you so please come to us with questions about what’s in there.”
Let The Conversation Evolve
Going into the tween years, Sovec advised parents not to be in denial about how much their kids are being exposed to the notion of addiction and drugs.
“It’s important for families to understand it is present on campus as young as elementary school and definitely in middle school,” he said. “And even if it’s not present in your kid’s face, it is on social media and in the news they’re seeing, so they are being exposed to the story of addiction at a much younger age than parents imagine they are.”
With this in mind, it’s crucial to foster open conversations about what your kids are seeing, hearing and reading. “Maybe someone got pulled out of their class one day because they were caught with drugs in their backpack. That’s an opportunity to ask what they know about it and what questions they may have about it,” Sovec added. “This sets them up to have a place to talk about addiction and substances as it becomes more present around them.”
Draw Connections To Things They Understand
Using a metaphor can help explain the concept of addiction or drug abuse to young kids. Sovec offered the example of a plate of cookies on a table.
“For some people, they can take one cookie and eat it and be OK, but some people might take the whole plate of cookies because they can’t stop themselves. And afterward when they’ve eaten that whole plate of cookies, they don’t feel well. That’s something more familiar to a little one’s experience.”
Prevost said when her agency explains the brain science behind addiction to kids, they relate it to everyday experiences. “We ask, ‘Have you ever been running around outside on a hot day and felt so thirsty? And then you took a sip of really cold amazing refreshing water and it felt so good? Or have you been so tired, you just couldn’t hold your head up anymore, and then you finally put your head on the pillow and you felt so good?’”
Our brains are designed to reinforce these things that are good for our survival, so they reward us when we do these things by making us feel great, Prevost explained. When someone develops an addiction, however, those things that used to make them feel good no longer compare to how they feel when they’re using a drug.
Honesty is key when parents are having conversations with their children about addiction.
“When we try to hide things from kids, they know that there’s something going on,” said Sovec. “And if we don’t validate that information or explain what addiction looks like in a person, family or community, we’re doing them a disservice in their own personal development.”
Prevost noted that many parents feel hesitant to talk to their kids about drugs if they have used drugs themselves at some point. But it’s still possible to have a constructive conversation without hiding the truth.
Kids rely on credibility and can tell if you’re lying to them.
“Your child may ask, ‘Have you ever done this?’ And you can be honest to a point. You don’t have to reveal every little thing that’s happened to you, but kids rely on credibility and can tell if you’re lying to them,” she said.
“It’s important to be candid when it’s appropriate,” she continued. “So you can say, ‘Yeah, I did try it and it wasn’t a great experience, and a lot of bad things could’ve happened to me. Or something bad did happen to me and I want to make sure you don’t make that same choice now that we know so much more about substances and how the brain works.’”
Don’t Use Scare Tactics
Prevost recalled being young and hearing preventive messaging from a police officer during a school assembly in fifth grade.
“He told us we were going to die or go to jail if we used drugs, and I saw how poorly that worked,” she said. “Scaring kids really doesn’t work. It may work in the beginning when they’re really little, but once they see someone who used and didn’t go to jail or die, you’ve lost your credibility.”
Make It Clear That It’s A Disease
“It’s important to emphasize that if someone is addicted, that doesn’t make them a bad person. It means they’re sick,” said Prevost, whose agency works to combat the stigma of addiction as a moral failing or character flaw.
Addiction is an disease, and though it may be tricky to recover from it, people can and do get better. They just need good doctors and support to treat it, she said.
Prevost highlighted some resources for parents when it comes to drugs and addiction, including the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids’ website, which features guides for parents, explanatory videos and even a support hotline. She also recommended the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Facing Addiction.
If a child’s parent or another immediate family member with whom they have regular contact is facing addiction, it’s also important to offer counseling and support to that child, Sovec noted.
“It’s vital for kids to understand that it’s not their fault because often self-blame will come up, especially when everyone in the family is silent about it,” he explained.
Take Cues From Your Child
Addiction might seem like an overwhelming topic for a young child, so you can let them direct much of the conversation.
“If they have questions, they’ll ask you,” Ericka Hofmeyer, a therapist and clinical director at 5 Residential Treatment Center in Los Angeles. “You don’t have to start out telling them the elaborate details of the disease of addiction. You can start out very simply.”
Let them know, ‘I’m here, and if you make a mistake, you can still come to me and talk to me.’
If a child seems confused or overwhelmed at the news that a close family member is seeking treatment for addiction, Hofmeyer noted that it’s best to stress that the loved one is safe and going to a good place to work on some things. “Be sure to mention that they love the child,” she said.
Even if it’s not a family member, kids may come to their parents asking about a favorite singer or actor who is facing addiction or may have even died.
“That can be really upsetting for kids,” said Prevost. “But it’s a good time to talk about how a lot of celebrities are in the limelight and under a lot of stress, and sometimes they make the unfortunate choice to start using a substances to feel better, which doesn’t always work.”
Throughout these discussions, parents should take note of how their kids are responding, said Sovec. “Some kids process stuff really clearly and may come back with more questions. But if you notice you’ve started to create anxiety in your child, that’s a moment to pause and say, ‘I notice this is overwhelming. We can talk about this more in the future.’”
Ultimately, the crucial thing for parents is to start the difficult conversation and to establish that they are there for their children.
“Let them know, ‘I’m here, and if you make a mistake, you can still come to me and talk to me. I always want to listen,’” Prevost said. “And then let them do the talking.”
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