The statistics for families suffering from substance abuse are alarming: Half the nation's children—more than 35 million of them—have parents who use illegal drugs, abuse alcohol, or use tobacco, according to a study done by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. This puts children at greater risk for substance abuse themselves, and at greater risk for physical and mental illnesses.
But even if you, as a parent, aren't the one with the addiction—if instead your child has relatives or close family friends who have alcohol or drug addictions—he is still subject to that person's erratic behaviors, and can sense from the other grownups around him that something isn't right.
How you approach the issue with your child will depend on your family situation and the knowledge you have about your child's own development and temperament. Here are a few recommendations to consider when approaching this issue with your child.
What They Understand
Toddlers will not understand the complicated language related to alcohol and substance abuse, nor will they be able to understand the cause and effect relationship between drinking and the resulting change in behavior. Toddlers are, however, sensitive to the behavior and emotions in the adults around them, so they will notice funny, strange, or scary actions—and the high tensions of other adults around the user.
If someone close to a toddler (parent, grandparent, regular caregiver, etc.) is away for a period of time to receive treatment for substance abuse, the child will notice and be affected by his or her absence. As is the case with many touchy topics, toddlers will be most affected by the change in routine caused by the addiction.
What to Say
Though the terms "alcohol" and "drugs" are too nebulous for most toddlers to grasp, preschool- and school-aged children can begin to understand the idea of dangerous substances, so conversations (and the introduction of this vocabulary) can begin then. Additionally, for children ages 18 to 24 months, too many details about an adult's abuse issues can become confusing—and they can also become easily overwhelmed by words that seem straightforward to us. For example, a simple explanation such as "She has trouble with drinking and needs to go to the hospital" could certainly be misinterpreted by young children as "Drinking anything can make you sick."
But remember: You know your child best, and you may have a clearer indication of what he or she will understand—and therefore what's appropriate to discuss at earlier ages.
That isn't to say you can't address the resulting behavior of an adult's addiction with your young child. Consider these statements:
- When your toddler witnesses an adult relative or close family friend who's disoriented, it's fine to say, "Grandma is acting silly [or not feeling well]. Daddy is going to drive her home and take care of her." This way, you're acknowledging and naming the odd behavior for your child—and as he grows, your explanations can be more detailed.
- If a close family member (someone your child sees frequently) is in detox or rehabilitation, consider discussing the problem as a disease: "He is very sick so he needs to go to a doctor to get help."
- If your child has witnessed a situation fueled by someone who was high or drunk, he will need to be removed from the situation as soon as possible and then offered extra reassurance that he'll be taken care of—and that the outburst wasn't his fault: "We're going home. Mommy will hug you, kiss you, and bring you to bed. Grandpa was angry but you did nothing wrong. You are a good boy." As with many issues you will face with your toddler, it is very important to give reassurance that he will be cared for, he is loved, and that someone being sick is not his fault.
- If your toddler acts fearful or distant toward the grownup following an addiction-fueled episode, reiterate: "I love you very, very much, and so does Aunt Leslie. I know she was mad earlier but she was not mad at you."
Please note: If you are at all concerned about how the substance or alcohol abuse is affecting your toddler, consider a consultation with a mental health professional who specializes in working with very young children. Ask your pediatrician for referrals in your area.