Talking to Young Children About Addiction

Talking to young children about addiction

Talking to Young Children About Addiction

Open discussions about substance use and drug addiction can occur at different ages and can start when children are still young.  This is a personal decision for each family, of course, and there may be complex factors that contribute to your considering whether or not to disclose information on the topic. 

It may be difficult to know how much information to share, what information your child will understand and what impact this information will have on their own beliefs and future choices.  This blog post is for those individuals who have decided that it is beneficial to disclose personal or family addictive patterns as a way to build connection, understanding and preventative measures for and with their children.

Partnership to End Addiction

Partnership to End Addiction (link below) provides a helpful outline for age-appropriate ways to discuss substance use with your child(ren).  The idea of talking to your children openly and honestly about addiction in an age appropriate way is meant to foster the belief that by being open and honest, this will build a foundation of trust and connection within your relationship with your child. 

By building your relationship on honesty, trust and openness, you are also planting seeds for this type of relationship to build in the future.  As your child gets older, there is hope that conversations about major life choices and decisions will be more openly explored together.  

How to Start the Conversation

It is important that when engaging in valuable conversations with your child(ren), that you approach the conversation with compassion and curiosity.  Recognize that your child may already have associations (thoughts, feelings) to the topic of addiction or may be confused by what you might be trying to communicate or express.  There are times when the topic of addiction and substance use can come up naturally (if you are outside in a public space and someone is smoking, if you are watching a movie and substance use is portrayed) and this can be a natural way to continue the conversation as a normalized part of family discussions.  

Set Boundaries

Across different age groups, it is important to highlight the importance of personal choice and one’s ability to set limits or boundaries.  With toddlers and preschool aged children, aged 2-4, it is important to reinforce boundaries with taking medicine, vitamins and supplements and highlighting that these items are helpful in certain situations and amounts. 

It is also important to encourage problem solving following intense emotional outbursts and decision making skills- letting your child choose (between two choices that ultimately align with your goal as the parent).  

Elementary School Aged Children

In children of elementary age, it can be helpful to explore your child’s reactions to the messages that they see on tv or social media about substance use and how they feel about addiction.  This is also an important age to continue reinforcing decision making skills, while highlighting the present consequences rather than what will happen in the future. 

It is appropriate to discuss with your child or children that different people make different choices, so even if it is discussed that certain substances may be harmful to our bodies, each person ultimately makes their own choices about what they put in their bodies.  You can highlight that different substances affect the body and mind in different ways and that it is our job to keep our bodies healthy and functioning.

Middle School Aged Children

For middle school aged children, 9-12, your child is starting to develop a sense of autonomy in which they may align with the opinions and beliefs of their peers and friend groups more and may begin to challenge and question limits created by authority figures and caregivers.  It is normal for your child at this age to begin questioning and challenging ideas and values that have been held by the family, as this is in alliance with identity formation. 

At this age, it is important to have clear rules and consequences for overstepped boundaries.  Let your children know your limits on substance use inside your home and outside.  You can name specific substances that may be a concern and role play scenarios with your child to model appropriate boundaries.  It is also important to engage with your child and positively reinforce their strengths and resilience to come back from mistakes, be courageous in the face of fear or move forward from a setback.  


In a later blog post we will further explore the topic of addiction with teenagers and young adults.  Here is the link to the Partnership to End Addiction website mentioned above as well as other helpful websites to explore on the topic:

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