Addiction touches the lives of everyone, including young children. In fact, it’s estimated that about 25% of children under 18 will experience the effects of a family member’s drug or alcohol addiction at some point.
Good Intentions Gone Wrong
Parents and caregivers often avoid talking about substance abuse with young children in an attempt to protect them, but this approach can backfire. When a child doesn’t understand why a parent, grandparent, older sibling, or loved one can’t simply stop using drugs or alcohol, this can lead to feelings of fear, guilt, anxiety, and shame. These feelings can cause problems in school, social isolation, and an increased risk of developing a substance use disorder as a teen or young adult.
Communicating honestly and openly helps kids feel less alone and reassures them that they are safe and cared for. This helps build the resilience they need to move forward in a positive manner.
Using Sesame Street to Tackle a Tough Topic
For 50 years, Sesame Street has been entertaining and educating children around the United States. Although the show first focused on teaching children about numbers, letters, colors, and the skills they’d need for kindergarten, Sesame Street has since evolved to tackle a wide range of tough topics in a child-friendly format. This includes how to handle a family member’s addiction.
Karli is a bright green Muppet with yellow hair. She was introduced to the show in May as part of the Sesame Street Communities initiative, which provides resources for caregivers and nonprofits covering a range of complex issues affecting children and families. Karli’s previous appearances have talked about her life in foster care, but a special video in October revealed that Karli’s mother temporarily lost custody of her daughter due to opioid addiction. (You can watch this segment free on YouTube.)
Karli also has a human friend, a girl named Salia, whose parents have struggled with addiction, too. Salia Woodbury is a 10-year-old girl from California whose parents have been in recovery for eight years. In one of the segments featuring Salia, she draws flowers with petals that represent feelings such as anger and happiness. In another, Salia talks about how her parents use meditation and self-help meetings to stay healthy in recovery.
Sesame Street‘s videos reiterate several points that any child with a parent or loved one struggling with addiction needs to know.
- Addiction is a grown-up problem.
- Addiction isn’t caused by anything a child did.
- Adults with addiction sometimes need to go away to get the help they need to get better.
- It’s OK to feel sad, angry, scared, or confused.
- Children have people who will love and support them no matter what.
Refer to the Sesame Street in Communities website for tips on explaining addiction to young children and a coloring sheet using the 7 Cs developed by Jerry Moe, the National Director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Children’s Program and an Advisory Board Member of the National Association for Children of Addiction (NACOA).
Other ways to help a child who is struggling to process a loved one’s addiction include:
- Use story time to continue the conversation. Talking about addiction should be an ongoing process, not a one-time discussion. Our friends at Canyon Vista Recovery Center in Mesa, Arizona, have compiled a list of 20 Books to Explain Addiction to Children that features several titles for preschoolers and elementary school students.
- Stick to a routine. Kids like routines because knowing what to expect next helps them feel safe and secure. Help the child make a poster that explains his or her daily routine—marking out time for school or daycare as well as sleeping, exercising, and other healthy habits.
- Keep a journal. Journaling can provide a place for kids to explore the complex feelings they have about a loved one’s addiction. Children who aren’t yet able to write in full sentences can use drawings to express how they feel. For kids who are shy, talking about their journal entries with an adult may be less intimidating than being directly asked how they are feeling.
- Strengthen community connections. The presence of supportive adults helps develop resilience. Encourage children to develop strong relationships with teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, or worship leaders. Privately meet with adults who regularly come into contact with the child to let them know what’s going on at home.
- Encourage healthy hobbies. Participating in sports, art, drama, music, or other extracurricular activities promotes feelings of accomplishment and helps relieve stress. Encourage kids to find activities they enjoy—especially if they involve a chance to make new friends.
At Waypoint Recovery Center’s South Carolina drug and alcohol addiction treatment program, we believe a lasting recovery is possible for anyone who desires it. Our holistic approach promotes healing of the mind, body, and spirit while offering family services to help loved ones find the best way to move forward together.