It can be hard for parents to know when it is necessary or appropriate to talk to children about substance abuse. Parents with very young children might think they are doing more harm than good by exposing their children to the idea of substance abuse, but there are many ways that children are exposed to addiction issues very early on. It is better that parents inform their children about substance abuse in a logical, reassuring way than have children only learn about addiction from the media, other children, or exposure to it in other households.
The opioid crisis is on the news every day. There are anti-smoking campaigns designed to shock and terrify. Your child may have friends at school who have seen addiction, or maybe they have seen it in the homes of their friends themselves. It is nearly impossible to protect children from stories and examples of addiction and abuse.
It is essential to take control of your child’s perception and attitude towards substance use and abuse. Talk to your child, no matter how young, about addiction. It is better to hear it from you than from distorted media perceptions or their peers.
Talking to young children about addiction doesn’t mean you have to sit your toddler down and have a serious discussion about heroin. You can start small by setting them up for that bigger conversation later on. When it comes to very young children, an excellent way to start is by talking about respecting your body, eating healthy foods, and how some things (like household cleaners) should not be eaten because they are poisonous. This opens the door to the conversation about drugs and alcohol later on.
It is possible your child has already been exposed to some form of information about addiction and substance abuse. There are a few cues to look out for that may tell about your child’s exposure. Even infants become fussier after being exposed to disturbing content (such as sights and sounds on the television or radio). Babies might also take cues from your reaction to disturbing content. Since you can’t explain addiction to a baby, soothe your infant by removing the disturbing content and replacing it with soothing sounds or images. Give your baby lots of physical attention and cuddles, so he or she knows they are safe.
Toddlers often process information using play, so children this age may incorporate pretend use of drugs or alcohol while playing house or other games. Verbal children may even ask about substance abuse. Parents must pay attention to these cues from their children and use them as an opportunity to comfort and inform them.
If your child is verbal enough to answer, ask them, “What do you know about that?” That way you can determine their awareness and perception of substance abuse without overwhelming your child with information.
The most important thing is to make sure your child feels safe. Let them know that taking a Tylenol for a headache is not the same thing as substance abuse. Impress upon them the dangers of addiction, but don’t make them feel insecure about the world.