Explaining Alcoholism to a Child

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Being raised in an environment where a parent or sibling struggles with alcoholism can be scary and confusing for a child. Unfortunately, addiction affects the whole family, and children’s lives can be tumultuous and unpredictable. Children of alcoholics are often profoundly impacted emotionally and become withdrawn, rebellious, or seek alcohol or drugs themselves as a way to escape. Therefore, explaining the nature of addiction and how it affects their loved one’s behaviors can be vital to a child’s mental health.

Individuals struggling with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) can benefit from professional treatment, but not all recovery programs address alcoholism’s impact on the whole family. If you have a family member struggling to overcome addiction, Guardian Recovery can help. For family members, we can organize an intervention for your loved one and encourage them to get help for their condition.

Our individualized treatment plans incorporate therapy and support for children and other family members affected by a parent’s or sibling’s addiction. You don’t have to let this disease affect your family any longer. Let us help you or your loved one break free from alcoholism and begin your recovery journey.

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How Alcoholism Affects Children

Research reveals more than 8 million young people under 18 years old live with one or more adults with a substance use disorder—an estimate equivalent to a rate of 1 in 10. (1) Also, alcohol misuse tends to run in families, and children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to engage in alcohol misuse themselves. (2)

These children often live in an environment conducive to secrecy, conflict, and frequent unwelcome disturbances. These can include disruption of daily routines, communication, family attachments, and social lives. For these reasons and others, addiction often adversely affects a child’s development and increases the likelihood they will experience behavioral, emotional, or substance use issues. (3)

How to Explain Alcoholism to a Child

Providing a child with a solid understanding of addiction may protect them from feeling that they need to take on the role of caregiver to somehow make it better. (4) Moreover, they won’t have to grow up accepting that alcoholism is just a normal part of their life or that they are responsible for their family member’s addiction.

Before explaining alcoholism to a child, consider their age and what they can understand. It’s also important to talk to them at an appropriate time, be honest, and discuss potential resources for support. These recommendations are explained here in further detail:

Choosing an Appropriate Time

Trying to explain alcoholism to a child amid conflict or instability is more likely to be awkward or unproductive. The best time to initiate a conversation is when the situation is calm and distraction-free. It may also be beneficial to wait until a plan is in place for the loved one to receive treatment, such as admission into a recovery program. This way, you can explain that steps are being taken to improve the situation and how home life will change when the loved one enters treatment.

Being Honest

Being honest is the key to lessening the secretiveness and confusion that often occurs in families impacted by alcoholism. However, it may be best to omit some details depending on the child’s age. One of the primary goals of having this discussion is to ensure the child understands that what is happening to their loved one is not their fault. (5) You could start by explaining that the loved one’s addiction is a chronic disease and that they require specialized treatment to recover from it. (6) (7) Likewise, the loved one cannot control their drinking, and their condition is not the child’s responsibility.

Discussing Outside Resources for Help

Addiction is a condition that affects the whole family, meaning that the person struggling isn’t the only one who will need treatment and support. Children need to be surrounded by others who can validate their feelings, allow them to open up without judgment, and make them feel less alone. Resources can include individual therapy or groups such as Al-Anon. (8) In Al-Anon, family members discuss their feelings and concerns about living with an alcoholic and “have the opportunity to learn from the experiences of others who have faced similar problems.” (9)

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Ensuring the Conversation Is Age-Appropriate

Ensuring the conversation is age-appropriate for younger children means explaining the situation using simple ideas and terms they can understand. For older children, prepare in advance to go into more detail or answer probing questions. When conversing with children, it is beneficial to always convey the message that they are loved and safe and should be hopeful about the future. (10) The following tips can help you determine the most appropriate way to talk to your child based on age.

Children Under 10 Years Old

For children this age, the simplest approach is to frame the situation in a relatable way. For example, you can ask them: “Have you ever wanted something so much that, even though you knew it was bad in your heart, you still wanted it?” You could use the example of eating a cookie before dinner even though your parent said you had to wait.

If they say yes, you can further explain that sometimes people make choices they know are not the best decision, but they can’t stop themselves. Even though the better option is to wait, a person’s brain cannot always make that choice. Making this personal association can help a child relate to their parent’s or sibling’s struggles with alcoholism.

Children 10-12 Years Old

Children in middle childhood tend to be much more aware of the situations happening around them than those who are younger. To find out what they already know, ask open-ended questions before you add any relevant details. (11)

For example, you could ask: “Have you ever heard a person say someone else is ‘dependent on alcohol?’ Is it okay if we talk about what this means? I think it could help you understand what is happening with your dad/mom/sibling.”

Children 13-17 Years Old

Young people this age need you to start a discussion by being as honest and straightforward as possible about a parent’s or sibling’s problematic drinking. Avoid sugar-coating the situation—if they feel you are patronizing or aren’t being truthful, they could quickly dismiss themselves from the conversation. (12) Instead, allow them to explain what they think about their loved one’s alcohol misuse and how they’ve been affected.

For example, you could say: “You know that a person can’t cause someone else to become dependent on alcohol, right? Still, sometimes it’s difficult for a person to admit they have a problem, so they blame others. Have you ever felt this way—that you could somehow be responsible for your mom/dad/sibling’s alcohol use?”

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Getting Professional Help for Individuals & Families

If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol misuse, seeking intensive treatment for this condition could be an excellent first step. At Guardian Recovery, we understand that addiction is a family disease and that any member affected, especially children, can also benefit from education and support. For this reason, we offer family therapy and workshops in addition to individual-centered treatment.

Contact us today for a free, no-obligation assessment and health insurance benefits check. You can speak to a skilled Treatment Advisor who can explain our streamlined admissions process, various levels of care, and personalized treatment plans.


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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

(1)(3)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3725219/ (2)https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-Of-Alcoholics-017.aspx (4)https://helpandhopewv.org/docs/Kit4Teachers_ALt_2018-4.pdf (5)https://www.npr.org/2020/02/05/802955134/helping-a-child-whose-parents-are-struggling-with-addiction (6)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3625994/ (7)https://helpandhopewv.org/docs/Kit4Teachers_ALt_2018-4.pdf (8)(9)https://al-anon.org/ (10)https://helpandhopewv.org/docs/Kit4Teachers_ALt_2018-4.pdf (11)https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/talk-about-drugs.html (12)https://www.wikihow.health/Tell-Your-Family-About-Your-Alcohol-Addiction

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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