Editor's note: To protect the anonymity of the children in this story, we are omitting their names or using their middle names. They have all attended camps for kids from families with substance abuse issues.
What can you do if you're a teacher, a neighbor, a churchgoer, a coach … and you suspect a child is being impacted by a parent's addiction?
Maybe you're thinking, “I'd love to help but it's not my business.” Or “I want to reach out but I don't know much about addiction.”
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Remember that episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, where he tells children to “look for the helpers”? You can be that helper simply by being present for the child. Mary Beth Collins with the National Association for Children of Addiction (NACoA) says you certainly don't have to be an expert in addiction.
“We are not expecting adults to have to go and do a crash course. You don't have to go and read a book all about addiction,” she says. “All that you really need to know how to do is to be caring, to be loving and to be able to connect with kids and engage with them. That's as simple as it is.”
Here are six ways you can make a difference.
1. Be caring and consistent (and don't pry).
The three unspoken rules in families struggling with addiction are “Don't talk. Don't share. Don't feel.” Claudia Black with the Claudia Black Young Adult Center, says asking children questions is asking them to violate these three rules. Don't do it.
“I think that sometimes as adults, we think it's our job to probe, to ask questions. And that's absolutely not our job. And oftentimes by doing that, it's also going to push those children away from you,” says Black. “They're going to see you as somebody who's possibly trying to make trouble for them, in fact. Because, again, they have this strong loyalty to their family members.”
Instead, she says, just engage in more casual conversation: Ask them how their day was. What's their favorite show on TV? What are their plans for the weekend? Simple activities like baking a cake, watching a game, going on a hike, can also have a positive impact.
Black says children in this situation often don't have an adult who is able to spend time with them. “Having a sense of mastery or a feeling of success in at least one area of your life is really helpful to children. And so the role that somebody could play is how can I help develop that with a child?”
So rather than prying, maybe offer to teach a kid in your neighborhood some auto repair or gardening skills. Or if you notice that your child's friend has a knack for art, do what you can to encourage that natural talent.
2. Remember: children love their parents (even if they've said or done terrible things).
One 8 year-old girl we spoke with at Camp Mariposa, a camp run by the national non-profit, Eluna for children who have family members struggling with addiction, talked about her mother beating her siblings. But her feelings toward her mom are complicated. She says, “I still don't forgive her, but I still love her.”
Black, says helping kids separate the parent from the behavior is one of the best ways you can help. That separation preserves the love children feel for their parents but allows them to share how upset they feel about the addiction.
You can externalize the addiction by saying it's a disease or like something strong choking their parents. “We want these kids to be able to emote their feelings and their thoughts about it,” says Black. “We want to give them a healthy venue to speak to their anger, to own their fear, to talk about how embarrassing this is, how sad this addiction makes me feel.”
3. Remind them (repeatedly) it's not their fault.
One teenager who attended an Eluna camp for several years in Florida, we're using her middle name Isabel, talks about how, as a child, she was convinced her mother's addiction was her fault. “I was seeing my mom every week. And then, all of a sudden I didn't see her for months. And so, you think to yourself … I did the wrong thing, I must've upset her somehow. I just don't think I knew any better.”
Collins says that's a typical reaction. “Always, always, always, children will blame themselves,” She says. “And it's that fallacy that puts this burden that is of the weight of the world on their shoulders, and they're carrying it around with them all the time.”
She suggests teaching children a verse that Jerry Moe, director of children's programs at the Hazelden Betty Ford Center made up — it's called the Seven C's. “I didn't cause it. I can't control it. I can't cure it. But I can help take care of myself by communicating my feelings, making healthy choices and celebrating me.” (Here's a free, downloadable poster with the Seven C's, from NACoA.)
4. Look beyond a child's behavior (instead ask 'why').
One teenager, whose middle name is Michael, says when he was little, his father was always working or spending time with his brother who was struggling with addiction. He felt angry — walking out of class, banging his head on the wall, slamming doors. He was always being sent to the principal's office for being a “bad kid.” And he believed it until Miss Missy, a counselor in his school, started talking to him every day. After several months he was comfortable enough to confide in her and process his anger.
Brian Maus, who oversees all camps for Eluna, says if you want to help … look beyond behavior. Because often, behavior is simply a response to trauma. He says rather than asking 'what's wrong' with a child because of their behavior, he suggests asking, 'what happened to you?' “And listening to those stories and getting to know them. And that makes such a huge difference.”
5. Help kids learn to deal with their emotions (in a healthy way).
Wendy Berkshire, director of Camp Mariposa in Dayton, Ohio, says it's important to help children name and regulate their emotions — and not assume they know how automatically. “We teach kids [that] … when we keep our feelings inside and we don't have an opportunity to share them in a safe place and with a safe person it becomes a part of the cycle of addiction.”
She listens to children talk about how they feel and then asks them what they can do about it. They suggest listening to music, journaling, deep breathing, go for a walk, taking a bath, shooting hoops and cuddling their dog. “They can't control what's going on in their life or their family but they have all the power to control themselves and their emotions,” says Berkshire. “And so we want to give them lifetime tools.”
6. Let kids be kids. (Encourage silliness!)
In families dealing with addiction, Collins says there's a phenomenon that happens called 'parentification' where children start being caregivers rather than receiving care.
“You have children sometimes at the age of 8 or 10 where they're cooking, they're cleaning, they're taking care of younger siblings,” says Collins. “And those responsibilities end up doing some of the damage to children because those are roles that typically are not held by children. They've not had the luxury to just be silly.”
Anytime these children aren't expected to be “little adults” is healing. Encourage them to giggly and goofy by watching funny cats on YouTube together or tell jokes or go for ice cream. Anything that lets them shed their responsibilities, even just for a moment, is helpful.
Most experts say most of the time families with addiction issues come off as functional. They continue to go work, or religious services or walk their dog. They say there's a far greater likelihood of neglect or emotional abuse — like constant criticism or unrealistic expectations. Having said that, a child's safety is, of course, the most important. So if you see signs of physical or sexual abuse, definitely call the authorities.
● Sesame Street has created a series of videos that includes 6-year-old Karli, talking to her friends about her mom's struggle with drug addiction.
● The Eluna Network runs Camp Mariposas in more than a dozen states. They offer a range of online resources for adults who want to help children whose families struggle with addiction. Customized help is also available.
● The Hazelden Betty Ford Children's Program provides support, education and care to kids who grow up in a family with alcohol or drug addiction.
● National Association for Children of Addiction or NACoA offers a range of resources about the impact of alcohol and drug abuse on children and families. They also offer resources to help build resilience in children.
● Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration or SAMHSA is a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Helpline [1-800-662-HELP (4357)] is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. Here is their Opioid Treatment Program Directory.