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Children living in homes where there is a substance use problem need to have the problem explained. Life at home may be chaotic. There may be strange behavior, arguments and tears. Outside the home, family members may act normal, keeping their problems hidden. If no one explains the problem, children may draw their own, often wrong, conclusions. They may respond to the situation in unhealthy ways. For example, they may:
Children living in homes where there is a substance use problem are likely to experience a variety of confusing feelings, including:
Children need to know that it's ok to have these feelings, even the scary ones. They need to know that it's all right to reach out for help and to talk about their feelings. Having a healthy, caring, trustworthy adult in their lives can help them to sort things out.
Children in this position need to be helped to:
Explaining a substance use problem to children can be difficult and awkward. Give them only the amount of information appropriate to their age group. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:
Talk with children about what to say to people outside the family. Families and children may not want others to know about the substance use problem. They may worry that others would view them negatively if they knew about the problem. However, if friends don't know about the problem, they can't offer support. This support can help everyone cope with the situation. Each family needs to discuss and decide how open to be about this issue. Encourage children to engage in healthy activities with their friends.
Once the person with the substance use problem has reached his or her recovery goals, children need to be reassured that the person is again available and interested in them. To re-establish a relationship with the children, the person may need to explain past behavior and to plan special times together. Children may need to talk about their feelings, and to have those feelings understood and accepted.
Children need to know that recovery takes time and may not be smooth. Recovery is a good opportunity to talk about the problem, to help children process what they have experienced, and to help them prepare for the possibility of relapse.
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