It’s not an easy task, figuring out how to talk to teens about addiction in the family. As a general rule, teens are walking maelstroms of hormones and emotions anyway, and a serious conversation about any topic can be vexing.
However, it’s important to understand one thing: Teens are on the cusp of adulthood, meaning that life experiences will inform grown-up decisions in a few years, if they haven’t already. If addiction or alcoholism are part of a family’s dynamic, they can influence those decisions in ways that perpetuate addiction on a generational level, writes Sis Wenger for the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids :
“These are the children who are more likely to develop depression or anxiety disorders in adolescence, use alcohol or other drugs early and — for both genetic and environmental reasons — to become tomorrow’s addicted youth, the children in foster care, troubled youth in the juvenile justice system and the adults most likely to seek mental health therapy for depression, anxiety disorders, marital problems, and struggle with parenting their own children.”
In other words, addiction can be a genetic disease, according to Harvard Health Publishing , a division of Harvard Medical School, and “a person with some underlying genetic vulnerability is exposed to an environment that brings on the illness. In the case of drug and alcohol addiction, common environmental factors are stress and, of course, availability of the addictive substances.”
That alone should make it clear that how to talk to teens about addiction in the family isn’t as important as having a conversation no matter what … but where do you even begin to broach the subject?
How to Talk to Teens About Addiction in the Family: Know Your Stuff
If you want to better understand how to talk to teens about addiction in the family, it’s vital that you know what you’re talking about. Addiction and alcoholism still face overwhelming stigma in contemporary society, and a great many individuals, teens and adults, think of them as moral failings or a lack of willpower rather than legitimate illnesses.
Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Dr. Jillian Hardee, writing for the University of Michigan’s Health blog : “The first time individuals drink or take drugs, they do so voluntarily, and they believe they can control their use. With time, more and more alcohol or drugs are needed to achieve the same level of pleasure and satisfaction as when they first started. Seeking out and taking the substance becomes a near-constant activity, causing significant problems for them and their family and friends. At the same time, progressive changes in the brain drive the compulsive, uncontrollable drug use known as addiction. When this happens, individuals can no longer voluntarily choose to not use drugs or alcohol, even if it means losing everything they once valued.”
Exactly how drugs affect the brain is a complex process, and it’s easy to get caught up in the science of it. It makes fascinating reading, of course, but unless you’re prepared to give a lesson that are equal parts chemistry and biology, it’s material that might seem rather dry to a teen. The National Institute on Drug Abuse is a clearinghouse of information about addiction, and in particular describing how addiction affects the brain in laymen’s terms and why drugs have such a powerful effect on the brain : “For the brain, the difference between normal rewards and drug rewards can be likened to the difference between someone whispering into your ear and someone shouting into a microphone. Just as we turn down the volume on a radio that is too loud, the brain of someone who misuses drugs adjusts by producing fewer neurotransmitters in the reward circuit, or by reducing the number of receptors that can receive signals. As a result, the person's ability to experience pleasure from naturally rewarding (i.e., reinforcing) activities is also reduced. This is why a person who misuses drugs eventually feels flat, without motivation, lifeless, and/or depressed, and is unable to enjoy things that were previously pleasurable. Now, the person needs to keep taking drugs to experience even a normal level of reward — which only makes the problem worse, like a vicious cycle. Also, the person will often need to take larger amounts of the drug to produce the familiar high — an effect known as tolerance.”
Teens whose parents or extended family members are struggling with addiction may have little tolerance for the science of addiction, however. Rational explanations matter little to hearts scarred by emotional pain, and sometimes the “why” of addiction is little solace to teens who are dealing with anger, fear, resentment and more. Understanding that addiction is a disease doesn’t change the fact that damage has been done, and it shouldn’t be used as a carte blanche excuse to diminish or downplay the pain that teens are feeling about a loved one’s addiction.
It can, however, open up a line of dialogue that gives them something to think about, learn more about and perhaps even a way to understand the risks they may face later in life as the relative of someone who struggles with addiction.
Know What You’re Dealing With
If you’re the spouse of an addict or an alcoholic, and it’s fallen on you to have a conversation with your teen children, then you’re likely already on the same page as far as what’s been taking place under the roof of the home in which you live. However, if you’re a grandparent, aunt or even a close family friend who’s suddenly charged with taking care of the teen child of an addict or an alcoholic, then how to talk to teens about addiction in the family can be complicated subject to even broach.
It’s important to understand, before you begin, exactly what you’re dealing with. For instance, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMSHA) publication “Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy” , “Similar to maltreatment victims, who believe the abuse is their fault, children of those with alcohol abuse disorders feel guilty and responsible for the parent’s drinking problem. Children whose parents abuse illicit drugs live with the knowledge that their parents’ actions are illegal and that they may have been forced to engage in illegal activity on their parents’ behalf. Trust is a key child development issue and can be a constant struggle for those from family systems with a member who has a substance use disorder.”
As an outsider, you may have no idea how long a parent’s addiction has affected a teen, because addicts and alcoholics often go to great lengths to hide their problems from loved ones. In addicted family dynamics, it’s referred to as the “elephant in the room,” because it’s a problem everyone knows exists, but no one in the family is willing to discuss. Without the full picture of how broad the scope of the problem has become for a teen’s family, it’s more important to understand how the problem has affected everyone involved.
The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACA) describes it  this way: “Living with addiction can put family members under unusual stress. Normal routines are constantly being interrupted by unexpected or even frightening kinds of experiences that are part of living with drug use. What is being said often doesn’t match up with what family members sense, feel beneath the surface or see right in front of their eyes. The drug user as well as family members may bend, manipulate and deny reality in their attempt to maintain a family order that they experience as gradually slipping away. The entire system becomes absorbed by a problem that is slowly spinning out of control. Little things become big and big things get minimized as pain is denied and slips out sideways.”
The process can have a cascade effect as younger children develop into teens, writes Dr. Tina Dayton for NACA : “In their youth, children of alcoholics or drug dependent parents (COAs) may feel overwhelmed with powerful emotions that they lack the developmental sophistication and family support to process and understand. As a result, they may resort to intense defenses, such as shutting down their own feelings, denying there is a problem, rationalizing, intellectualizing, over-controlling, withdrawing, acting out or self medicating, as a way to control their inner experience of chaos.”
While it may be easy to pick out the “problem child” in a class full of teens and stereotype them as the children of addicts and alcoholics, that’s not always the case, Dayton adds: They can swing toward the other end of the spectrum and hold themselves to exacting standards of educational and extracurricular success as a way to balance the scales of what’s going on at home.
In short: Alcoholism and addiction can affect anyone, and the children of those affected are just as likely to be homecoming kings and queens as they are “delinquents.”
How to Talk to Teens About Addiction in the Family: Foster a Conversation
If there’s anything teens have come to expect from adults and authority figures, it’s a lecture. All children are essentially navigating a world that’s not of their own making, but teens stand on the precipice of that world and one where they’re given greater responsibility and independence. They chaff at rules that don’t fit their gangly emotional frames any longer, and they’re just as likely to shut down or tune out as they are to engage if your plan for how to talk to teens about addiction in the family is one that comes across as speech.
It’s important to turn such conversations into a true dialogue without any expectation. That may sound like an impossible task, but consider their reality, writes Dr. David Sack for the Huffington Post : “Their emotions run a confusing gamut. At once resentful of and loyal to their addicted parent, children are reluctant to open up and share long-held family secrets, even if they desperately want the support. They may have a strong self-preservation instinct, but at the same time, they’re not sure if they deserve to take care of their own needs when their parent is spiraling out of control. The conflicting feelings continue as children get a glimmer of hope when their parent promises to quit even though they’ve been disappointed repeatedly.”
That’s a lot for anyone to cope with, much less an impressionable teen. One of the most important things you can do in figuring out how to talk to teens about addiction is to reassure them that whatever they’re feeling is OK. Rage, anger, depression, sadness … there’s no rule book that lays out how anyone feels when they’re dealing with a loved one who’s an addict or alcoholic. The social niceties and familial expectations go out the window, and in order to help them understand, it’s critical to validate their feelings — whatever they may be.
Fostering that dialogue can also help teens validate their experiences. Perhaps they’ve tried to initiate their own conversations with an addicted parent or loved one in the past, only to be shut down. “This lack of affirmation of a child’s suspicions and worries often leads to self-doubt: ‘It must be me’ or ‘I don’t see things correctly’ or ‘I can’t trust my own judgment,’” writes Alana Levinson in a 2014 article for the magazine Pacific Standard . “What happens when something that causes so much pain isn’t acknowledged? Study after study shows that children of addicts develop anxiety, depression, issues with over-achievement and people-pleasing, and psychosomatic illnesses at a higher rate than others. Some may even enact what researchers call the ‘No Feel Rule,’ blocking feelings as a coping mechanism.”
By encouraging them to talk about their feelings, you may be giving them permission, for the first time since the problems of addiction and alcoholism began to manifest in the family dynamic, to figure out how they feel. By positioning yourself as a sounding board instead of authority figure, you’re not telling them how they’re supposed to feel; you’re simply allowing them to feel, and in figuring out the emotions that have long been buried or kept below the surface, it may take time for them to articulate those feelings to you. A steady, calming presence is what they need now more than anything else, so don’t shut down the conversation or try to steer it in any certain direction.
Some Things to Keep in Mind …
A great many teens are incredibly self-conscious: The idea of standing out because a parent has to go to rehab for drugs or alcohol is mortifying, and they may not feel as if they can share that with friends or peers. Pointing out that they’re not alone may be a comfort: A 2017 parenting piece in The Washington Post by Jaimie Seaton states  that “according to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, 76 million Americans — roughly 43 percent of the U.S. adult population — have been exposed to alcoholism in the family; and there are an estimated 26.8 million children of alcoholics (COAs) in the United States. Preliminary research suggests that more than 11 million of those are under the age of 18.”
In fact, there’s an entire 12 Step support group devoted to teen family members of alcoholics (and, by proxy, addicts). It’s an offshoot of the family support group Al-Anon, except that Alateen, according to the program , is “a fellowship of young Al-Anon members, usually teenagers, whose lives have been affected by someone else’s drinking.” In Alateen meetings, like-minded young people share their experiences and ways to cope, learn that addiction and alcoholism are diseases, discuss their difficulties and are encouraged to focus on their own recovery.
If you’re open to other methods of how to talk to teens about addiction in the family, family therapy can be a critical part of any addiction recovery program, and teens can have a part to play in that therapy. A reputable drug and alcohol treatment center will include family therapy for patients and their loved ones, and as a loved one, you can talk to the therapists on staff about ways and resources to engage teens.
In addition, there are a number of great online resources for teens, particularly the information compiled by the National Association for Children Of Addiction, which has a specific section for teen resources . And thanks to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, there’s a powerful tool used by child and family therapists across the country known as “The Seven C’s” :
- I didn’t CAUSE it;
- I can’t CURE it;
- I can’t CONTROL it;
- I can help take CARE of myself by COMMUNICATING my feelings, making healthy CHOICES and CELEBRATING
Remember: There’s no standard format for how to talk to teens about addiction in the family, but there are a number of specific talking points you should keep in mind. More than anything, it’s imperative to make them feel heard, to validate their feelings, to reassure them it’s not their fault and to open up a dialogue so that they can learn more about a loved one’s addiction — and begin to see how that addiction has impacted them emotionally.
The pain won’t dissipate overnight, and the scars will take time to heal — but the process can only begin with a conversation, and as the adult and/or caretaker in your particular dynamic, that’s going to be up to you.