Brian Armstrong is a clinical social worker at LDS Family Services in charge of the counseling and addiction recovery programs. As we continue our discussion on various types of addictions this month, highlighted in our new Mormon Channel video series, 12 Steps to Change, Brian shares his insights on how to best explain addictions to children.
Explain How Addiction Affects People
Anyone who has ever lived with someone who has struggled with addiction knows of the chaos and distress that can be felt in the home. Children are particularly sensitive to such contention and may not fully understand what is happening with a loved one who continues to act out with drugs, alcohol, sex, or other destructive behaviors. So how do we talk with children about addiction? Addiction could be explained to a child in the following way: “Someone may be addicted to something if he or she really struggles to stay away from it or stop it. Some addictions include drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or other behaviors like gambling and viewing pornography.”
Children must understand that addiction isn’t just damaging to our body but that it’s damaging to our spirit as well. Most children know that being addicted to smoking, drugs, and alcohol can be physically damaging by causing cancers, kidney failure, and other diseases. However, they may not understand the effect it can have on a person spiritually. The spiritual damage addiction does to a person can often be much worse. This is due to the fact that those who are addicted generally pull away from God, which leaves them vulnerable to the temptations of the adversary. They’ll then lose sight of who they are as a son or daughter of God and begin to develop beliefs about themselves that suggest they are “bad” or “not good enough.” Furthermore, addictions impact our agency. Elder M. Russell Ballard shared that “Satan and his minions have their lures all around us, hoping that we will falter and take his flies so he can reel us in with counterfeit means. He uses addiction to steal away agency” (“O That Cunning Plan of the Evil One,” Oct. 2010 general conference).
Answer Their Questions
A child may ask, “If these substances or behaviors are so bad, then why do people keep using them?” Most of us understand that life comes with disappointment, sadness, pain, loneliness, and other painful emotions. Addictive substances or behaviors can mask those painful feelings and cause a person to feel good again. However, a large side effect of this is that it takes away their ability to cope with difficult emotions in the future. The more they hurt, the more they turn to the addiction. The more they turn to the addiction, the weaker they become in managing emotional pain. It’s a vicious cycle that ultimately tears away at a person’s self-confidence and worth.
Keep Them Safe
The good news is that people can overcome addiction. However, it is always important for children to know how to keep themselves safe. There are several things that children can do to stay safe. They can avoid being physically close to a person who is using and isn’t themself. They can also tell a trusted adult that they’re not feeling safe. Certainly children will never want to try the drug the person is using and will want to avoid thinking the person is “cool” if they are using. You may also want to help children identify “safe places” they can turn to, if needed, so that they know what to do if their loved one is using.
There Is Always Help and Hope
If a person is working on overcoming their addiction, children may want to know what to do to support them. Before they do so, they must understand that the only person who can really help the addicted person is the person themself. Children can encourage the addicted person by telling him or her they care. They may also find reasons to praise the individual over each step, no matter how small, the person makes to work on solving the problem. Perhaps the best thing they can do is to pray for that person, asking Heavenly Father to bless them to overcome the addiction. As they do so, their Father in Heaven will look for opportunities to not only bless the person who’s struggling but will also bless the child with comfort and peace.