How to Explain Alcoholism to a Young Child

How to Explain Alcoholism to a Young Child

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, approximately one out of four American children are exposed to alcohol abuse within the family. 

This fact is supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) survey. It shows that approximately 8.7 million youths (aged 17 and below) live with at least one parent who suffers from alcohol or substance abuse disorder. 

Parent - Child chat about alcoholism

How Alcoholism Affects Children 

It is a known fact that alcoholism brings about dire effects to the abuser. More than that, such actions have profound effects on the children as well. SAMHSA findings show that compared to the children of non-alcoholics, the offspring of alcohol abusers are more likely to experience: 

  • Verbal/speaking difficulties 
  • Learning problems and poor academic showing 
  • Disturbed family functioning 
  • Parental neglect or abuse 
  • A higher risk of developing anxiety or depression
  • Increased difficulties in social settings 
  • Inability to have close relationships 
  • Fewer household resources 
  • Lower socioeconomic status

To make matters worse, children of alcoholics are four times more likely to develop alcohol use disorder as well. With that being said, it is a family member’s responsibility – whether it’s the parent or other relatives – to explain alcoholism to a child in an understandable manner.

How to Explain Alcoholism to Children 

Compared to adults, children have limited perception and a different way of viewing things. Taking these into consideration, here are some tips from the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA) that can help you explain alcoholism to a child: 

Tell them that they are not responsible for their parent’s/relative’s drinking issues.

How to Explain Alcoholism to Children

Some children might feel that they are the ones who caused their relatives’ alcohol disorder. They may feel let down when family members forget about keeping their promises. It is important to convey to them that it’s not their fault.  

As such, tell them that it’s not recommended to hide the beer bottles or dispose of the liquor. This might make matters worse, as it can drive the alcoholic to become violent or abusive.

Communicate to them that what they are feeling is normal.

Children need to know that their feelings of sadness or anger are normal. It is indeed upsetting to have a family member who spends more time drinking than bonding with his/her kids. It is important to tell them than instead of doing something destructive, it is best to express their feelings in a healthy way, such as writing in a journal, painting, drawing, etc. 

Let them know that alcohol affects a person’s brain.

Your relatives might do embarrassing things when they are drunk. More often than not, they cannot remember them afterward. It is useless to argue with a family member when he does this, as doing so may put the child at risk of violence. 

Explain how alcohol abuse affects the family.

Telling the child about how a person is affected by alcohol may give him that much-needed enlightenment. Here are key points to add to the lecture:

Age-Appropriate Tips to Remember When Explaining Alcoholism to Children 

Apart from heeding the tips above, the manner of speaking should differ depending on the child’s age. For kids under the age of 10, the concept of safety should be emphasized. They should be allowed to express their thoughts, concerns, and fears.

As for pre-teens, facts about alcoholism should be conveyed conversationally, instead of that of a lecture. With that being said, it is important to be honest about the subject, making sure to include pertinent alcoholism facts in the conversation. 

When it comes to teenagers, honesty is the way to go. Be respectful when speaking to them. Avoid sounding condescending. 

Other Measures that Can Help Affected Children

Apart from talking to the affected youngsters one-on-one, here are some techniques that can help them power through such a difficult situation:

Encourage them to talk whenever they need to.

Talking to people they trust is one of the best ways to unload the feelings of anger and fear. 

Do something interesting.

The child’s life should not be all about his/her family’s drinking problem. He/she must do something that he/she finds interesting. Whether it’s joining a sports team or teaming up with people who have the same interests, such hobbies may help take their minds off the family problems.

Help them learn more about the problem.

Help them study – and brush up on their reading skills as well – by assisting them in finding the appropriate resources about alcoholism. They can go to the library or just simply surf the world wide web. Do make sure to guide them so they can go to trusted websites, such as the ones ending with .gov or .edu. 

Find a support group.

In the age of the internet, children need not go far to join support groups that can help them. They can simply log on to the websites of NACOA (for younger kids) or the Adult Children of Alcoholics (for older children). Members of such groups have undergone the same thing that they have, as such, they offer the best support on what to do given the situation. 


In summation, the NACOA advises that children of alcoholics need to be reminded of this: 

  • They didn’t cause it
  • They can’t cure it (but the professionals can)
  • They can’t control it 
  • They can take care of themselves 
  • They can communicate their feelings 
  • They can make healthy choices 

As has been mentioned, alcoholism affects children in more ways than one. They can develop poor social skills – and suffer from psychological disorders as well. Worse, they can end up addicted – just like the alcoholic family members that they have been trying to get away from. This must be prevented. With that being said, the best way to do so is to follow the above-mentioned tips on how to explain alcoholism to young children. 

Latest posts by Raychel Ria Agramon, BSN, RN, MPM (see all)

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