By: Dr. Sarah Toler
First, a note from Elizabeth: Today we are touching on a tough subject – students who have parents that are addicted to drugs or alcohol. The sad part is that we need to start having these conversations. The good part is that we can be part of the answer for them.
A big shout out to all my SEAL Teachers and SEAL Teachers in Training who are learning just what it means to transform their teaching to not only integrate the arts into social-emotional learning, but how to be the teacher who leads their classroom or learning space with care, connection and creativity.
Regardless of your skill set in SEAL or SEL, learning about how to work with students in need is of vital importance in what we do – no matter what we teach or where we teach it.
I’m proud to bring you a guest post from Dr. Sarah Toler, a Certified Nurse Midwife and Doctor of Nursing Practice in Los Angeles who specializes in women’s mental health.
And when you are done with the article, I have a bonus for you: a simple, yet effective worksheet to use in your classroom to help your students share part of themselves with you. You can find it at the end of this article.
Some of us can remember the loneliness of being a child.
Childhood is a time when the rules are decided for us. Lucky children are subject to rules that help them grow and flourish. But children of parents with addiction are subject to rules that put them at risk. Addiction leaves kids behind, feeling unloved and uncared for.
About a quarter of kids are exposed to addiction in their homes. Unfortunately, these statistics are probably an underestimate. These kids are more likely than others to use drugs and alcohol themselves. They are also more at risk for depression, other mental illness and behavior disorders.
Teachers Can Support Children of Addiction
You know that you’re more than just a teacher to the kids at your school. You’re an authority, a trusted leader and a role model. Kids tell you their worries and fears and come to you when they’re in trouble.
At some point in your career, you’ll have the opportunity to help a child who is dealing with addiction at home. As an educator, you’re in the unique position of aiding a child who has grown to trust you.
In other cases, a child may go to extreme lengths to hide their struggles at home. You may be the first person to notice a kid’s academic performance is slipping. You’re the one to notice when they fall asleep at their desk. Only you know that all their recent angry outbursts are uncharacteristic.
The child of an addict is depending on you to protect their learning space. That means feeling safe and heard while at school, if nowhere else. What tools can you use to help these kids of addicts when they need you?
What’s It Like to Have a Parent with Addiction?
Research indicates that children of parents with addiction suffer in a multitude of ways. Besides the emotional damage caused by a parent with addiction, a child’s academic performance is negatively affected. A child loses focus, grades begin to drop and they become less motivated to do well academically in the future. From elementary age, students perform worse than their peers at reading, math and spelling when their parents are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Not surprisingly, being a child of an addicted parent causes mental health problems. These kids have higher rates of anxiety and depression than their peers. Their self-esteem and social skills are far worse than their friends. They also have more behavioral issues and are more defiant to perceived authority.
Unfortunately, having a parent who abuses drugs or alcohol makes you much more likely to become addicted. Kids with addicted parents work against genetic factors, along
with frequent exposure to drugs and alcohol. If a child has a trusted adult and role model in their life who doesn’t abuse substances, this can provide some protection against alcohol and drug use.
Building a Bond with a Child of Addiction
Children of parents with addiction are quick to recoil if their trust in you isn’t met with acceptance.
You are the safe space where they can release the feelings they have to bottle up at home.
When talking to a child about the substance abuse in their home, remember to share with them the following principles:
• It’s ok to talk about your troubles at home.
• Telling me about your family doesn’t mean you’re snitching on them.
• Stay engaged at school, especially in an extracurricular activity like band or Boy/Girl Scouts
• Just because your parent has substance abuse disorder does not mean they don’t love you.
• If you ever feel unsafe, find a trusted adult or call 911.
• You didn’t cause the addiction.
• You can’t fix the addiction.
• You can only care for yourself.
• It’s important to acknowledge and talk about your feelings.
Providing Information to Kids About Addiction
Talking to kids about drug use is hard, especially when it relates to the people they love.
Make sure the information you give a child is developmentally appropriate. Kids don’t always understand the nuances of addiction, and depending on their age, they might not need to.
Answer questions honestly, but don’t share more than the child asked for. Whatever the child asks, continue to circle back to the idea that the parent’s addiction is not the fault of the child.
Some topics that might come up include:
- Types of drugs
- Addiction treatment
Knowing Your Limits as an Educator
When talking to a child, keep in mind your school’s policies. Also check in with yourself about your own competencies. Are you qualified to discuss sensitive issues with this particular child? If a child has a need that you are not equipped or allowed to fill, find someone who can.
It is possible to sit with a child, listen and hold safe space for them without crossing a professional boundary. For example, you can listen to a child talk about their mother who is addicted to alcohol. Yet, you cannot act as a therapist and advise a child on how to communicate with the parent. You can, however, connect the child with the school counselor or a social worker who can help them get the services of a therapist.
Preparing to Work with a Child of Addiction
Throughout your years as a teacher, you will know these kids even if they don’t come forward about their parent’s addiction. Being prepared with a script and probing questions will help you feel confident and ready to address their needs.
Don’t pass these kids off immediately – they chose you to share their intimate story with because they like and trust you. Take the time to listen and validate their feelings. Only after that exchange has occurred should you refer them to a school counselor, psychologist or social worker.
As promised, here is your bonus: a free download that contains a simple, yet effective worksheet to help your students open up to you. It is one of our SEAL tools: “I want my teacher to know…”
It is meant to get students to open up to you about anything: a hidden talent, an exciting event that’s happening in their life, a worry they have. Whatever it may be, this kind of journaling (visual and written) can help a student to share.
I use this same worksheet at the beginning, middle and end of the year and any other time I feel it’s needed. My students love writing things in there and it certainly helps them communicate with me.
My hope is that you will find a use for it in your classroom or learning space.
Click for your free “Best Sentence Starter” download!
Dr. Sarah Toler is a Certified Nurse Midwife and Doctor of Nursing Practice in Los Angeles. Dr.Toler specializes in women’s mental health, particularly perinatal and postpartum mood disorders including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. She works as a medical reviewer and writer for Addictions.com on her spare time, providing expertise on substance use disorders, and the connection to mental health disorders.