6 Ways To Help Kids In Families Impacted By Addiction: Life Kit What can you do if you suspect a child is being impacted by a family member's addiction? Experts say you don't need to be an addiction expert, just a caring adult. This episode offers guidance to help a kid through a tumultuous time.
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Helping A Child Whose Parent Is Struggling With Addiction

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Helping A Child Whose Parent Is Struggling With Addiction

Helping A Child Whose Parent Is Struggling With Addiction

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KAVITHA CARDOZA, HOST:

Just a heads up before we begin, some listeners might find descriptions of the content of this episode upsetting. It includes graphic descriptions of addiction.

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CARDOZA: This is NPR's LIFE KIT.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is a circle of safety. We're just sharing and we're listening.

CARDOZA: Around 20 children sit around in a circle inside the main camp lodge, almost all have a parent who's addicted to opioids. The lights are dim. It's one of those moments you know is going to be intense and you should brace yourself even before it happens. The 8 to 12-year-olds read their letters to addiction.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Reading) Dear addiction, why do adults like you? When I'm older, I will be against you. You make me not like my mom and dad, and it's sad. You make my dad go to prison. I hate you.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Reading) Dear addiction, you are my worst enemy. You took my dad from me, my stepdad, my aunt, and about to be my uncle. So I just have to ask you a question, could you please just go to hell? Signed, a very sad kid.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Reading) I hate you so f****** bad. I wish you wasn't real. You hurt kids so bad. I hate you. Go to hell. This is a part for my mom. I miss you, mommy.

CARDOZA: The pain these children feel is almost too much to bear. And millions of families are touched by addiction. But remember that episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" where he tells children to look for the helpers? Well, this episode of LIFE KIT is about how you can be that helper because not everyone is lucky enough to go to a camp like this.

Wendy Berkshire, director of Camp Mariposa in Dayton, Ohio, says kids shouldn't bear this pain alone.

WENDY BERKSHIRE: And the most important thing to Ms. Wendy is that you know that you're not alone. Absolutely the most important thing to me is that you're seen and you're known and you're heard.

CARDOZA: After reading, each child goes outside and throws their letter into a glowing fire pit. They watch their letter to addiction burn. Berkshire and other mentors hug them and say, I love you, and you're so brave. One little 10-year-old with big, blue eyes is the last one in line.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is really hard stuff, isn't it?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Yeah. I miss my mom.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You miss your mom. I know you do, sweetheart. And I'm sorry that mommy's not here. I'm sorry.

CARDOZA: What can you do if you're, say, a teacher, a neighbor, a church-goer, a coach, and you suspect something might be going on? Maybe you are thinking, yes, I'd love to be that person, but I don't know much about addiction. Mary Beth Collins with the National Association for Children of Addiction says it doesn't matter.

MARY BETH COLLINS: We are not expecting adults to have to go and do a crash course. You don't have to go and read a book all about addiction. You don't need to be able to speak clinically about a substance use disorder. All that you really need to know how to do is to be caring, to be loving, and to be able to connect with kids and engage with them. That's as simple as it is.

CARDOZA: OK, but what if you aren't even sure there's really addiction in a family, or maybe you don't want to overstep? Again, Mary Beth Collins says, don't worry about it.

COLLINS: I invite those people to not get bogged down with that level of responsibility. You don't have to know for sure it's bad enough before you intervene.

CARDOZA: I'm Kavitha Cardoza. And before I began reporting on addiction, I used to think it meant parents strung out on the floor, or they've disappeared for days, or there's severe abuse going on. But experts like Collins say that's actually not true.

Most of the time addiction takes place in families that seem like they're functioning pretty well. So you will see them going to work or in church, walking the dog. She says there's a far greater likelihood of neglect or emotional abuse, like constant criticism or unrealistic expectations. Having said that, a child's safety, of course, is the most important. So if you see signs of physical or sexual abuse, definitely call the authorities. All of these children have experienced trauma, sometimes abuse and neglect, a growing number are in foster care. Many have a parent incarcerated, dead or not, in their lives.

Eluna is a national nonprofit that runs these camps in 13 states, many in areas hardest hit by the opioid crisis. The children meet at least 12 times a year.

CLAUDIA BLACK: I think of it is an opportunity.

CARDOZA: That's Claudia Black, an expert in the field of addiction. She helped start these camps years ago.

BLACK: A safe place for very young children to be, where they can speak their truth, where they can be honest about what it is that's going on in their family.

CARDOZA: She says there's a lot of secrets and shame. Many kids don't even know what the word addiction means. They just know their parent is different. One 11-year-old whose mother has been in rehab several times says this is how she explained it.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: If you really want to have a cupcake every single day and constantly, and if you didn't have it, you'd feel really sick.

CARDOZA: Black says that might not be the best analogy because, well, children love cupcakes. Rather, she says, she tells young children it's like an illness or a disease. With those who are older, she's a little more graphic.

BLACK: Something literally has their arms, their hands wrapped around your parent's neck, and that there is a chokehold and that your parents' hands are tied behind them. They don't have the ability to reach up and pull whatever it is that's got them around that neck and that's so severely choking them. And I think that what we want people to really grasp is that it isn't willpower, and there isn't a choice at this point without their getting some kind of help.

CARDOZA: OK, so now let's get down to some practical tips. Brian Maus oversees all camps at Eluna. He says these children are at higher risk for using earlier and for entering the juvenile justice system.

BRIAN MAUS: We'll never be able to change what's happened to them, but what we can do is boost the protective factors and lessen the likelihood of long-term consequences.

CARDOZA: So what are some of these protective factors? That brings us to takeaway No. 1 - being a caring, consistent adult in a child's life - a helper - because Claudia Black says often, that's exactly what these children don't have.

BLACK: A sense of mastery or a feeling of success in at least one area of your life is really helpful to children. And so the role that somebody could play is - how can I help develop that with a child? Maybe that's with helping this 12-year-old boy work on a car with me, and I'm the neighbor. And I teach him some mechanical skills, and he develops a sense of mastery and a sense of pride around that. Or maybe it's - when this little girl comes to my house and plays with my kids, I get she and my kids involved in an art project and really try and further her talent because I see some natural talent in the art.

CARDOZA: Things you can do are really, really simple - bake a cake, watch a game, go on a hike, kick around a ball, ask about school. Collins says it's not about the activity. It's about showing you care consistently.

COLLINS: Those loving moments are what will build that trust in these children, and it's through that trust, through that consistent nature, that they will start to trust you more.

CARDOZA: When Michael was 9, he got into trouble a lot. For privacy reasons, we're only using his middle name. He was angry because his dad never spent any time with him. He was always dealing with Michael's brother, who is struggling with addiction.

MICHAEL: He would rarely come because either he was with my brother or he was working. It was either one or the two.

CARDOZA: Michael didn't tell anyone how he felt, but he was angry.

MICHAEL: I would slam the door as well as - sometimes, I would hit my head on the wall and then - walking out of class and just not being able to control how I felt at that time.

CARDOZA: And then one day, Miss Missy, a counselor at his school, started talking to him in the hallway - just stuff like, how was school today, and what do you enjoy doing? - sometimes complimenting him. Michael started going to her office to chat every day for two years. She enrolled him in an Eluna camp. Michael says he always appreciated that she didn't ask questions about his family or pry.

MICHAEL: It's good to wait because you don't want to make a kid feel uncomfortable with answering the question themselves, being that the kid probably doesn't even know what's going on in their life. They just know it's an addiction, and they just want it to stop.

CARDOZA: You know those TV scenes where someone asks a question and the other person breaks down and bares their soul all in the first 10 minutes of meeting? Well, Claudia Black says this isn't anything like that.

BLACK: I think that sometimes, as adults, we think it's our job to probe, to ask questions. And that's absolutely not our job, and oftentimes, by doing that, that's also going to push those children away from you. They're not going to see you as a resource. They're going to see you as somebody who's possibly trying to make trouble for them, in fact, because, again, they have this strong loyalty to their family members. And even if that's not what your original intent is, that's often how it comes across.

CARDOZA: Mary Beth Collins says even if the child never confides in you, that's OK.

COLLINS: The loving, nurturing conversations can help in and of itself to build resiliency in children and help them heal because they're going to see things in that relationship with you that maybe they're not enjoying at home. You could be one of those rare individuals that can be a bright, shining beacon into their world and show them that there's more than that.

CARDOZA: OK, so takeaway two - separate the parent from the addiction. I was talking to one of the camp counselors, Derek Fink. He says these kids have seen a range of upsetting things.

DEREK FINK: Needles in their living room and having to, you know, call 911 to revive their parents. Kids are sticking up for their parents because, you know, they want them to do right. Kids are watching their dads OD and die, and they have to raise their own brothers and sisters because there's no parent in their life.

CARDOZA: The first thought when I heard these stories was, that's terrible. They're terrible people, terrible parents. But that's the opposite of how these children feel. Experts stress when talking to children, don't pile on because they love their parents a lot. Listen to this 11-year-old camper. He practically raises his little brother, lives in foster care and has just found out his mom is going back to rehab. But he wants you to know who she is to him.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #6: She really will do anything for her kids, and she loves watching movies and spending time with her kids. She's one of those moms that will try to embarrass you - not try to embarrass you but will, like - right before you walk out the door, if you don't give her a hug and kiss, she'll be like, you're forgetting something. And then she likes to cuddle with us.

CARDOZA: Even when children have witnessed terrible behavior, they're conflicted because that love is really strong. One 8-year-old girl says she hasn't seen her mom in years after she lost custody of all four of her kids.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #7: It made me feel, like, mad at my mom. I still don't forgive her, but I still love her.

CARDOZA: I don't forgive her, but I still love her. It's complicated. Mary Beth Collins with the National Association for Children of Addiction says helping kids separate the person from the behavior is one of the best ways you can help.

COLLINS: I think one of the most important things for adults who are wanting to help make a difference in the lives of children is to help guide children to separate the addiction that they struggle with, that they hate, that they're so angry at, from the parent that they love.

CARDOZA: So remember the letters to addiction you heard a few moments ago? The kids weren't asked to write, say, letters to my parent or letters to an addict for a reason - because that separation preserves the love but also allows children to share.

BLACK: We want these kids to be able to emote their feelings and their thoughts about it. We want to give them a healthy venue to speak to their anger, to own their fear, to talk about how embarrassing this is, how sad this - you, addiction, make me feel.

CARDOZA: The third takeaway - tell them it's not their fault. I talked to 17-year-old Isabel. For privacy, we're using Isabel's middle name. Her mother struggled with addiction when Isabel was little, and Isabel was convinced she was the reason.

ISABEL: I think it was just because, you know, one day, I was seeing my mom, you know, every week, and then all of a sudden, I didn't see her for months. And so, you know, you think to yourself, well, even though I was, like, maybe 4, 5, 6 at the time, you know, I did the wrong thing. I must've upset her somehow. I just don't think I knew any better.

CARDOZA: Collins says this is a very typical assumption, but it's false guilt.

COLLINS: Always, always, always, they will immediately blame themselves. It's that fallacy that puts this burden that is of the weight of the world on their shoulders, and they're carrying it around with them all the time. And it can be in very young children because children as young as 5 and 6 years old can already feel that level of responsibility.

CARDOZA: Isabel had a loving father, but she still missed her mother terribly, especially when she saw her friends' moms help out at ballet performances.

ISABEL: Not having, like, my mom there to do my hair and get me ready and put on my makeup before performances and, you know, having that relationship that a lot of the other girls who I, you know, was friends with had...

CARDOZA: She felt different and distrustful and abandoned. So how do you help a child not feel this way? Teach them the seven C's. It's an easy verse Jerry Moe, the director of children's programs at the Betty Ford Center, made up some years ago. A counselor at this camp put it to music.

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UNIDENTIFIED COUNSELOR #1: (Singing) And I didn't cause it.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) I didn't cause it.

UNIDENTIFIED COUNSELOR #1: (Singing) I can't control it.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) I can't control it.

UNIDENTIFIED COUNSELOR #1: (Singing) And I can't cure it.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) I can't cure it.

UNIDENTIFIED COUNSELOR #1: (Signing) No, I can't.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) No, I can't.

UNIDENTIFIED COUNSELOR #1: (Singing) No, I can't.

BLACK: I didn't cause it. I can't cure it. I can't control it. But I can now help take care of myself by - another C here - communicating my feelings and then - another C here - by making healthy choices and celebrating me.

CARDOZA: And Mary Beth Collins says it's not just catchy.

COLLINS: It gives them the basic rules that allow them to stop feeling like they are in control of the addiction. And instead, it puts the focus back on themselves because what ends up happening in these families is a lot of the focus and attention is placed upon the person with addiction. A lot of their focus is put on either controlling the addiction or masking the symptoms of addiction from everyone on the outside of the household. So then who's caring for the children?

CARDOZA: When Isabel was 12, she went to an Eluna camp in Florida for four or five years. That's where she had her aha moment about her mom.

ISABEL: I kind of just realized that it was a disease and that it's really not up to me if she wants to get help. It's ultimately up to her. As much as I want her to, you know, go get help, it's not my decision.

CARDOZA: When she's a mother, she says, she'll teach them to communicate, make healthy choices and celebrate themselves.

ISABEL: You know, the mother you see in the movies, you know, brushes their hair, you know, is there for them at all of their, you know, shows or whatever activity they have going on - you know, just being really present in their life. I don't think I'd ever be able to have a kid and not be there for them 100% of the time like my mother wasn't for me, you know?

CARDOZA: Takeaway four is look beyond a child's behavior. Imagine you have all this stuff going on at home and you can't tell anyone. Maybe you don't even realize why you feel like that. It's got to come out somehow, right?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #8: If someone's trying to annoy me while I'm trying to work at school, I'll scream.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #9: I get mad at my baby brother because he does stuff wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #10: I like to rip my paper for school.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #11: I ignore the people that love me.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #12: I call myself stupid.

CARDOZA: Crying, closing down, getting distracted - it's easy to interpret this behavior as not caring, but that's not true. Remember Michael, who used to bang his head against the wall and walk out of class? I asked what he was thinking when he did that.

MICHAEL: Just anger and not knowing who to blame or not knowing what to blame. The other one is just feeling like you don't know what's going on.

CARDOZA: At school, he felt unloved and ignored.

MICHAEL: Third grade year was the worst. My third grade teacher didn't really - honestly didn't really care. I would just - always used to get in trouble. No teachers really paid attention to kids that were bad. They always thought, oh, that's just a bad kid, and we're just going to send them to the office or stuff like that.

CARDOZA: He says if Miss Missy hadn't come along, he might have continued to believe he was a bad kid and never taken advanced classes or got through school. Brian Maus, who oversees all the Eluna camps, says if you want to help, look beyond behavior because often, it's simply a response to trauma.

MAUS: Rather than saying, what's wrong with you? What's happened to you? - and listening to those stories and getting to know them. And that makes such a huge difference.

CARDOZA: Takeaway five is to help kids learn ways to deal with their emotions in a healthy way. Wendy Berkshire, who runs Eluna's Dayton, Ohio, camp, explains.

BERKSHIRE: We teach the kids here at camp when we keep our feelings inside and we don't have an opportunity to share them in a safe place and with a safe person, it becomes a part of the cycle of addiction.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #13: I get on Snapchat, and I text with my friends. I like to talk with them on FaceTime and all that.

BERKSHIRE: Tyler (ph)?

TYLER: When you're upset, you can take a shower.

BERKSHIRE: That's a very calming thing to do sometimes, Tyler. That's great.

CARDOZA: Berkshire's listening to campers tell her what they do when they're angry or upset or frustrated. She identifies the emotions, validates how they feel and asks them to think about what they can do about it. The children throw out ideas - listen to music, journal, take deep breaths, go for a walk, maybe have a bath, shoot hoops, cuddle their dog.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #14: What I do is I make food or I clean the room that I'm in.

BERKSHIRE: They can't control what's going on in their life, but they have all the power to control themselves and their emotions. And so we want to give them lifetime tools.

CARDOZA: Kids learn to make stress balls out of balloons, create vision boards out of magazines and make posters with positive messages - all seemingly simple crafts where they're learning how to center themselves. After all, addiction is the opposite of regulation.

(CROSSTALK)

CARDOZA: I definitely don't want to leave you with the impression that these kids are always sad or challenging because that's not true at all. In fact, most of the time, you wouldn't know they're any different from other children, which brings me to the sixth and last takeaway. It's my favorite one. Let kids be kids.

(CROSSTALK)

CARDOZA: In families dealing with addiction, Mary Beth Collins says there's a phenomenon that happens. It's called parentification.

COLLINS: And so you have children, sometimes at the age of 8 or 10 or 12 or 15, where they're cooking. They're cleaning. They're taking care of younger siblings. And those responsibilities end up doing some of the damage to children because those are roles that typically are not held by children. They typically are receiving the caregiving, not doing the caregiving.

CARDOZA: Any time these children aren't expected to be little adults is healing.

COLLINS: They've not had the luxury to just be silly.

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CARDOZA: The kids are giddy with anticipation for the big camp party, complete with s'mores and a DJ.

UNIDENTIFIED COUNSELOR #2: All right, Camp Mariposa, make some noise.

CARDOZA: They are ready to be children, to pour too much syrup on their pancakes, to yell about spotting a spider and to dance their little hearts out.

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UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #15: (Singing) Let it go. Let it go - and sun. Let it go. Let it go. Here I am. Here I stand.

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CARDOZA: All right. Let's recap. Takeaway No. 1 - be a helper. You don't need any advance knowledge to show up for the kids in your life.

Takeaway No. 2 - help kids separate their parent from the addiction.

Next up, takeaway three - reassure them this is not their fault. They didn't cause it, they can't control it, and they can't cure it.

Takeaway No. 4 - try and understand kids' behavior. Their emotions can manifest in all sorts of different ways.

Takeaway five - help kids deal with their emotions in a healthy way.

And finally, takeaway six - whenever and however you can, encourage kids to just be kids.

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CARDOZA: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have another parenting episode about how to talk to your kids about scary stuff in the news. You can find that at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter. And here as always, a completely random tip - this time, from listener Chase Benson.

CHASE BENSON: If you're going to a hotel and you're spending the night and you want it to be pitch black the whole time, take one of the hangers with the clips and clip the two fabric curtains together and you won't have any light to reach your room.

CARDOZA: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email lifekit@npr.org. This episode is produced by Sylvie Douglis. Megan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan, and our project coordinator is Clare Schneider. I'm Kavitha Cardoza. Thanks for listening.

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