Explaining Addiction to a Young Child

You might think that addiction is a topic that wouldn’t come up until children are in late elementary school, going through whatever passes for drug education in their school.  You might be right.  Then again, your child might ask questions at a much earlier age after noticing that someone you know or a television character seems unable to quit using something that has obvious negative effects.  That’s what happened with my child.

When Nicholas was three-and-a-half years old, he had known for some time that “smoking is bad for you” because I had told him that when I stopped him from pretending to smoke twigs.  (We don’t smoke, nor do our close friends and relatives, but we see people smoking on the streets all the time, so Nicholas was imitating them.)  Well, one day we were visiting his neighbor friend on her porch, and her mom lit a cigarette, and Nicholas piped up, “Smoking is bad for you!”  Neighbor mom said, “Oh, I know. I wish I could quit! Never start!”

After we got home, Nicholas asked me why his friend’s mother keeps smoking cigarettes if she knows it is bad for her. Just a few weeks later, he asked why television character Homer Simpson drinks so much beer even though it makes him do stupid things.  He was fascinated to learn that the explanation was very similar to the explanation for cigarettes.  He found it so interesting that he repeatedly asked me to “tell again about how some brains say, ‘Smoke more cigarettes!'”

Here is my explanation:

Beer contains chemicals that change the way people’s brains work.  Those chemicals hurt children’s brains, so children can’t have any beer at all.  For adults, those changes in the brain can make a happy feeling that some people like. But too much beer messes up the brain’s thinking so that the person does dumb things or gets really mad about a little problem.  Too much beer also can make people throw up, make them sleep so hard they can’t wake up if something bad happens, or damage their bodies.  Some people get addicted to beer.  That means that one of the chemicals in beer grabs onto a part of the brain and fools it into thinking beer is something the body needs.  The brain says, “Drink more beer! Drink more beer!” just the way it tells the person to do important things like eat, sleep, and breathe.  A person who is addicted to beer feels like he has to drink beer, even if it’s making him sick or making him do stupid things or costing more money than he has.

The explanation for cigarettes is exactly the same, except that instead of listing some effects of “too much,” I said:

But smoking cigarettes is very bad for a person’s health.  The smoke makes the lungs dirty and sticky so that breathing doesn’t work as well, and breathing is very important to bring oxygen from the air into your body to keep every part of it healthy.  Some of the chemicals in cigarettes cause cancer, which means that some of the tiny cells that make up a part of the body turn into cancer cells and attack the healthy cells, which makes a person get very sick and hurt a lot and maybe die.  Cigarettes also can cause emphysema, which means your lungs fill up with boogers–my grandfather got that, and for about five years he could hardly breathe and coughed up yucky stuff all the time, until finally he died.  It was awful!  He tried many times to quit smoking, but he just couldn’t do it until after he was already very sick.

I think that explaining addiction helps children to understand why these substances are dangerous and to feel compassion for addicts while exercising the necessary caution.  On a specific personal level, my son now understood that his friend’s mom continues smoking not because she is a total idiot or because she does not realize smoking is unhealthy, but because she tried it a few times for whatever reason and her brain got grabbed, and now she feels the message “Smoke more cigarettes!” the way he feels “Drink more water!” and it is very hard to resist that message.  As far as I can tell, this didn’t lower his respect for her or any other addict as a person.

After one of the times I retold the “story” of addiction to Nicholas, he asked, “What about coffee?”  Busted!  I drink coffee every day, and so does his dad, and he’d heard us say that we “need” coffee!  I explained that coffee contains caffeine, which is a drug that changes how the brain works, and that is why coffee and tea and caffeinated sodas are not for children.  But caffeine does not grab the brain as hard as cigarettes do, or as hard as beer does for some people–it is only a little bit difficult to tell my brain, “No, we’re not going to drink coffee today.”  I feel more tired if I don’t drink coffee, but if I take a nap or do something else to help me feel awake, my brain will stop yelling, “Drink more coffee!”

Nicholas is almost seven now.  From time to time we’ve talked about the issue of tobacco addiction: We don’t like putting up with smelly smokers on our sidewalks, and we really wish something would be done to stop their littering, but we have to understand that they are addicted and need to smoke sometimes.  The contractors who renovated our bathroom last year and painted the outside of our house this summer are heavy smokers–it’s hard to understand, since being able to breathe well is important when doing physical labor, but now that they’ve started smoking it is hard for them to quit.  We’ve also talked about some of the nuances of alcohol: The one sip of wine we take at Communion makes “a spicy feeling” in our mouths, but it is not enough to affect our behavior; even when a person drinks enough to behave differently, that person is not necessarily addicted, because alcohol doesn’t addict everyone.

Occasionally, Nicholas has overheard someone mention some other addictive drug and has asked about it.  I don’t want to tell him the terrifying details of what heroin or methamphetamine does to people–but I can just say, “It’s a drug that some people are addicted to,” and now he knows what that means.

He also asked at one point what someone meant by describing some art as “like Andy Warhol on acid.”  I explained that “acid” is slang for a drug called LSD that is not addictive but is a very serious drug because it makes a big difference in the way people see as well as in the way they think, so they could get hurt while using it.  LSD can make things look very colorful and swirly, so “like Andy Warhol on acid” means, “like a colorful swirly version of Andy Warhol’s art.”  I am not thrilled that the phrase “on acid” is so commonly and casually used, but since it is, my child may as well be culturally literate.

These explanations worked for me!  Visit Works-for-Me Wednesday to learn about a pleasant rule for friendship and over 200 things that work for other people.

4 thoughts on “Explaining Addiction to a Young Child

  1. Pingback: Talking with children about difficult extended family issues and painful past events - Mothering Forums

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  4. Pingback: Wearing masks on Christmas? It worked for my grandfather! | The Earthling's Handbook

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