Talking to children about addiction: How and when?

Better Health & Wellness

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Dr. Larry Mitnaul is used to hard conversations taking place in his office.

The child and adolescent psychiatrist with Ascension Medical Group owns a variety of dolls and toys in his office that can help communicate messages to kids on topics well beyond their developmental level.

When discussing drugs and addiction with children, Mitnaul prefers to begin with questions to establish what the child’s current level of understanding entails. First, he suggests asking what the child has already seen or heard regarding drugs.

“It can be helpful, though, for kids to have some explanation of what’s going on in someone’s life and helping to not stigmatize that,” Mitnaul said. “Whatever the struggle is, we can talk about it to some extent and helping a child to recognize that.”

If a loved one suffers from substance abuse, he says a child might not need to know everything, just enough details for them to be safe and know the problem is not their fault.

“We don’t want kids feeling like they own that,” Mitnaul said.

Setting clear definitions and boundaries about what constitutes “drugs” is also important.

In May 2019, Wichita toddler Zayden Jaynesahkluah died of a methadone overdose after getting into his mother’s supply. His mother, who was eventually charged with first-degree murder, was using methadone to treat opioid addiction.

Setting boundaries with medicine cabinets and pill bottles can be the difference between life, death or serious illness.

Regardless of the circumstances behind the conversation, Mitnaul emphasizes having a theme of hope that encourages and empowers the child.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has many resources for children and adolescents.

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