How Can I Explain Pill Addiction to My Child?

Discussing about your pill addiction to your child can sometimes bring fear and stress? Learn how to bring these news with calm.

minute read

ARTICLE OVERVIEW: This article will teach you more about the brain disease of addiction so that you can explain it to your child. Then, we review tips for the actual conversation and invite your questions at the end.



Addiction is Medical!

Dealing with pill addiction? Are you looking for a way to explain it to your child or a family member?  There is a medical way to explain to loved ones how you are dealing with health difficulties such as addiction. But in order to talk about addiction, you must understand it first.

This article gives you the basics on:

  1. How addiction influences your system.
  2. The reasons behind it.
  3. Tips for how to talk about it with your child.

We encourage you to post additional questions in the comments section at the end. We’ll make sure to provide you with a personal and prompt response. Or, if we can answer your questions…we’ll refer you to someone who can.

What Is Addiction, Really?

Addiction, or substance use disorder, is a condition recognized as a brain disorder. It is a chronic disease with severe implications on a person’s health.

When we are addicted to a pill, brain chemistry changes and we start to behave unconsciously and act out of control. This is because many medications can temporarily alter:

  • Decision-making centers in the brain.
  • Motivation.
  • Our ability to feel pleasure.

When we begin to rely on our prescription pills to feel normal, however, we can develop a disorder which can’t simply be overcome with self-help. This is why prescription pill addiction often requires intervention by doctors and addiction professionals, especially when:

  • You have tried to quit on your own but can’t.
  • Are physically dependent on a prescription medication.
  • Experience multiple negative consequences to health, home, work, or social life.

Brain Chemistry Changes

In short, long term prescription use affects brain functions such as:

  • Behavior.
  • Decision-making.
  • Judgment.
  • Learning.
  • Memory.
  • Stress.

Pills and other prescription medications are designed to change brain chemistry to treat physical and mental conditions. They are actually called “psychoactive drugs” because they affect the brain directly. There are several categories of prescriptions which are target of abuse. These can include central nervous system depressants prescribed for anxiety and sleep disorders, opioids prescribed for pain relief, or stimulants prescribed for attention disorders.

Examples of drugs that cause brain chemistry changes include:

  • Benzodiazepines like Ativan, Xanax, or Valium.
  • Pain killers like Vicodin, OxyContin, or Percocet.
  • Stimulants like Adderall or Ritalin.

Our brain functions as a result of a delicate balance of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. When a prescribed medication enters our system, it directly affect the natural balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. Long term use and/or abuse makes the brain adapt to a new, unnatural neurotransmitter balance.  And when the desire to take pills becomes a pathological craving … it transforms into addiction.

The Reasons Behind Addiction

We can never say that people become addicts by choice. On the contrary, when the effects from the drug of choice no longer bring pleasure people desperately want to stop…only they are not able to, at least not on their own.

Further, addiction is not a disease caused by a single factor. This is why it’s referred as a complex disease. The word “complex” is associated with the multiple factors which contribute to the foundation of addiction.

According to research and studies by scientists, psychologists, and other professionals in the field of addiction, this disorder has a biological, psychological and environmental background.

Addiction carries a great burden because it’s a compulsive disorder. Recovering from it requires monitoring from professionals and a controlled environment such as treatment centers. Pill addicted individuals can’t quit using by themselves because they often experience strong and unbearable withdrawal symptoms. This discomfort brings them back into the circle of taking pills over and over again to numb the pain and avoid further withdrawal.

Genetics And Environmental Factors

Many scientist and researchers in the field of addiction have questioned themselves why do some people become addicted while others don’t? The results of their studies have proven that there is not a single factor which can predict that a person has the possibility to become a drug addict. Instead, results of addiction studies have discovered that addiction is influenced by a combination of biological psychological and environmental factors.

Biological factors outline the importance of the genes that people are born with. Genetic predispositions carry a 50% risk for addiction. The presence of other mental disorders may also influence risk for drug use and addiction. Knowing your family history of diseases can help you pay an extra care and attention when trying and reaching out for drugs, alcohol and prescription medications.

Environmental factors include everyday influences, from family and friends, social groups, economic status and overall your general life quality. Among the most common environmental factors that can contribute to the occurrence of addiction are:

  • Early exposure to stress.
  • Parental modeling.
  • Peer pressure.
  • Physical and sexual abuse.

More on Biological Factors

Before an individual develops addiction to prescriptions, they often pass through several stages of physical change. Some people can develop physical dependence on a drug, for example. This means that the brain adapts to the drug and provokes withdrawal symptoms when doses are lowered to stopped. Others even become tolerant of the effects of medication, needing more medicine more frequently for initial effect.

When explaining tolerance and dependence, it is important to know that they are referred to the physical consequences of drug use. In contrast, addiction is a term referred to the need of engaging in harmful, abusive behaviors. Moreover, addiction develops when a person becomes physically, psychologically and emotionally dependent to pills.

As the brain adapts to the presence of prescription pills over time, chronic users may begin to respond to their prescription differently than those who have used it in accordance with physician’s guidance. They may start to:

  • Increase dosing.
  • Increase frequency of use.
  • Doctor shop.
  • Hide or lie about Rx drug use.
  • Prioritize the drug use above other activities.

Addiction: A Brain Disease – Not A Choice!

Prescriptions drugs and substances influence the brain’s “reward circuit” by interfering with the quantity of neurochemical messenger called dopamine. Dopamine neurotransmitters influence our centers for pleasure together with the reward system and motivates individuals to repeat behaviors in order to keep their level of happiness. The natural activities which increase our level of dopamine are: eating, sleeping, having sex, spending time with loved ones…etc. Abusing prescriptions over stimulates the reward circuit causing the intensely pleasurable “high” that often times leads people to repeated drug abuse.

As a person continues to abuse their prescribed pills, the brain readjusts to the new state of excess dopamine by producing less of it. This is how abusers feel a reduction in their ability to experience high and feel pleasure in comparison with when they first started taking prescription— effect known as tolerance. They might take more pills, trying to achieve the same dopamine high.

Not only that…. prescription drug users feel a reduction in the effects from their pills, but they also lose their ability to enjoy every day activities which use to bring them natural pleasure such as food or social activities. Depression can appear shortly afterwards.

Explaining Pill Addiction to a Child

Deciding to talk to your child about your pill addiction already shows a great level of courage and consciousness. In fact, your child may have already noticed you are not well. They are probably curious and concerned about why you are not feeling yourself.

Honesty can be the best place to start. Before you begin, you’ll need to consider the age and maturity of your child before talking to them. Keeping the conversation age appropriate is important because younger children simply can’t understand the meaning of the term “addiction”, so you may need to replace the term with “illness” in order to bring this subject closer to them.

As for teenager and older kids it’s best to be completely honest and say what going on directly. Teenagers and older kids value honesty. Telling them the truth will make them feel as if you feel they are old and mature enough to know about addiction.

Here are some suggested tips of what to have in mind when you want to approach your child and explain your pill addiction:

TIP #1. Use comparison with other illnesses in order to bring closer the subject of pill addiction to your little child. You might want to compare your illness with a very bad headache, or a stomach flu that just doesn’t go away. For older children, you might compare drug use with smoking. Whatever you choose, make the model tangible and relate-able.

TIP #2. Listen to your kids. Ask them what they’ve observed in your behavior. Be prepared to answer their questions and concerns regarding your condition. Encourage them to tell you what they think.

TIP #3. Make sure to provide your children with a strong support system. Or, set up family counseling sessions with a child psychologist who has experience in family addiction issues. They need to have someone to lean on when you leave for recovery. And professional help can guide you through the entire process.

TIP #4. Take away any guilt. Make sure that your child understands that s/he is not responsible for your pill addiction.

TIP #5. Prepare your recovery plans in advance and share them with you child. Share the plan with them. If you are leaving for an inpatient rehab stay, outline the visiting days. Talk about rehab like a camp for adults.

Who else might you advise?

  • A licensed addiction counselor.
  • A licensed clinical social worker.
  • Family psychologists.
  • A psychiatrist.

Seriously consider the process of family counseling. With the help of family therapy, members revalue the way they communicate and react to one another. Together, you and your child(ren) can look at how you conduct yourselves in ways that are hurtful or helpful. During family therapy, members also learn how to modify their behaviors to support each person. You’ll learn how to better communicate with each other, and practice new ways of talking, relating, and behaving.

Now, Your Questions

Do you have additional questions about explaining an addiction to your child? Please share your questions and/or experiences with successful (or not) communication in the comments section below. We’ll try to respond to you personally and promptly.

Reference Sources: NIH: Understanding Drug Use and Addiction
NIH: How Do Prescription Drugs Work in the Brain?
All About Counseling: Telling Your Kids About Your Addiction
Huffington Post: As a Mom in Recovery, How Do I Explain My Addiction to My Kids?
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
I am ready to call
i Who Answers?