Drug Awareness Week 24 – 28 June is there to remind us of the struggle so many still face with substance dependency – and the effects this has on family and society as a whole. You may know someone – particularly a child who may be suffering because someone in their family is dependent on substances. This week is the perfect time to take a step and find a way to help.

Whether you come into contact with a child in this situation as a teacher, a friend, or a family relation, the key is to spot the signs that so often signal the trauma the child is experiencing. Once you know the signs, learn the approach, and then plan the actions you can take to make a difference in that child’s life.

As you help one child at a time, you help to heal that young person’s distress, and they in turn can affect others. It’s a ripple effect – and the intervention of one can ultimately bring about change for many.

Signs that a child is under stress caused by substance dependency at home

Every day, thousands of children experience physical, verbal and emotional abuse from parents who are dependent on alcohol and/or drugs, resulting in confusion and intense anxiety. In order to survive in a home where healthy parental love is absent, they develop individual methods of survival early in life.

These behaviours may vary from child to child, but there are some specific reactions that can be tracked

  • Often a child will work extra hard to make up for the lack of parent, striving to be the
    model of perfection – but in a way that is beyond normal or necessary – desperately
    seeking approval and affirmation.
  • In contrast to the above, rebellious behaviour, becoming troublesome, or even breaking the law very often hides feelings of fear, hurt, rejection and loneliness.
  • Sometimes a child may appear detached, a dreamer, but they may not be as
    content as they appear; this quiet reticence may hide feelings of anger and inadequacy shown in occasional irrational flashes of emotion.
  • Then there’s the clown. Always making jokes and being the jolly life of the party, almost to
    the point of irritation to others. Hyperactive but fragile and easily hurt, often hiding feelings of fear and low self-esteem.
  • A child may display difficulty in having fun, resulting in a low grade and continual
    depression – or difficulty with emotional relationships – or the clear effects of chronic
    anxiety.
  • Compulsively lying about anything and everything – surrounding themselves with an
    almost fantasy alternative to their lives.

How to talk to a child about the problem

Children are often reluctant to share long-held family secrets, even if they are seeking support. In this difficult situation, how do you connect with them? Here are some pointers:

  • Time the conversation to take place when there will be no distractions.
  • Talk openly about change, substance dependency, treatment, separation, divorce and
    repeat the conversation as often as the child needs in order to feel comfortable with the
    discussion.
  • Be as direct as possible, but always end on a positive note.
  • Ensure you are informed, and be honest when answering the child’s questions.
  • Validate the child’s experience but remind them that their parent’s substance
    dependency is not their fault.
  • Put things into perspective and tell them they are not alone; they are normal kids trying to
    cope in an unhealthy, stressful situation.
  • Encourage them to talk about their feelings without criticism or judgment.
  • Let them know there are resources available to help them process their emotions.

Techniques to affect a positive influence

The earlier you can intervene, the better. The longer a child suffers in silence, the greater the damage he or she will experience.

  • Remember that the environment is very important. Healing can only take place if the
    child feels secure in a safe atmosphere.
  • Remember to have patience. It will take a while to gain the trust of children from troubled
    families. Defence is all they know. They have learned their entire lives that they must protect their family’s secrets.
  • Remember to see things from their perspective. Children exposed to substance abuse have learned to survive by suppressing their emotions, so it’s difficult for them to acknowledge those emotions, let alone discuss them. Let them know that they can say anything, discuss anything in confidence and without fear of rejection.
  • Remember to prepare yourself for any topic, and never show any signs of shock or
    recrimination.

Badisa is a social services organisation that focuses on making a real difference, one person at a time. With our ‘drop in the bucket’ principle, we have made a difference to thousands of lives.

Join us on our journey. Find that one person you can help, that one child who may just need a good listener, an understanding heart – and who might, on your kind gesture, give back a sense of hope, change and happiness beyond your expectation.

Find out more about what we do at: www.badisa.org.za or visit our rehabilitation centres at www.ramot.co.za or www.toevlug.org

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