Talk to children: Addiction info provides emergency first aid

by Elizabeth Massa Hoiem

Recent government support to aid families impacted by substance use is heartening. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced $28 million in grants to assist pregnant people and families, while Oregon lawmakers approved $27 million to fund education and drug prevention programs.

But government funds are slow to reach communities. Meanwhile, parents, teachers and youth must take immediate action to reduce the stigma around sharing their experiences with addiction.

I was 10 years old when my teacher had everyone in the class write personal biographies. He promised to share our stories with students who came after us. I wrote about growing up with a mother with alcoholism. But when a friend requested mine, my teacher declined, saying it was “too depressing” and “she had no childhood.”

His words expressed an assumption that we all need to challenge and shift. The false pretense is that by learning to survive homelessness, abuse, poverty, violence and racism, children lose their innocence. They project that even hearing about it transforms other children into adults.

But the opposite is true. Children need to learn these stories and have information so they can protect themselves and be heard.

In the current epidemic of substance use, conversing openly with young people provides them information to keep safe. According to the Centers for Disease Control, opioids caused over 80,000 deaths in the last year, up from roughly 48,000 deaths in 2014. Excessive alcohol use is even deadlier, killing another 178,000 people each year. Substance use disorders usually begin during adolescence.

As a historian of youth literature and a survivor of a tumultuous childhood, I now understand why protecting childhood innocence dehumanizes children in the presence of addiction and abuse. History teaches us this lesson.

In 19th century America, the Protestant belief that infants are born sinful until reformed by adult correction was replaced by the belief that children are born innocent before being corrupted by worldly experience, according to Steve Mintz, author of “Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood.”

This history of childhood in this country is further complicated by racism. In the 2011 book “Racial Innocence,” Robin Bernstein argues that mainstream American culture has long associated innocence with white children. After slavery, racialized innocence provided a cultural logic for segregating public spaces and children’s services, affording white children exclusive access to legal protections and developmental support while justifying violence against families of color.

Many Black families resisted the sentimental cult of innocence by disclosing protective knowledge to their children while protesting for a safer world. Literary historian Nazera Sadiq Wright in her 2016 book, “Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century,” describes how parents armed their daughters with awareness of economic challenges, sexual assault and racial violence, uncoupling knowledge from innocence.

Another legacy of this history is a reluctance to speak openly about addiction in the predominantly white, middle-class suburb where I grew up, where knowing too much means having “no childhood.”

Many adults still rationalize discomfort with discussing addiction, citing the same logic used to avoid conversations about racism or economic justice, the need to preserve childish ignorance. This reluctance may seem supported by psychologists’ warnings against “parentification,” or overburdening children with adult family responsibilities.

Like Louisa, the strong, eldest sister in the 2021 animated film “Encanto,” the pressure of parentification confers leadership skills and feelings of empowerment, according to 2020 research. It can also age first-born girls and undermine mental health, a 2024 study shows.

But paradoxically, silence around addiction unfairly burdens children with managing adult feelings and hiding family secrets.

As censorship expert Emily Knox explains in her 2023 book, “Foundations of Intellectual Freedom,” withholding “difficult knowledge” protects adults from powerful emotions but hinders children’s ability to heal by describing their lives.

It is essential to have safe conversations with young children who already know a good deal about addiction because they live with it. By age six I knew how to evaluate whether my mom had too much to drink.

With opioids now the leading cause of poisonings among children under six, even young children need age-appropriate information.

To do that, it is essential to equip librarians to recommend resources on substance use disorders and train people to administer naloxone in cases of opioid overdose. Parents, teachers, and community members need to be prepared to respond graciously to a four-year-old next door who confides her life story.

People of all ages need to prepare themselves to share answers to simple questions about addiction including, “Why don’t they just stop?”

Even the public television show Sesame Street provides conversations between puppet characters that model talking comfortably with the very young.

Listening to children relieves parents from the unfair burden of protecting their children alone. In her 2019 book, “Perils of Protection,” Susan Honeyman charts the increased restrictions placed on child participation over the past two centuries, which leave children vulnerably isolated and parents with dwindling social support. Often with the best of intentions, Honeyman shows, the nuclear family’s rigorous protective oversight extends to deceiving children about serious threats, prompting children to protect their parents by pretending ignorance.

In Ali Benjamin’s 2015 novel, “The Thing About Jellyfish,” Suzy, age 12, stops speaking after her friend, a swimmer, drowns in the ocean. She creates a fantastical theory about a jellyfish sting to preserve her fictional world of safe, causal logic.

Some stories children create to protect themselves until they are ready to speak. But other adults invent reasons to protect themselves from what children have to say.

Children not living with addiction still benefit from these conversations. Understanding addiction protects young people by introducing awareness around their use of alcohol, vaping, and drugs, but also social media and smartphones.

Addiction is pervasive. It is necessary to keep open the possibility of connecting with children by talking about it.

Elizabeth Massa Hoiem is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and author of “The Education of Things.” She is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.