Going to rehab is tricky enough without telling your kids. What do you say to them? Is there a right time? And how will they take it?

At Addiction Advocates, we regularly advise patients on what to say to their kids. We’ve rounded up the most important points to consider.

What Is Rehab and How Do You Explain It to a Child?

As a parent, it’s your role to guide your child through life, answering any challenging questions. Whilst you can provide answers to friendship dilemmas, school issues and broader philosophical questions, talking about your health, particularly addiction, can be uncomfortable.

Honesty is the best way forward, by explaining that you are going somewhere to get well again. We suggest you describe drug and alcohol rehab as a welcoming and relaxing place, not a hospital, as many children find hospitals a scary place.

Tips For Explaining The Rehab To A Child

How you describe rehab depends on your child’s age and maturity level. Saying that you’re unwell and need to go somewhere to get better is ideal for toddlers. Telling them that you’re returning will make them feel more at ease.

You can give more details to school-age children, from ages 5 to 11. Tell them that you’re unwell and need to go away to get better, but also ask them if they’ve noticed any changes in you. For example, you could ask them if they’ve seen you being moody or not sleeping. Advise them that you’re addicted to something, but don’t tell them what it is – they won’t understand.

If you have a teenager, you can be more open and honest. Explain more about your addiction and how rehab will make you better. Touch on how you’ll do lots of talking and healing, so you can return home feeling brighter.

Find The Right Time

Make sure you set aside enough time, so you don’t have a rushed conversation. It will shock your children that you’re going away, and you need to be prepared for lots of questions.

Choose a time of day when you know they won’t be tired, so rule out before bed or when they wake. Tell them in a comforting space – at home is ideal, or at the home of a close family member.

Give Timescales Of How Long You Will Be Gone

Your kids are used to having you around, and it’ll be a massive change for them when you’re gone. They need to know when you’ll be back, so they feel comfortable and secure and can look forward to your return.

Talk About Emotions And Control Your Own

Be prepared for lots of questions. Your kids may act confused, cry, become angry, comfort you, or sometimes not say very much because they’re processing what you’ve told them. Some children are more mature than others; on the surface, they may act strong. Make sure you tell them they can ask questions when they’re ready.

Compose yourself. Controlling your own emotions can be challenging. If you’re suffering with your mental health, as well as an addiction, your emotions may be erratic. It’s a good idea to do some deep breathing and compose yourself before you speak to your kids. Have a plan of action if they react in unexpected ways, and answer any questions they may throw at you.

If you feel you need extra support when you tell your kids, have a family member or close friend with you, but ensure it’s someone your kids know and trust.

Your role is to reassure your children and make them feel safe. Don’t tell them you feel a failure, as in their eyes, you’re not.

Tell Them How You Will Stay in Touch

Kids will want to know how they can reach you while you’re in rehab. Explain that you’ll call them, and they can contact you.

Tell them about visiting times, and explain what room you’ll sit in to chat. If you’re allowed devices such as pads and phones at rehab (policies vary across centres), explain that you can speak via video calls. If there’s a garden at your rehab centre, talk about the garden as a lovely meeting space.

Talk About Changes To Their Routine

Kids thrive on routine, as it makes them feel safe, organised and reassured. Your kids’ patterns will change due to you going into rehab. It’s your role to explain these changes and how they will impact them.

Talk about who will help out when you’re gone. Maybe it’s a friend or family member, or maybe your partner will do the lion’s share while you’re away. Tell them if they have to start after-school clubs or extra classes. If they have to live elsewhere and stay with a loved one temporarily, let them know.

For younger kids, you could tell them that they’re going on ‘holiday’ at a friend’s house to make the change exciting for them.

Ask How Your Child Feels

We know you’ll feel upset and emotional when you talk to your child. In some cases, you may find it tough to answer further questions. BUT, as the caregiver, it’s your job to ask how your child feels. If they say they feel sad, don’t brush aside their feelings. Say that it’s ok to feel sad, that you understand, but you’re going away to get well and be the best parent you can be.

Tell your child that all emotion is valid and that it’s best to let it out rather than hold in their feelings.

Tell Them Where To Find Extra Support

Explain to your kids where to go and who to speak to if they struggle when you’re away. List trusted family and friends. Teenagers and older children could benefit from additional support from an outside organisation, where they can meet other kids in the same boat. Pass on these details to them, as well as their carers.

If you’ve told school you’re going to rehab, encourage your kids to speak to their teacher or support staff if they’re having an emotional time.