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“Mom, You’re A Junkie!” Explaining the Disease of Addiction to Children

A couple of weeks ago during the Mob Wives Season 3 premiere, Renee Graziano admitted to her friends (sure, I use that word loosely) that she’s struggling with addiction.

Then, during last week’s episode, the VH-1 reality star sat down with AJ (her teenage son with ex-husband and mobster Junior Pagan) to talk with him about her problem with substance abuse and her decision to go to an addiction treatment center.

Ultimately, AJ told his mother he’d support her in whatever she did to get better; if you watch much of the show, you know AJ reacts to most things like a frustrated, still going-through-some-growing-pains teenager, but eventually he always comes around to his mom’s side.

Thus, his initial reaction to Renee’s addiction was definitely that of someone who hadn’t been properly educated about alcohol and drug addiction.

AJ was visibly upset when Renee told him she was struggling with addiction and that addiction is a disease, calling it “bull–” and claiming there was no comparison because people don’t choose to have a disease, but they do choose to use drugs.

After that episode, I spent a lot of time thinking about society’s views toward addiction compared to science and medical research, studies, and definitions.

Then, I thought about how we’re supposed to explain addiction to children. After all, “the streets” (i.e. their friends who use drugs, alcoholic homeless people on the corner, crack addicts holed up in abandoned houses) seem to send different messages than what a

Addiction has historically been viewed not as an illness, but instead as either the personal choice to engage in bad behavior or a lack of self-control over intoxicants. – Dr. J.T. Junig

I went to one of Psych Central’s resident experts, Dr. David Sack of Addiction Recovery.

Specifically, I wanted Dr. Sack to share with us how he’d suggest explaining addiction to children, that addiction is not a “junkie” lifestyle choice, but an actual disease that sufferers have to learn to manage.

First, Dr. Sack noted the importance of first explaining the difference between the initial decision to take drugs (a choice) and the body and mind’s addiction to drugs (not a choice):

Addiction is not a choice, a sign of moral weakness or a character flaw. While the initial decision to use drugs may be a choice for some people, drugs change the brain in a way that makes it extremely difficult to stop. Over time, the brain craves drugs like food or water and it’s difficult to feel normal without them.

Then, Dr. Sack offered three ideas on approaching a discussion about the addiction as a disease with children:

  1. Explain that addiction is a chronic disease much like other diseases. “When talking to a child about addiction, it’s important to explain that addiction is a chronic disease similar to diabetes and heart disease.”
  2. Make sure the child understands his parent’s addiction itself is neither his fault nor his parent’s fault. “Children need to understand that addiction is not their fault, nor is it their parent’s fault.”
  3. The child should be able to talk freely and safely with the parent and/or therapist about his feelings and his parent’s progress. “Children should be encouraged to talk about their feelings without criticism or judgment, whether with a parent, therapist or other trusted adult, and be reassured that the parent is getting the help they need to get well. “

Have any of you dealt with a similar situation? Have you struggled with addiction, or had a close adult family member or friend with substance abuse problems, and had to help your children understand the disease of addiction?

If you have any advice on how to explain addiction to children, please feel free to share in the comments below.

Dr. Dr. J.T. Junig is a Wisconsin-based Board Certified Psychiatrist who writes Psych Central’s An Epidemic of Addiction. Learn more about his articles and other publications at Fond du Lac Psychiatry.

Dr. David Sack has appeared on shows like Good Morning America, Dateline NBC, and The Doctors to provide the media and public with addiction information. In addiction to his Psych Central blog Addiction Recovery, you can find his writings at Huffington Post and Psychology Today. Learn more about Dr. Sack at

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“Mom, You’re A Junkie!” Explaining the Disease of Addiction to Children

Alicia Sparks

Alicia Sparks is a freelance writer and editor and the creator of, where she blogs to help new freelance writers get their quills in the pot, so to speak. Among animal rights, music, and physical wellness, her passions include mental health and advocacy. Here at Psych Central she works as Syndication Editor as well as authors Your Body, Your Mind, Unleash Your Creativity, and World of Psychology's weekly "Psychology Around the Net."

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APA Reference
Sparks, A. (2013). “Mom, You’re A Junkie!” Explaining the Disease of Addiction to Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 13, 2020, from


Last updated: 27 Jan 2013
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