How Social-Emotional Learning Can Help Children Cope With the Effects of Addiction

At Inside SEL, our mission is to act megaphone, amplifying the great work being done by leaders in education and social-emotional learning across the country.

Throughout the past year, we have been incredibly fortunate to help build and interact with an amazing community of educators, administrators, researchers, parents, students, and other proponents of whole child education. Many of our readers will write to us with their own stories and opinions about the future of education, and we view it as part of our goal to help share high-impact stories with as wide of an audience as possible.

The following piece was authored by Charlie Fletcher, a freelance writer living in the pacific northwest who has a variety of interests including sociology, politics, business, education, health, and more.


It is disheartening that we live in a world where many children have to deal with challenges associated with unsafe and unstable home environments. A grim illustration of this is a recent Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) report that one in eight children live in circumstances where at least one of their parents has a substance use disorder. When addiction is a part of kids’ everyday lives, it can have a serious detrimental influence on their development and their mental health.   

While this is a disturbing reality, it is important to underscore that the communities surrounding these children are not powerless to help. Social-emotional learning (SEL) can be a vital tool for intervening in the issues these individuals are faced with and providing them with the tools they need to cope and thrive through these difficult circumstances. When applied correctly, teachers, counselors, school psychologists, social workers, student support staff, and other trusted adults can use SEL to ensure that children from homes where addiction is present do not get consigned to the sidelines as a result of their parents’ illness. 

Providing a Robust Support Network

As early as possible, teachers, counselors, and other adults in the community should be working together to fill in these support gaps. This is not a matter of taking over parental duties; rather, it’s ensuring that children know that there is a group of qualified, experienced, and — crucially — trustworthy adults that they can confide in, or seek help from. Make efforts to talk to them about their feelings. Keep reinforcing that it is neither unusual nor shameful for them to be experiencing emotions that include anger, sadness, or even a sense of grief for a parent who can seem lost to them. Simply providing avenues through which they can express themselves can be helpful on the path toward successfully coping with their situation.  

Building this support network also has a vital role to play in the child’s ability to develop relationship-building competencies. Children who live with the effects of addiction often avoid inviting other children to their homes and may be even more isolated as a result of spending a lot of time at home self-parenting and doing additional chores. As such, members of this support network can help to give them insights into what healthy, trusting relationships with other adults look like, and influence the positive development of their perspectives in this area. Interactions should include encouraging them to listen to adults’ experiences as well as talk about their own, guiding them to resolve conflict at home or school, and also the basic steps of asking for help when they need it.  

A Deeper Understanding

One of the most important roles that SEL has in assisting children living with the effects of addiction is helping them gain a deeper understanding of what is happening. From a developmental point of view, this means that they are not just reacting to the situation; they actually have the self-management competencies which empower them to both cope with the challenges they face in their current situation, and those they’ll face in the future.  

Part of this means providing them with education and resources that allow them to understand the nature of addiction. Teachers, counselors, and community members can provide them with insights into not just the chemical causes of addiction, but also the emotional and social aspects that may be driving their parents toward substance misuse. This should include recognizing how this relates to their own feelings about the situation, developing greater empathy for the challenges their parents are facing, and forging emotional intelligence.  

However, this knowledge also has to extend to the consequences of addiction. Children may not have yet developed the emotional or psychological tools to recognize that it is not only their parents who are suffering as a result of addiction, but they are in turn being neglected. Talk older children through the forms neglect can take — the physical, emotional, even educational impact if their parents’ addiction results in them missing school. Frame this not in a way that leads them to feel hostile toward their parents. Instead, frame it from the perspective of how vital it is to take ownership of our thoughts, emotions, and actions, and guide them through using this knowledge to seek help or resources in the future. 

Preventative Tools

When engaging with children who live with the effect of addiction, we must also be cognizant of the fact that the way we interact with them at this early stage of their lives can have an impact on their future. As such, we have to look out how SEL can be utilized to prevent them from going down the same kinds of destructive paths that their parents’ addiction has led to. 

The self-awareness competency has a primary role to play in this aspect. Wherever possible, we have to implement activities and experiences that assist the child in recognizing that our emotions can impact our behavior. After all, addiction has a strong emotional element to it. Perhaps more importantly, we need to guide the child in acknowledging and accepting their weaknesses, while encouraging the strengths they have that can help them overcome these. 

This shouldn’t just be undertaken in an adults-only vacuum, either. Their friends and peers will always have an impact on how they relate to the world around them, and how they see themselves. We’ve seen recently how distance from friendship groups during COVID-19 can leave children isolated and impact their personal development. Encouraging their engagement with friends, and finding safe spaces for them to do this away from the home can not just boost their confidence and wellbeing, it also helps to reinforce how their social, ethical, and emotional actions affect others — which stands them in good stead for their future behavior. 

Moving Forward

Children who live with parents that experience addiction are at greater risk of disruption to their development and wellbeing. Social-Emotional learning can help fill in the gaps of their support network, provide them with a deeper understanding of their challenges, and influence their future positive path. As such, teachers, counselors, and community members must work together that these children have the tools and support they need to thrive. 

Categories SEL in K-12

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