Sober Child With an Addicted Sibling

All too often… all too often, the sober child with an addicted sibling feels invisible, unimportant. And often, they are invisible – sort of, anyway – as their frantic, overwhelmed parent(s) asks or sends silent messages, to “be good,” “don’t cause any more trouble,” “help out with the _______,” etc. And when that sober child tries to inject their personhood into a conversation, their parent is often listening with half an ear, typically responding with a distracted, “that’s nice,” or some other random comment that has no bearing on what their sober child is trying to say.

This is understandable. One can only imagine the terror a parent feels as their substance misusing child slides down the slippery, ugly slope from use to abuse to addiction. That process, in and of itself, can take years and absorbs a parents’ focus as they move from denial (hoping/believing that it’s just a phase) to acceptance of what it really is to anguish over how to help their addicted child stop. And in their terror, the parent’s overwhelming focus is on that addicted child. Again, this is understandable. Addiction is a life-threatening disease.

But this understanding does not take away from the fact that the sober child with an addicted sibling suffers deeply.

Often the child with an addicted sibling feels invisible.

Often the child with an addicted sibling feels invisible.

I was moved to write this post when I came upon the following poem, author unknown:

I am the other child.
The ok one

I am the sober child.
The one on the sidelines.
I am the observer.
The one watching him slowly killing our parents.
I am the angry one.
The one who’s pissed because he’s 
destroying our family.
I am the sad one.
The one losing her first best friend.
I am the reassuring one.
The one holding her Momma as she cries.
I am the torn one.
The broken one trying to hold everyone
together.
I am the confused one.
The one who wonders how we became
so unimportant and invisible.
I am the other child.
The ok one.

Helping the Child of an Addicted Sibling

The following suggestions may help parents, grandparents, or other caregivers of an addicted child help that child’s sober siblings:

Learn as much as you can about addiction – how it develops, the risk factors for developing it, what it does to the brain – and thus the thoughts, feelings and behaviors – of a child with this disease. This helps the parent understand what they are dealing with and helps them explain the disease to their sober child so that child also understands what has been happening. Check out NIDA’s “Drugs, Brains, and Behaviors: the Science of Addiction,” and NIDA, NIAAA, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and HBO’s, “The Addiction Project > Adolescent Addiction.”

Understand What it Takes to Treat Addiction – check out NIDA’s “Principles of Effective Treatment” and be aware that if addiction co-occurs with a mental illness, both must be treated at the same time. Check out my article, “Co-occurring Disorders Require Co-occurring Disorders Treatment.”

Learn What You Can Do to Help Your Addicted Child Seek Help – check out the Center for Motivation and Change (CMC)’s 20 Minute Guide for Parents – you’ll find lots of information about how to effectively help your child change their substance use.

Talk and Talk and Talk Some More with Your Sober Child – let them know you realize it’s been crazy and that you’re now trying to get help and understanding so that you can be a better parent to them, as well. And do things with them, alone — things they want to do — and plan NOT to discuss anything other than what that child wants to talk about.

Above all – know you are NOT a bad parent. You were doing the best you could with what you understood at the time. But now is the time to learn more because there is new science that helps makes sense of this family disease, what it does to everyone in the family, and how important it is that everyone in the family get help.

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

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  1. This post really hits home where my family is at this very moment. Our 25 year old daughter is incarcerated with her first felony conviction. It wasn’t a drug charge, but having the drug addiction is what lead to this arrest the week before Thanksgiving 2015. Our son is 29 & the “ok” one! Married & has a 1 1/2 year old son that our daughter has seen only twice, & he is successful with his own business!

    My husband & I are conservators of our other 5 year old grandson…..our daughter’s son, whom she has not seen in 15 months! Only pictures now that she is in jail & more clear headed than she has been in a very long time! We finally have hope that she may be finally getting the help she needs. Our resources are limited due to years of helping our daughter & grandson. His daddy is the other toxin in our daughter’s life! He is incarcerated too with his 2nd felony conviction, & we hope he will be out of all of our lives!

    In the past week, our son has made it very clear, that he is trying to protect us from more hurt & disappointment! He does not agree with the visits we make to see our daughter, (we do not take our grandson) and he does not want to hear any further updates about her for now! It has caused a dissention within our family! We do understand how he feels, but do not feel that we can turn our backs on her now, when this possibly be that breakthrough that she needs!

    I subscribed to this website over a year ago, when we finally had to accept the reality that our daughter had the disease of drug addiction!

    I get inspired from the many stories & posts! Thank you for making a difference in the lives of family members of our addicted loved ones!

    Norma Varner
    Denton TX

    • Dear Norma – thank you so much for writing this (and for your kind words). One of the most difficult aspects of all this is to understand (and believe) that addiction is a brain disease and that the behaviors this disease generates are not willful nor the “real” person. Equally difficult to understand is treatment and recovery and that people DO RECOVER! Unfortunately, most people (including legislators, judges and family law courts) are still in the dark as far as knowing about the new research on addiction that shows it is a treatable brain disease.

      But the new science is peeling away some of this misinformation and shame, and I thought I’d share a few resources here that others reading your comment may find helpful. Thanks again for writing, Norma, and I wish you and your family all the best. Take care, Lisa

      This is the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy’s position on Treatment and Recovery https://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/treatment-and-recovery

      This one (same office) is titled, “A Drug Policy for the 21st Century,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/drugpolicyreform from which I’ve quoted the following, “Science demonstrates that addiction is a disease of the brain—a disease that can be prevented and treated, and from which people can recover.”

      This one is the link to the bio on Michael Botticelli who was sworn in as Director of National Drug Control Policy at the White House on February 11, 2015, after being unanimously confirmed by the Senate. https://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/botticelli-bio He, himself, has been in long-term recovery from a substance use disorder for more than 26 years.

      This one is from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and explains the new science of addiction http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/preface

  2. My brother is an addict while I am the sober child. I made a very difficult decision not to have my brother in my life because his personality and addiction could wreck my life. I feel guilty for hurting my father because it would please him to have his two sons reconcile, but I am not ready. The above poem rings true for me. My brother’s past behavior has hurt both my mom who passed away in 2012, my father the enabler, and how he has dragged my step-mother into his problems angers me. I am apathetic to my brother’s plight. Why can not my brother take responsibility to become sober. As of today, my brother is spending time in a detox center for the countless time. Thank you for letting me post this thought.