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.
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
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.