As is true for any other living organism or ecological system, family systems must adapt in response to the changes and challenges of life. When a crisis affects a family member, the rest of the family will unconsciously make changes in how they interact to achieve some new kind of balance to survive physically and emotionally.
Substance use disorder is a disease that affects every person in the family. In fact, we say in treatment, that the patient IS the family, not just the individual with the substance abuse disorder. An often overlooked dynamic in family systems impacted by addiction are siblings of the addict. The good news is that there are many ways that loved ones can support the non-addicted children and create a healthy recovery for the entire family.
As previously mentioned, the struggle to find a new sense of balance often forces people into roles that are not healthy for either the individual or the family. For example, a child may assume a “parental role” to replace what was lost when a parent is in active addiction. Or a parent may assume the role of “case worker” or “sponsor,” managing the recovery of their partner or child, losing touch with their typical role as a partner or a parent. People tend to “shift shape” to compensate for a deficit felt in the family.
This extends to siblings, who may find themselves deeply affected by a brother or sister’s substance use disorder and may not fully understand the loss of normalcy. The family may end up overcompensating, spending so much time and focus on the identified patient and leaving the other siblings “blowing in the wind.” Though there is often immense love and support for their loved one, a sibling may harbor resentment towards the sick brother or sister for the disruption in the family and for the parents focusing so intensely on the sibling that they feel invisible. This can lead to a sibling unconsciously stepping into the role of “the stable one,” “the perfect student” or even choose to adapt similar characteristics as their sibling to receive attention.
The role of siblings in family recovery
The goal of family therapy is to right-size things by supporting family members in developing tools to relate to each other in a healthier way. A sibling, for example, may realize that she doesn’t need to do everything “perfectly” to appease her parents and instead can learn she is “good enough” and worthy of unconditional love and positive regard. Parents can learn that it’s equally as important not to neglect other children in the family. Helping the family recover, therefore, involves paying attention to everyone, helping them examine their role and making them part of the effort to transform the family system. Each individual family member must identify and work on their own issues and challenges, including siblings. It is important that when afforded the appropriate opportunity, siblings can address their resentments, hurts and boundaries to create positive relationships moving forward.
How parents can support their other children through a family addiction crisis
Explain the situation. Explain in an age-appropriate way what is happening with your child’s sibling. Kids are smart, and they will know something is going on, even if no one tells them. It may feel difficult to know what to say. We recommend keeping it simple. “We love you. Your brother is ill with a disease called substance use disorder. We love him too, and we will do everything we can to help him, just like we would for you if you were ill.” Depending on their age, it may be appropriate for siblings to be involved in treatment.
Create an open dialogue. Families must be transparent and open to achieve healthy recovery. That also helps address resentments. If no one talks about anything, negative emotions will start to build. It is always better to communicate and know how everyone in the family is genuinely feeling. From there, the family can work collaboratively with the help of a treatment professional to move forward.
Don’t assume what your child needs. Ask them. You may be surprised to find that something you thought was important doesn’t really matter, while you’ve been ignoring a need that they want met.
Keep quality time intact. It may feel counter intuitive, but it’s critical that parents and loved ones continue to spend quality time with the non-addicted children. That kind of consistency goes a long way towards their feeling safe and secure in an emotionally challenging situation. Continuing to also make a big deal about important milestones in their lives is also very important, whether that’s a recital, sporting event or school achievement.
A sibling relationship is truly sacred. Unfortunately, incredible damage can be done when a sibling is actively using substances. However, treatment can make a significant difference in helping parents and siblings come to terms with their pain, share their feelings and develop tools to strengthen bonds and truly transform their relationships in a positive way.