Oh, Brother: How to Talk to Small Children About Their Sibling’s Issues With Drugs and Alcohol

When your older child is struggling with drugs and alcohol, and their younger sibling is old enough to take notice, you face an especially hard dilemma as a parent. On the one hand, you owe it to your younger child to have a frank conversation. On the other hand, you don’t want to say the wrong things or volunteer too much information to a kid who idolizes their older sibling and could follow in their footsteps.

If you’re between that rock and that hard place, you deserve support. You’re reading this, so you already recognize the necessity of a conversation; that recognition itself is a huge milestone.

Addiction is often an elephant in the room for families, after all. However common the disease — 43% of the adult population in the U.S. reportedly have an alcoholic family member — substance abuse is often an issue we prefer to tiptoe around, by pretending it’s not there or avoiding related conversations.

Age-Appropriate Ways to Talk About Addiction With a Younger Child

How do you talk to a younger child about an older sibling’s addiction problem?

  • Meet your child where they are. Choose what and how much to share on the basis of how old your child is and their maturity level. Obviously, what and how much you share with a small (young or very young) child will differ from the details you’d provide to a tween or teen. By “small,” I mean a child who is 10 or under, recognizing that some children by age 10 do not seem very small at all, and that this age bracket encompasses a very wide range of maturity levels. You know your child best, so trust your instincts about what your child can and cannot handle and what they need to know. When in doubt here, invite your child to ask questions and share what they are feeling, so that you can meet them where they are.
  • Explain to your child that their older brother/sister is “sick.” Your child may not be able to process a term like “disease” or the disease concept of addiction — but when you tell them that “Johnny is sick,” that can help them get a better handle on the situation. In cases where an untreated addiction presents risks of overdose, it may be appropriate to explain to your child that Susie’s sickness means she could end up drinking or using so much that she could get really hurt—and that if your child notices their older sister is passed out and not responsive, they should come to you immediately.
  • Let your child know you have a “no secrets” policy. Related to the above note, encouraging your child to come to you immediately, if/when they discover their older sibling is unresponsive or may be in imminent danger, sends the message that love and respect towards a sibling does not equate with keeping their problem secret.
  • Tell the truth. It can be tempting to think that by telling a white lie or keeping the addiction secret, you’re shielding your child from a hard, painful truth that they are not ready for. But in keeping with a “no secrets” policy, whatever you do, don’t lie. Child psychologists will tell you that lying to kids is a “no-no,” because children know when you’re lying. Consequently, they can make certain inferences that do not serve them well in the long run (that their job is to cover up their brother or sister’s problem, or that they shouldn’t trust their own emotions in relation to what they are experiencing, for example). Be as honest and direct as you can, because as counter-intuitive as it might seem, a frank conversation with your child is the best way to meet their emotional need to feel safe, understood and connected to you.
  • Acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings. When you invite your child to share their experience of an older sibling’s addiction, be attentive to the emotions they may be experiencing (and which they may or may not be equipped to express for themselves, depending on their age and maturity level). If they have noticed, for example, that their opiate-addicted brother acted strangely detached, dopey or unresponsive last night, they may be able to talk about the behaviors they observed—but unable to identify the feelings they were experiencing. You can help them learn to identify and give voice to these emotions, by saying something like, “It can be confusing and scary when Johnny doesn’t act like himself when he’s using drugs. Do you feel that way sometimes?”
  • Assure your child they are safe through tone, touch, and if prompted, with words. Your child needs to feel safe and reassured that, whatever is going on, things will be okay. Often the best way to convey this message is through non-verbal gestures, such as a hug or hand on the shoulder. A calm and loving tone of voice can also provide a sense of safety and reassurance.
  • Put things into perspective. That may mean letting them know just how common addiction is, that with treatment many people find recovery, and that your family is not alone in their struggle.
  • Avoid stigmatizing language. When you talk about an older sibling’s substance abuse, try to avoid using terms that judge or stigmatize your older child’s condition. This can be tricky. It’s normal and appropriate parental caution to be concerned that a younger child could end up in the same place. (And studies do suggest that an older sibling’s substance abuse can foster similar behavior in a younger sibling, especially when the two children are of the same gender). Out of fear, you naturally may be tempted to single out your older child’s behavior as a horrible example of what never to do, or to deliver a full-scale lecture on the evils of addiction. The problem with this approach is that it can amplify the shame dynamic. The result? Your child walks away from the conversation feeling more ashamed of their older sibling’s addiction and less inclined to come to you in the future if they ever develop a problem with drugs or alcohol.
  • Use the “Seven C’s” as rough talking points. The Seven C’s are a well-known mantra among recovering children of alcoholics, but the same principles can also be highly effective takeaways for a younger child processing an older sibling’s substance abuse. What your younger child needs to know (and not necessarily in these exact same words) are:

“I didn’t cause it.”

“I can’t cure it.”

“I can’t control it.”

“I can care for myself.”

“By communicating my feelings,

Making healthy choices, and

By celebrating myself.”

  • Invite your child’s questions and an open dialogue. The less talking and more listening you do, the easier it will be to hear how an older sibling’s drug or alcohol problem is affecting your younger child—and the better positioned you will be to love your child in the ways they need to be loved.

[About the author: Anna Ciulla, the Clinical Director at Beach House Center for Recovery, is responsible for designing, implementing and supervising delivery of the latest evidence-based therapies for treating substance use disorders. She has a passion for helping clients with substance use and co-occurring disorders achieve successful long-term recovery. Photo by on Unsplash]

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