When a teenager has an addiction, that addiction is not just their problem. It’s the whole family’s problem. But siblings of addicted teens can often get overlooked, here’s 4 helpful tips to help siblings cope.
When a teenager suffers from an addiction, siblings who live at home are often acutely affected. The addicted teenager may bully younger siblings into giving them money for alcohol or drugs, or may even steal from them.
- They may be pressured to keep the addicted teenager’s behavior a secret from parents or others.
- They may also experience trauma from seeing dramatic behavior changes in their sibling or from watching their sibling suffer through the difficulties of addiction and the consequences of behaviors that accompany addiction.
What’s more, parents who are focused on the addicted teenager may fail to give siblings the attention they need to deal with their own related or unrelated experiences. Take a look at some tips that can help the siblings of addicted teenagers.
For someone who has never experienced addiction, the behaviors that accompany addiction can be confusing and upsetting, especially when the person displaying those behaviors is a loved one. That’s especially true for children and teenagers. But understanding more about addiction can help.
It’s easy to believe that the person with the addiction is willfully hurting those around them – that they could easily just stop if they chose to do so. But addiction is much more complicated than that, and people suffering from addiction often feel that very few of their actions are within their control. For siblings of addicted teens, coping begins by learning more about how addiction works and why people with addictions behave the way they do.
It won’t solve the problem, but it can help alleviate some of the pain and confusion that siblings of addicted teens feel. Learning more about addiction can also help these siblings learn how to protect themselves, not only from their sibling but also from potential addictive tendencies in themselves.
It’s always important to set and enforce firm boundaries if you’re someone who has any type of relationship with a person who has an addiction. And for the siblings of addicted teenagers, they may have no choice about whether or not to live with the addicted person, whether or not to share a room with the addicted person, and when they do and don’t have to interact with the addicted person. Because of this, it’s especially important to define and set some personal boundaries for self-protection.
For example, the sibling of an addicted teenager may choose to refuse to keep secrets for their addicted sibling. It’s very common for siblings to share secrets and to “cover for” one another with parents or other adults. Often this is harmless and can have a bonding effect. But when one sibling has an addiction, keeping their secrets can be dangerous, both to the addicted teenager and to other people.
Siblings of addicted teenagers can make it clear that they will not cover for or keep secrets for the addicted teenager, and that they’ll share relevant information with parents, counselors, teachers or school officials, clergy, or even law enforcement if they feel that they need to. Knowing that their sibling will not keep their secrets may or may not cause an addicted teen to change their behavior. But siblings should know that they don’t have to feel guilty about getting their sibling into trouble or betraying their confidence.
They deserve to be safe, and the addicted sibling needs help to get healthy. Sometimes refusing to keep secrets is the best way that a sibling can ensure their own safety and help their sibling get healthy again. Once a sibling has drawn a boundary, their only obligation is to stick to it.
Participate in Recovery
Siblings of addicted teenagers often benefit from participating in the addicted sibling’s recovery process. Siblings of addicted teens may be hesitant to agree to participate in recovery, and that’s understandable; it’s easy to see recovery as another way for the addicted sibling to center themselves and pull focus from other siblings. But family therapy, even family therapy for which only one sibling is the target patient, often has the side benefit of improving circumstances for siblings as well.
Participating in family therapy and in other addiction recovery-related activities, like interventions, gives siblings a voice. It gives them a place to discuss their feelings, their needs, and how their sibling’s behavior has affected them. Siblings shouldn’t be expected to ignore their own needs to aid in an addicted teen’s recovery process. However, acknowledging their needs and how the addicted sibling’s behavior has affected them can be an important part of the recovery process and helpful to themselves at the same time.
While the sibling of a teen struggling with an addiction can benefit from participating in and supporting their sibling’s recovery process, they should also seek out support specifically for themselves. There are many avenues for siblings of addicted teens to seek support.
Ideally, siblings will be comfortable telling their parents or other family members that they need some one-on-one attention or support, unrelated to their sibling. But when this is not the case, or when parental or family support isn’t enough, a sibling could seek counseling from their school or religious organization. They could also join a support group for loved ones of people with substance abuse disorders.
Groups like Al-anon or Alateen, for example, allow people affected by a loved one’s addiction to talk about their own experiences. They share their observations and learn from people who have had similar experiences. Support groups like these can often help siblings of addicted teenagers to learn coping and problem-solving methods that work for them. It also gives them the space they need to process their own experiences and feel supported.
Growing up with someone who has an addiction isn’t easy, and it can be easy for outsiders to overlook the pain and trauma that a sibling can experience in this situation. But there are ways for siblings to help themselves, help their addicted siblings, and get the support they need to cope in a healthy manner.
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, and Founder and Executive Director of Paradigm Treatment Centers, who has been a respected leader in the field of adolescent mental health for more than 20 years. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, his Master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, his Doctoral degree from Pacific University’s APA approved Clinical Psychology program, and completed his training at the University of California, San Diego’s APA approved psychology internship program.
Dr. Nalin has provided training and mentoring to students entering the field of psychology at institutions of learning including Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College. He was also instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
Dr. Nalin has appeared as an expert on shows ranging from CBS News and Larry King, to CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He was also featured in an Anti-Drug Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Dr. Nalin is a Diplomate of the National Institute of Sports Professionals and a Certified Sports Psychologist as well as a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. He lectures and conducts workshops nationally on the issues of teen mental health, substance abuse prevention, and innovative adolescence treatment.
In 2017 Dr. Nalin was awarded The Sigmund Freud Foundation and Sigmund Freud University’s Distinguished Achievement Award in recognition of his work with youth in the field of mental health over the course of his career.