If you have a teen who is addicted to, or abusing drugs or alcohol, it affects the whole family. The way it affects younger siblings is often difficult to manage. Younger siblings have a variety of reactions, but one thing you can count on is that it is hurting them too.
I have worked with countless families who have a teen addict in the household. Invariably when there are younger siblings they suffer. One of the ways I see a younger sibling struggle is very similar to what happens to siblings when one kid gets a terminal illness. There is a lot of focus and energy from parents going towards the child who is sick. The healthy child is overlooked because they are functioning well. This is the same with addiction. A younger sibling might not get the attention they normally would because the addict is creating so much chaos within the home.
Another way I have seen younger siblings affected by drug and alcohol use in older siblings is to idolize the older sibling. Sometimes the younger one thinks the attitude and behaviors of the older sibling are kind of cool. They are introduced to marijuana or alcohol by their older sibling. This is one of the only times their older sibling has paid any attention to them, and it feels really good. So, they end up going down a similar path.
A third way I have seen younger siblings react is to start acting like a parent. They try and become ultra-responsible. They forget how to be a child. They are constantly on their older sibling’s back for causing problems in the family. They start helping with household chores. At first this may seem like a good thing, but if a child takes on parental roles too young then they miss out on crucial developmental stages. Sometimes this causes problems later on.
I have also seen younger siblings develop symptoms of depression, anxiety and other psychological difficulties.
When one of your children is struggling with addiction or drug/alcohol abuse, it is extremely important to manage how you parent the younger children. Make sure they are still getting positive attention, and try your best to encourage them to still be a kid. Communicate what is going on at an age-appropriate level, but do not make the younger child your confidante. No matter what, remember the entire family is suffering because of the addiction. There is nothing easy about this. Seek extra help if you need it and keep in mind that the younger children might need help too.
If this applies to you, my heart breaks for you and your family. I know it is a huge struggle, but hang in there. Keep focus on what is going well in your life too, and help the younger sibling remember that too.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT