Addiction and Siblings: How to Talk About It

Addiction affects everyone in the family, sometimes in a very harmful way. One of the best examples is when the person struggling with addiction has a brother or a sister. Especially for a young child, it can be very difficult to understand why their sibling is acting so strangely or won’t speak to them anymore. So, how to explain drug addiction to a child?

The answers are challenging, for we need to consider the child’s ability to grasp concepts as well as our family dynamics. If you are having trouble on this front, there are people who can help. Please contact us at 912-214-3867 to learn about rehab facilities near you and the best ways to deal with and recover from an addiction. Our professionals can also offer advice on how to explain drug addiction to a child.


Read on for tips on explaining addiction to a child, and be sure to reach out to us with any questions.

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Sibling Suffering

Imagine that you are 15 years old, living in a home with your parents and older brother. One day, your brother sneaks into your room, takes everything of value and sells it in order to pay for a drug or alcohol habit. This is essentially what happened to Sarah Romain due to her brother Zach’s struggle with addiction. “Anything I knew that was worth a value [sic],” Zach told NPR, “I took it, and I sold.” Zach and Sarah’s relationship is still strained years later.

This kind of behavior is not uncommon for people addicted to drugs and alcohol. And when you include the sibling factor, the crime becomes even more heartbreaking. Addiction drives people to do things that can harm not only themselves but their families.

We Need More Research and Support

Unfortunately, there is very little data about the challenges siblings go through when their sister or brother becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol. Parents can get various kinds of professional help in these situations. But there is very little professional support specifically designed for the brothers or sisters of someone who is addicted.

Sadly, we do know that siblings often begin taking drugs or drinking because their older brother or sister did. Making it all the more important to understand how to explain drug addiction to a child. Psychologist Tim Portinga, with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, noted that children are often not prepared for the traumatic emotions they face when a sibling becomes addicted. “I hear this just consistently over and over again from siblings”. “That nobody understands how painful it was to have their brother or sister not show up at their basketball games, or to see their brother or sister intoxicated and passed out on the floor, or to try to understand why their brother and sister are in trouble with the legal system again.”

Siblings seem to have trouble understanding why their sister or brother is struggling. Young children in particular can feel embarrassed or lonely when their siblings seemingly abandon them in order to support an addiction.

Fighting a Family Illness

Because one person’s addiction affects the whole family, it is important to consider the needs and pressures that each member of the family faces. Addiction presents challenges to each family member, but especially to young children or teens.

Children are very intelligent and able to sense when something in the family isn’t quite right. But though they can sense problems, siblings may not be able to fully comprehend what is happening. The child may think that the addict is bad or that they themselves are doing something bad.

Children or teens can have trouble understanding what they can control, and what is out of their control. Because of this, they may try to overcompensate or do more than they should be asked to do in order to remedy the situation. They may also try to withdraw, keeping away from the affected sibling or other family members.

Trust Issues

Portinga points out the issue of breaking trust. When a sibling can’t be there for their brothers or sisters because of an addiction problem, the other siblings lose trust in them. “So siblings build up these defenses against building relationships,” Portinga explains. “They get really fearful around trust. They have really complicated ideas about what a brother or sister should be or could be.”


Sometimes the parent or parents may feel totally overwhelmed by what is happening to their child. This makes it much more difficult for them to support the child’s siblings, making them feel neglected and forgotten. The siblings may even feel resentful that all of the attention is on their sister or brother.

In other cases, children and teens may try to act as parents to the sibling who is struggling or even end up supporting their own parents who don’t know what to do. They do their best to create peace in the home, even if it shouldn’t be their responsibility. In addition to placing too much pressure on themselves, they risk enabling the addicted sibling by mitigating the consequences.

If you are feeling overwhelmed and confused because one of your children is suffering from addiction, please contact us for help. We can direct you to rehab facilities near you that can answer more of your questions.

Tips for the Talk

A responsible parent needs to take the time to talk about the situation with their children. But do you have any idea how to explain drug addiction to a child? The case is problematic because it calls for being both honest and discreet at the same time.

Above all, you need to remind them that their sibling’s addiction is not their fault. Addiction is a disease that changes a person not to make the right choices that they need to make. It would be best if you let the siblings know what is going on. Also, what they might be able to do to help. Importantly, you need to remind the sibling that you love them and try to help them.

Substance abuse counselor Carole Bennett provides several tips regarding talking about addiction with your child. She suggests doing so in a safe, comfortable place so that the child can be as calm as possible. It would be best if you were as calm and rational about the situation as you can be. To demonstrate that you understand the challenges and will be able to get through them as smoothly as possible.

In most cases, both parents should be there and agree on explaining drug addiction to a child of theirs while another struggle with addiction. You want to keep the family as united as you can, but that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be in the same place for the conversation. Sometimes, if the siblings are not very close, or there’s a big difference in ages between the siblings, it’s okay to speak with them one at a time. But do make sure that each child is a part of the discussion. Remember that each person is different, so each sibling may respond to what is going on.

A Quest for Understanding

It will be essential to let your child ask questions if they do not understand something. Bennett suggests that parents ask their children “what their observations are about their brother or sister, and if they are confused, scared, or upset about anything they see or hear.”

Try to answer the questions honestly and with as much compassion as possible, again letting them know that you will be there for them. For younger children, Bennett suggests saying that the addicted sibling is “sick at the moment and that Mom and Dad are doing everything they can to help him or she gets well, but that it may not happen overnight.” While all the details of addiction and recovery may not need to be touched upon, the siblings need to know that yes, there is a problem and that you are committed to dealing with it.
The child may have a question that doesn’t have an answer yet, such as, “When will they get well?” It’s okay to say that you don’t know something for sure, but be certain to remind the child of the basics. You are doing everything you can to help.

With everyone in the family united in their desire to help the addicted sibling get well, it will be easier to convince the sibling to go to rehab. If your children are teenagers, you may want to consider Alateen, a fellowship of young people who have been affected by someone else’s drinking problem. The teens gather to share experiences and support for each other.

Tough Topics

While there are many facets to addiction, there are several general subjects that can be discussed with your children. The suggestions outlined below can be found in a blog post at

When talking to children about addiction, you can discuss the element of biology, especially if substance abuse has been an ongoing problem in your family. You can say that the biological risk for substance abuse can be higher for some people than for others. You should also talk about choices, and that having a biological risk to become an addict doesn’t mean that you will become one. A person’s choices are what lead them away from addiction.

“Biology and choices interact with each other to explain how addiction happens,” the author explains. “In our Detour class at Your Choice, we teach kids that biology is what makes us vulnerable; but our choices are what gives us power.”

The Blame Doesn’t Help

Sometimes children will need protection from a family member who is causing harm due to an addiction. That’s good when it’s necessary, but the problem is that it can make the child think that the family member in question is a bad person, which is counterproductive. As the child grows older, it is important to try to separate an addict’s behavior from the actual person, to “love the sinner but hate the sin.”

Addiction changes a person. It makes them do things that they normally wouldn’t do, all out of desperation to maintain a supply of the substance they believe they need. Young people must grow to understand that the addiction is more to blame than the person. That’s difficult; even adults try to blame addiction on a person’s poor choices in the past. But once we begin to understand that addiction is a disease, we can gain empathy for those suffering from it. We can also try to help them see that professional treatment is necessary.

Reach Out for Help

You don’t have to be an addict to be affected by someone else’s addiction. Drug and alcohol addiction forces many people to grow up quickly. This is unfortunately even more true if the person struggling has young siblings. When thinking about how to explain drug addiction to a child, it helps us understand addiction for ourselves and consider what we need to do to keep our loved ones healthy.

If someone you love is suffering from an addiction, they won’t be able to just “snap out of it”. Addiction is much stronger and more dangerous than that. But treatment is available. Please contact us to learn about rehab treatment in your area. It is the best bet for anyone wanting to break an addiction. You can also contact us if you have further questions about talking with your children about addiction; our professionals are always available at 912-214-3867.


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