Recently I had a discussion with someone about how to tell people their loved one was an addict. We sort of talked about which family members would help, which would think they were helping but not, and which would be openly discriminatory against the addict. In everyone’s family, the reaction is different. I talked about the day JoDee and I called our family to tell them about her situation. How I made her tell her Dad herself, because that should come from her. I remembered when we called my mom, and JoDee’s aunt, my sister, and my niece. I remember calling AC and telling him. Ironically, while I was getting the shock of my life, he was in divorce court, which we all know is a living hell of its own. Then this person said to me, what about the kids. Kids? What kids? Your kids she asked. No matter how hard I think, no matter how many times I replay those days, I cannot remember telling any of the kids. It’s like they just magically knew… I have no idea how I told them. It is completely blocked from my memory.
I mean, I must have told them. We must have had conversations about it. Jared, Jay J, AC and I visited JoDee at her first detox together. Jared has been to so many N/A meetings he can recite the 12 steps. Probably better than most! Even SC went to N/A meetings with us. All of the kids have been involved in her recovery. The day we got the call that JoDee was on the run in Arizona, OC and I were standing on the back deck watching AC mow the lawn. I barely choked out “get your father” before I fell to my knees. Jay J called her to pick him up once, and she showed up banged up. My car is a stick shift so he had no choice but to let her drive. On many occasions, we have all been involved in, seen or been exposed to her using. I just can’t believe that an important thing like this, has completely escaped me.
I text Jay J to ask him how he knew. He told me that he already had an idea by the time I found out, but that I called him and Jared into the living room to tell them. Still didn’t jog my memory. Even when Jay J told me what I said to him, I still didn’t remember. I asked SC and OC how they found out, and they said they thought AC told them on the drive from their house to ours but they couldn’t really remember either. That’s bad. Like, really bad. Like, bad parenting of the year award bad. When something that big, and that important, and devastating happens, our kids will be just as shocked and emotional as we will be. I’m horrified that I can’t remember even telling them, never mind if I handled it appropriately. This potential lack of good judgement had me do some research, to find out from professionals how it should be handled. What I found was really interesting.
First of all, siblings have a much different scope of grief than parents do, which makes sense. In many cases, siblings are well aware of the problem (ahem, Jay J) before the parents do, or are willing to except it. Siblings can be resentful of parents that ignore the substance issue, or see the parents as weak for not addressing it which may cause the siblings to act out. The first article I read (link below) outlined some key points or instruction on how to break the news to a child about their siblings addiction. To some degree I agreed with her but some of it I did not. See below… I added my own commentary.
- Pick an easy, comfortable time to chat with your kids. Maybe a picnic in the park or a meal at their favorite restaurant would make a good backdrop. Have both parents participate, if possible. I don’t believe that it is at all necessary to do this in public. In most cases, the child may be upset, or crying. In a park, maybe, but in a restaurant, may not allow the child to express their true feelings.
- If the other children don’t have a particularly close bond with each other, or if there is a large age gap, it might be beneficial to talk to them separately. Agreed. I told my two boys together, but we are a close family.
- If you do talk to them individually, make sure you don’t come across as wanting to share a secret or that this is a secretive discussion. Everyone needs to be on the same page with the information shared. This is important for everyone not just siblings. Addiction breeds in the places we don’t want to talk about. No one should keep it a secret, and no one should be ashamed into silence about it. We aren’t helping the addict or ourselves if we treat it like an embarrassment.
- Try not to make the conversation a big deal. Though it is, don’t act worried or wring out your hands, as your children will pick up on this and be nervous as well. I agree with this to some extent, but life as you know it, and your child knew it, will change. I didn’t realize, at the time, how much addiction would change our everyday life, and us as people. If I had known it then, I would have talked about letting the boys know to tell me if things were happening they were uncomfortable with, or needed my attention.
- Ask your children what their observations are about their brother or sister, and if they are confused, scared or upset about anything that they see or hear. This is tricky because most likely the sibling has seen things from their brother or sister that they shouldn’t have and will feel like they are betraying their loyalty by “telling on them”. It should be made really clear that there is a huge difference between sibling secrets and substance abuse secrets.
- Allow them to participate in the conversation with their questions, concerns or even a game plan that they think might help their brother or sister. This sort of goes without saying. Validate how they feel about the addiction, and let them know that it will be a complete and totally effing nightmare for the foreseeable future. Ok, maybe don’t say that, but you get the point.
- Establish that you are not looking for them to tattle or divulge information about their brother or sister, and that if they want to exploit them, this is not a loving and helpful option. I’m not really sure what to say about this. Exploit who? Who is exploiting who? I think that other siblings should be told not to give the addict money, cover up crimes for them or otherwise make using easy and accessible.
- If your child or children come to you first, acknowledge their interest in learning more about what’s happening with their brother or sister, but hit the pause button so that you can regroup with a plan and not be cornered into an immediate response or knee-jerk reaction. This is really important. If a child is coming to you to tell you that their sibling is using drugs, it must be very serious. Typically siblings won’t rat each other out unless it is so accessive that they are in fear of their welfare. Take this seriously, and make sure not to tell the addict that the child brought it to your attention. Addicts are basically people who have been possessed by the devil and will do anything and hurt anyone to get their way. Help the addict but protect the innocent….
- If there have been volatile arguments within the family, let the children know as often as necessary that they have nothing to do with them, that you are sorry that they witnessed these outbreaks and that regardless, everyone in the family unit is loved. There is no “If”. You will volatile arguments. With the addict, with other children in the family, with your spouse or partner, even with yourself. Jared heard me screaming at myself in the bathroom, knowing I was screaming at no one else, he text me to say that I had to stop screaming or someone would finally find out I was off the deep end. Maybe one of the few things I did right was make sure I talked to them as a group and individually after each blow up. Reassuring everyone that even in the face of something so terrible, we still love each other and I didn’t really mean when I told AC that I was going to stuff all his clothes in the dirty kitty litter box.
- If the children are aware that there is something wrong with their brother or sister, tell them that he or she is sick at the moment and that Mom and Dad are doing everything they can to help him or her get well, but that it may not happen overnight.The message here should be age appropriate. The truth is, your child is sick, and we may or may not be able to help. And it definitely won’t happen over night.
- If your child/children are teenagers, please consider Alateen, a group of teens who share their thoughts with each other regarding the substance abuse in their family. Private counseling with one or both parents is an option as well. Some towns have great resource for kids when dealing with substance issue. Danvers has a lot of intiatives for opiate prevention. Click here http://danverscares.org/programs/moapc/ to learn more. Also in Massachusetts, DPH released a new public service campaign called Stop Addiction Now. Google it for more info.
- Do your best to keep your family a united front. Sibling splitting or having one child try to curry favor with the addicted sibling can be hazardous toward a joint effort in finding their loved one a path for recovery.
The whole family needs to be a united front. When addiction becomes part of your family, it involves everyone not just the addict themselves. In active addiction, the family suffers more than the addict. These are all my opinion based on my experience, take what you think is helpful and leave the rest.