Opioid use disorder (OUD) can seem like a very adult problem, but it’s a growing problem among teens and young adults, with recent surveys showing that 1 in 7 high school students self-report misusing prescription opioids at least once. This revelation is devastating for parents, but it may be even worse for the siblings who see someone close in age facing addiction.
If your family finds itself in this position, it’s crucial to talk about addiction with your children to help them understand the issue. As a family, you can come up with ways to ensure everyone gets the support they need.
How a sibling’s addiction affects children
Unfortunately, parents are at a disadvantage here. There isn’t much research that definitively shows how one child’s struggle with addiction can impact their siblings. But it is undoubtedly a major player in a family’s dynamic and all stages of child development. Even at an early age, kids have a keen sense of the status quo—they’re likely to know when something is up.
It’s distressing for young children to sense change but not have an explanation for it. Talking to kids about addiction helps them understand that these changes have an external source, and it can teach them to process their thoughts and emotions. Without this assurance, younger children may come to believe that the situation is somehow their fault.
In older children and teens, the fallout of a sibling’s addiction may make them feel forced to grow up faster, assume a position of responsibility within the family, or behave as “the stable child” at the expense of their own experiences and emotions. This can lead to resentment, distance, and depression when unaddressed, so it’s important to talk openly as a family about your needs.
How to talk to kids about addiction
Be honest about the situation
No matter your child’s age, it’s important to be as honest as possible about their sibling’s situation. Young children may not understand the chemistry and conditions that cause addiction, but they will understand if you tell them that their sibling is sick and needs medical care and the family’s support. You can explain that their sibling may act differently sometimes because of their sickness and that they need your love.
Older children and teenagers will likely need more details to fully understand the situation. Be as transparent with them as you can about the cause of the issue, what treatment steps you’re taking, and how they can expect the family dynamic to change. Allow older children to give input on this process, as they will likely want to know how they can help.
Ask your children about their needs
It’s common for kids to feel pushed aside or neglected because of the severity of their sibling’s condition. No one can blame a parent for giving their all to assist a sick child, but it’s crucial to keep your other children’s well-being in mind too. Ask them about how you can support them through this process and do your best to meet those needs. Quality time with a parent and genuine interest in their activities make a huge difference for kids who feel lost in the fray.
Keep the conversation open
Navigating addiction will be an ongoing, dynamic process as your kids grow up and conditions evolve, so it’s important to always keep the door open and give everyone room to adjust. Scheduling family talks might not sound fun, but it keeps the conversation going and facilitates open and honest communication. This routine can help your family better support one another.
Transparency keeps your communication healthy, and it will make the recovery process easier for everyone involved. Your children will all know that you support and love them, and that can go a long way in aiding treatment.
Talking about treatment
Once it’s time for your child with OUD to start treatment, you’ll need to discuss what the process will look like, how the family dynamic may again change, and how needs are likely to shift. Most teens seeking treatment for OUD will start with medication-assisted treatment (MAT), a highly effective treatment method that reduces cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and the risk of overdose.
The consistency of the program provides critical support that helps patients manage the symptoms of opioid use, reducing the likelihood of relapse and reintegrating them back into daily life. It utilizes medicines like Suboxone® to repress cravings and withdrawal. Patients may also undergo counseling to address the root causes of the disorder. The length of treatment depends on the patient’s needs and can safely be continued indefinitely if the situation calls for it.
At-home MAT balances structure, flexibility, and privacy, making it a crucial option for families. Keeping everyone under one roof can demystify the treatment process and help foster an environment that is safe and healthy for everyone involved.