No matter how you try to shield siblings, they are savvy to the dysfunction, worry and concern that accompany substance abuse -- even if they don't fully know the specifics or understand the circumstances.
Our son was a senior in high school when his drug habit hit its first high-alert. At the time, our fourth-grader was aware that Mom, Dad and Big Brother were having intense conversations. The kind of conversations where we would suggest Little Brother go downstairs and play for a while because we needed to have a private conversation. Unfortunately, the frequency and intensity of the conversations were escalating.
Here are things we've learned along the way.
Younger siblings know when there's something going on. He sensed the tension, and at one point he even commented in exasperation, "I don't want to be a teenager because you're always fighting with your parents." We would explain that we weren't necessarily fighting with his brother but that he was arguing about the rules. We'd tell him that it's normal for teenagers to feel some conflict with their parents. And, we'd tell him how much we love his brother and were trying to help him with some challenges. We tried to assure him that everything was going to be fine and that he should not worry.
Little Brother was always respectful and accepting of these explanations. We were grateful because we really felt he was too young to know the truth about his brother's drug use. We thought it might scare
This effort to convey support and love for all the siblings continued amid the craziness of addressing his brother's problems and the effects on the rest of us. We were kidding ourselves if we thought he was shielded, yet we didn't know how much we should tell him.
If you don't say something, they will ask and they will want answers. This went on for nearly a year. As Big Brother's life unraveled and Mom and Dad continued to "help" him, our other kids were left wondering what the heck is happening.
Eventually, our youngest broached the subject with me very directly when he was in fifth grade. "I overheard Big Brother and his Girlfriend talking about using drugs. I know that you've been keeping this from me. That's what all those talks have been about. I know it."
It was honest. And it was clearly time to include him in the truth (still age appropriately, of course). He was relieved that the veil was lifted because he could ask all the questions on his mind -- the same ones we ask: What does he use? Why? When did he start? Is he going to stop? Is he going to get in trouble? Will be die? Why didn't you tell me? Do you think I don't already know about drugs?
Ask permission to talk: Ironically, the truth hit within weeks of when our younger son was scheduled to begin the D.A.R.E. anti-drug program at school. Sensing his new realization that drugs are for real and happen to people like us, and having been through D.A.R.E. with the two older kids, I asked our youngest if he'd like me to talk to his teacher and the police officer instructor. He thought this would make his involvement less stressful as he internalized the curriculum with an unanticipated perspective.
His classroom teacher and the D.A.R.E. officer were reassuring that our son had to share only what he was comfortable with and appreciated knowing that he'd be paying attention on a very personal level as they learned about drugs and alcohol.
This paved the way for our youngest to have some adults beyond Mom and Dad with whom he could have honest conversations. It was an important step forward for our youngest to begin to put the pieces together, to formulate his opinions and examine his feelings toward a situation that turns things topsy-turvy.
Older siblings get caught in the middle: In many ways, sharing the realities and concerns with Big Sister was more complicated than we anticipated. She had had her share of partying extremes and consequences during her freshman and sophomore years at college, so she was sympathetic to parental concerns and yet protective of her brother's actions. It put her in an awkward place of being both an adult and a kid. In time, she grasped the truth of the situation but still wrestles with her role and feelings toward all of it.
There's a time to talk and a time to refocus the conversation. Addiction talk is addictive. It takes over a conversation and runs on and on. The honesty, the acknowledgment, is important. Siblings younger and older need to know what's going on. They know it's very important. They need to have a voice, to ask questions, to share feelings. But also they need to know that it's not the only important conversation and that it loses its power when we stop letting it be the central topic.
Today, we work hard to talk openly and honestly with the kids about their brother. We share information that we think is relevant, but they also understand that they are not and should not be privy to every detail -- that we respect our son's privacy because he is an adult.
Moreover, we refocus our efforts on the other very important topics -- the ones about their lives, interests, challenges and opportunities -- with love, respect, openness and honesty.
Let's not kid anyone, drugs are not a welcome topic, and that's probably why these conversations often end up botched and dysfunctional. But the lessons in sharing and communicating are lessons for all of us, young and old, kids and parents.