Siblings and Addiction: How Addiction Can Spread

Addiction doesn’t just impact the person suffering — it has a ripple effect that reaches all their loved ones. If you have a sibling who struggles with substance abuse, you know this reality firsthand. Maybe you’re wondering if you should stage an intervention or whether it’s time to cut ties with an alcoholic sibling. Or you may be torn between what’s helping and what counts as enabling unhealthy behavior. Here are some insights into how an addicted sibling can affect the family dynamic along with practical ways you can help.

How Addiction Can Spread Throughout a Family

When one family member struggles with addiction, the rest of the family feels the emotional and physical rip current. Disagreement over the best way to care for your loved one can cause dissension. Each person may struggle with worry and fear over their loved one’s health and future. You may feel anxiety and confusion about how to help and communicate. Addiction doesn’t come with a field manual, and while your whole family likely desperately wants to see your sibling recover, you may have different ideas of how help should look.

The Impact of an Addicted Sibling

Watching a sibling battle addiction can make you feel helpless. No matter what age you both are, how long they’ve struggled or how close your relationship is, the impact can feel daunting and isolating. Some common feelings that siblings of addicts express are:

  • Helplessness and confusion as to how to best support their sibling
  • Fear that this addiction may run in the family
  • Bitterness if they feel that the addiction and need for attention has diminished attention given to themselves
  • Shame or guilt if they decide it’s healthiest to cut the addict out of their life
  • Pressure to perform or be perfect in order to mitigate their parent’s disappointment or familial tension

It’s important to acknowledge that these feelings are all valid and very natural. Feeling anger, bitterness or disappointment does not make you an uncaring sibling. Understanding how you feel — and why you feel these troubling emotions — is necessary for your own emotional health. Many support groups available for families, and specifically siblings, of addicts. Research and reach out to one if you feel the need to unpack some of these dynamics.

How to Help Your Alcoholic Sibling

The first step in being a good support system is recognizing that you have a powerful role in helping your sibling. As someone who has known them through childhood and loves them unconditionally, you have the potential to be a vital influence during their recovery. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should carry the burden for their successes or failures. You cannot control the relationship or your sibling’s choices — the only decision you can make and enforce is the boundaries you put up for yourself.

Another way to help is to call out and refuse to engage in enabling behavior. Remember that helping is doing what they cannot do alone, while enabling is doing things they should be doing for themselves. Avoid nagging, blaming or criticizing and instead offer a listening ear and your support throughout their recovery. If needed, be ready to stage an intervention lovingly or walk alongside them during their treatment program. Many programs include family therapy sessions, and your willingness to participate in these sessions could speak volumes to your sibling.

If your sibling feels overwhelmed by their addiction, know that your family is not alone. Reach out to Gateway Foundation for more information about how to help them start receiving life-saving treatment.


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