Siblings of an Addict: Separate, Save, or Struggle

While many people accept that the whole family is impacted when a siblingsyoung adult struggles with drug or alcohol addiction, most of the resources available are geared towards parents. There is very little discussion about the effect of addiction on siblings, even though they are part of the family system, often know more about the extent of the problem than their parents and often struggle emotionally brothers and sisters of addicts have a range of reactions; three common styles of managing the anxiety associated with this issue are listed below:

Separate: Some siblings withdraw completely when a brother or sister develops a pattern of addictive behaviors for a variety of reasons For example; they may not be able to cope with the turmoil in their sibling’s life or may experience guilt that they don’t have the same genetic predisposition. Siblings may not understand what the addict is facing, or they may want to avoid having to examine their own relationships with substances. This group of siblings avoids talking about the issue, ignores calls or overtures from the addict, and may even remain distant from the whole family system to reduce the chances of being forced to address the topic. One brother described the impact of his sibling’s addiction as having taken all of the “air in the room,” leaving no space for him to talk about his own life challenges. He indicated that this feeling had caused him to avoid any family situations where he suspected the addict would be there and/or the topic of conversation.

Save: Other siblings rush into the problem, convinced they can save their brother or sister from themselves. They try to help the addict with behavior ranging from finding treatment resources to giving the addict money, food, or a place to stay. They often become a support to parents, particularly during a crisis, and may even put themselves in peril by rescuing their sibling unsafe situations. They feel immense sadness and compassion towards their addict sibling, and frequently deny or ignore their sibling’s destructive behaviors (i.e. lying, stealing, manipulation). This group of siblings may temporarily get frustrated with the addict, but their grudges are short-lived, and after a brief period of time, often return to rescuing the addict.

Struggle: The final group includes siblings who struggle with the addict’s behaviors. They express frustration that the addict “can’t get it together” or “just stop using”. They confront their siblings, often using emotional pleas. A common example is “Don’t you see what you are doing to mom?” or “You are destroying our family.” They may not accept that addiction is a disease, but instead view their sibling’s actions as selfish or immoral. At times, they may get angry if someone tries to defend the addict or rescue him or her. Even if a sibling decides to get help, they may even struggle to accept their sibling’s commitment to sobriety.

Siblings can often feel caught in the middle, between the addict and their parents. They play a variety of roles, often vacillating between more than one style listed above. If you are a sibling of an addict, please recognize that this affects you too, and make sure to find your own sources of support. Ala-non, a family program offered across the country ( or a professional counselor may help you find some peace during turbulent times.

By: Arden O’Connor

March 22, 2015


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