Growing up, siblings play lots of games. And in just one afternoon there’s bound to be drama. From pretend fights — or real ones — to crises faced and averted, dragons slayed and princesses rescued. No matter the obstacle, the game usually ends in a fit of laughter, with everyone making plans for the next grand adventure.

SistersIn an ideal world, these childlike activities simply set the stage for your future relationship as brothers and sisters. Sure, you’ll disagree or go through troubles, but your bond will see you through. After all, the sibling relationship is likely to be your longest.1 Why wouldn’t you make the most of it?

Maybe in your family, though, things look a little different.

If your sibling has an addiction to drugs or alcohol, you can bet there’s still drama. And fights are just part of the package. The laughter, though? Maybe the laughter gave way to worry, and worry to fear, and fear to anger. And hey, that’s a pretty normal response when someone you love does things you simply don’t understand.

You might be wondering: “How did this person who lived in the same house with the same parents and the same rules turn out so different from me? And what can I do about it?”

While there’s so much you can’t control — spoiler alert: your brother or sister is on that list — there are a few actionable steps you can take.

1. Be honest — with yourself and others.

How are you feeling? No, really. Do any of these emotions ring a bell: guilt, resentment, deep sadness or embarrassment? Perhaps you feel the need to defend your sibling, find someone — or something — to blame or simply be the perfect son or daughter your parents were hoping for?

First, you should know you’re not alone. People who struggle with substance abuse hurt others in ways their family members never would have imagined. And the ripple effect is real.1 It can be hard to admit, even to yourself, how you feel about it all.

Studies show, for instance, that addicted teens often take things from, beat up on and threaten younger siblings. Those same siblings sometimes feel neglected by their parents in the process. And the damage can last well into adulthood.2

Here’s what you can do: Name what’s happening and discover how you feel. Ask yourself this tough question: Is my assessment realistic or idealistic? Talk with your parents, other siblings, a close friend or a counselor about the answer.

2. Set boundaries — even if it doesn’t seem necessary.

When your brother or sister crosses the line of healthy behavior, you might stumble into some unhealthy habits yourself. For some, this looks like an increased interest in drugs and alcohol.3 For others, this means codependency.

Recovery expert Holli Kenley describes codependency this way: “Codependency is when we over-invest into someone — all in an attempt to rescue, control, or change that person and his/her behavior.”4

It makes sense, right? If you love your sibling, you’ll probably find yourself saying the words, “Just this once…” But “just this once” said over and over, well, that’s not really love anymore is it? That’s codependency. And it will leave you drained, your sibling unchanged and both of you bitter.4

Here’s what you can do: Clearly define your values and make a list of what you’re comfortable doing with and for your sibling, and what seems wrong. Before agreeing to any requests ask yourself, “Am I helping or hurting?” Then move forward in love.

3. Gain understanding—about the addiction and your role in it.

As the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know. And believe it or not, the unknown is a great place to start. Make a list of what you want to learn and begin your research.

You might read more about your sibling’s specific struggle, find out how other folks handle the stress and burdens of a loved one’s addiction, or look for professional guidance. Once you gain understanding, you’ll be better equipped to extend grace—to your sibling, your parents and even yourself.

In fact, studies show that siblings of substance users deal with “high levels of depression and other psychiatric disorders” as well as “anxiety and restlessness.”1 Instead of overestimating your own mental health as you worry about your sibling, be sure to also get the help you need.

Here’s what you can do: Speak with your parents, a doctor or a therapist. Visit blogs like Growing Up Chaotic and Heroes in Recovery to read about the experience of others. Ask yourself: What assumptions am I making about my sibling and myself?

Of course, nothing beats picking up the phone for getting immediate encouragement and direction. Holly Hill Hospital is here to help you and your loved ones navigate the days ahead. For a free, confidential assessment call 800-447-1800.


1. Tsamparli, Anastasia. “Frrokaj, Elvisa. Quality of Sibling Relationship and Substance Misuse: A Comparative Study.” The European Journal of Counseling Psychology, March 23, 2016, Athens, Greece.
2. “Teen Addiction Traumatizes Younger Siblings.” Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. July 16, 2016. Center City, Minnesota.
3. Currin, Kristin. “The Effects of Addiction: On Siblings.” Sovereign Health Group, February 23, 2016.
4. Kenley, Holli. “Let’s Have a Conversation about Codependency.” Wellness With Holli. March 12, 2014.

By Stephanie Thomas