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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 an alcohol use disorder (AUD), 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. An addicted sibling can affect the family dynamic in many ways, but there are valuable ways you can help.

Does Alcohol Addiction Run in the Family?

If you’ve witnessed a sibling struggle with an alcohol use disorder, you may worry whether you yourself or other family members are vulnerable to the same disorder. Some people choose to refrain from alcohol consumption altogether because they’ve seen the way it has led to an addiction for a close family member. On the other hand, you may think your sibling’s addiction is the product of their own choices and has no bearing on you. So, is there a genetic predisposition for alcoholism?

The short answer is yes. This is an important aspect of understanding addiction as a disease and not just as the consequence of personal choices. How does genetics play a role in addiction? Research suggests that a person’s genetic makeup — much of which they share with their siblings — can constitute half of a person’s risk of developing an AUD or other substance use disorders. The other half of a person’s risk level is determined by their personal experiences and environment.

This means that a sibling of a person with an alcohol addiction may not only share their genetic predisposition for an AUD but may also share other risk factors associated with their environment. For example, a difficult family dynamic may lead a person to turn to drinking as an unhealthy coping mechanism.

It’s important to note that having a sibling with an AUD does not necessarily mean you will develop the same disorder if you consume any amount of alcohol. However, it is wise to consider your own risk for experiencing the same problems so you can make decisions for your own life and can feel a greater sense of compassion for your sibling.

Can Family Dynamics Contribute to Substance Abuse?

Since about half of a person’s risk for developing a substance use disorder comes from external factors, it’s important to consider the way family dynamics may contribute to these external factors. A person can certainly develop an AUD despite living with or coming from a loving and supportive family and a peaceful home life. However, a person may be at greater risk of developing an AUD if they experience relational turmoil in their family life.

Distressing or traumatic events that happen within a family can motivate a person to look for an escape in alcohol. This could be the death of a family member, a contentious divorce, a neglectful parent, domestic abuse or any other type of familial trauma. Sadly, in these cases, alcohol can destroy families further rather than provide relief.

Even if the family dynamic did not contribute to a person’s risk of developing an AUD, family members may become part of the problem after the fact if they are enabling. Enabling a family member with an addiction can take many forms, and a person can unconsciously become an enabler. Essentially, enabling is taking over the responsibilities that should belong to your sibling, which doesn’t help them in the long run.

For example, enabling may look like covering for your sibling or making excuses to help them avoid consequences or to help you avoid embarrassment by association. Or it may look like simply ignoring the problem and brushing it under the rug so you can maintain a sense of normalcy. These behaviors are detrimental to your sibling’s wellbeing.

Effects of Alcohol Addiction on Families

How alcohol addiction affects the family depends on the specific dynamic and factors at play, but many families experience common problems as the result of a family member’s addiction.

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.

Watching a sibling battle addiction can make you feel helpless. Whatever the particulars of your situation are, the impact of a sibling with an AUD 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 person 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 are 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 Sibling With an Alcohol Addiction

The first step in being a good support system is recognizing that you have a powerful role in helping your sibling. Research shows that siblings can be as influential as parents in helping a family member treat their AUD through family therapy. 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.

One way to help is to call out and refuse to engage in enabling behavior. Remember that enabling your sibling’s addiction may make them feel loved in the immediate but it hurts them in the long run. You should also avoid putting your sibling down by nagging, blaming or criticizing. 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.

Part of how you respond may also depend on whether you and your sibling are adults or are young people still living with a caregiver or parent.

Younger Siblings

When a sibling deals with an AUD as a young person, it can have a different effect on a family. The issue of how teenage drinking affects the family can be unique compared to a situation where siblings are grown and living apart. For example, parents can devote more of their attention to their child with an alcohol dependency, leaving their other children feeling neglected or like they need to act out to get their parents’ attention.

In this situation, as the sibling of a teen with an AUD, you should fight feelings of resentment and concentrate on creating a family dynamic within the home that is loving and is not enabling. You must also avoid placing responsibility on yourself for your sibling’s actions.

Adult Siblings

In the case of adult siblings who live apart, some different considerations enter into the equation. However, the steps you should take largely remain the same. Love your sibling, and do what you can to help without enabling.

If you have your own family now, however, you may need to set up stronger boundaries than you would if you were living at your childhood home with your sibling. You must be careful to keep your sibling’s addiction from wreaking havoc in your personal life and in the lives of your partner and children. Another difference is that, as an adult, you may be able to offer your parents more emotional support, but again, set up healthy boundaries and encourage your parents to seek professional counseling if needed.

Should You Consider Cutting a Sibling With an Addiction Out of Your Life?

When you can help your sibling by lovingly encouraging them to seek the help they need and by helping other family members refrain from enabling behaviors, you can play a key role in your sibling’s path to recovery. However, in some instances — especially if you’ve tried to help for a long time, seemingly to no avail — you may ask yourself whether it’s time to cut ties with your sibling. This is a difficult question, but in some instances, it’s worthy of consideration.

Choosing to stop communicating with or seeing your sibling may seem harsh, but it may also be necessary in a couple of instances. One instance is that your safety is being threatened. If your sibling has become violent, especially when you refuse to enable them, then you may need to stay away for your own safety and the safety of others around you. Another instance is if your own physical or mental health is suffering from the ongoing stress of dealing with your sibling’s addiction.

Remember the flight attendant’s directions to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. This principle holds true in life when you want to help loved ones suffering from a substance use disorder. You must prioritize your own health and wellbeing so you can help your sibling from a place of health and wholeness and not from a place of depletion and stress. This is especially true if you are in recovery yourself. Boundaries are key to maintaining your own sobriety.

If you do feel the need to cut your sibling out of your life, you may want to approach this decision as a temporary choice to be changed if your sibling ever takes steps forward toward recovery. When your loved one is ready for a real change, having you by their side can be a valuable source of support.

Family Therapy and AUD Treatment From Gateway Foundation

If you and your sibling feels overwhelmed by their addiction, know that your family is not alone. At Gateway Foundation treatment centers, we provide life-saving treatment for alcohol addiction. We also provide family support and therapy to help your whole family heal together. Reach out to Gateway for more information about how we can help your sibling begin their journey to recovery.

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