Helping a Sibling Who Suffers from Addiction—A Unique Situation

Two siblings talking in cafe about addiction problem

Your brother or sister struggles with drug addiction or alcoholism. You want to help them, but you don’t know how. Maybe you’ve approached them before and they’ve rebuked your efforts to help. You might feel at a loss for what to do and feel like there is nothing you can do to assist your sibling in overcoming their habit.

Don’t worry, you are not alone.

However, the significant capacity that a sibling has for helping their addicted brother or sister should not go unrecognized. You have a unique and special relationship with your sibling that no one, not Mom, not Dad, not their spouse or their kids or their friends or anyone else has. This unique relationship may present some difficulties in helping them, but it also offers some advantages too.

What Unique Challenges Do Siblings Face?

siblings on the couch—don’t talking.

If you have already tried to help your brother or sister get off drugs and alcohol, you’ve likely already been met with some challenges in this endeavor. But to best prepare yourself, here are some of the problems you will likely face if you haven’t already:

  • “You’re my peer, I don’t have to listen to you.” Such is the classic sibling rivalry statement, and probably the first one you will hear when you try to help your sibling. Maintain a calm, cool, and collected demeanor. This is not them talking; it’s the addiction talking and their misplaced defense of that addiction.
  • Sometimes, a sibling addict will be unreachable. This can be true of anyone who struggles with an addiction. Sometimes, when a person uses drugs or alcohol, they close themselves off to the outside world and refuse to get involved with anyone. They know, deep down inside, that what they are doing is very wrong. They know their loved ones will try to convince them to get clean. So they stay away from everyone and they keep to themselves.
  • You also might not be an opinion leader for them. One of the easiest ways to get through to an addict is to be an opinion leader for them. Many times an opinion leader is a parent, an educator, a church leader, a grandparent, and so on. If you are not an opinion leader for your sibling, they might not want to listen to you.
  • Your brother or sister might even hold you accountable for part of their problem. Sibling rivalry is not a new story. Such can manifest in many ways, especially when addiction is a factor. Part of struggling with an addiction means not taking full responsibility for one’s condition, or else one would make every effort possible to get clean. In your efforts to help your brother or sister, they may (in a defensive effort to get you off their back) lay the blame on you for their drug habit.
  • Your sibling may dissociate themselves from you because they feel they didn’t “turn out as well as you did.” It’s a very competitive concept. And this is nothing new in sibling relationships. Siblings are often competitive. It’s one step away from the “sibling rivalry” concept we mentioned earlier. If your sibling feels like they have failed “in the race” so to speak, they may not want to talk with you about their drug problem. Actually their drug problem may likely be the reason why you have “bested them” as a sibling—all in their own head of course, but still a factor.

What Advantages Do Siblings Have?

Just as there are disadvantages inherent in your efforts to help a sibling overcome a drug or alcohol problem, there are intrinsic advantages that you have as well. Knowing what these are can give you an edge in helping your loved one. Some of your advantages are:

  • Your sibling might feel more comfortable confiding in you than Mom and Dad. Your brother or sister probably, deep down inside, feels terrible about their drug problem. They likely feel as though what they are doing is entirely wrong, and will feel bad if Mom or Dad confronts them on it. You, on the other hand, are their peer. They may find it easier to talk to you about their struggle.
  • Your brother or sister likely knows that you have certainly made mistakes in your life, too, so they might be able to relate to you better. Siblings usually know more about each other than just about anyone else. Be open and honest with your sibling, and make sure he or she knows that you’ve made mistakes in your life, too. The goal here is to get on open and equal ground with them, not to be a superior, altruistic force in their life.
  • You are their peer. This can have a positive side too. Your sibling might feel more in tune with your message. You’re not their elder (talking to an elder about an addiction problem might make them feel embarrassed). Here again, we have the same peer-based equality concept. Your brother or sister might not look at you like you are “above” them in any way. Most addicts, even if they are adults, still feel this way about Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad are the senior adults, and that will never change. You and your sibling are closer in age, and therefore probably have more common ground to stand on.
  • After Mom and Dad have passed on, siblings still have each other, and siblings need to look out for each other until the very end. No one can deny that there is an outstanding bond that siblings share. A unique, shared relationship that will continue long after Mom and Dad are gone. This unique bond can be of great benefit in helping a brother or sister overcome a drug problem.

Differences in Age—Tools for Helping Both Younger and Older Siblings

Another factor we should consider is the difference in age from one sibling to the next. Closeness in age, one sibling to the next, can serve as a boon to helping your substance-using brother or sister overcome a drug problem.

But let’s examine the flip side of that. Sometimes, if your brother or sister is a bit older than you, they may consider themselves your senior, your protector, your “big brother” or “big sister.”

Conversely, having a younger sister or brother who is using drugs and alcohol can present complications, too. They may be more rebellious, more prone to lashing out and demanding that you “back off.” They might feel like you are patronizing them, or that you are trying to be Mom or Dad.

The critical thing to remember here is that no matter the age difference or the individual situation between you and your sibling, there are always going to be challenges in your efforts to help your brother or sister get off of drugs. The crucial factor is to persist.

Persistence Is Key

Happy sisters.

The final takeaway is to never give up in your efforts to help your brother or sister overcome their battle with drug and alcohol addiction. This factor is very important. You only lose when you stop trying to help them, and this is not a battle that you want to lose.

While your first attempt at helping an addict to get clean might fail, you have to realize that most addicts actually want help. However, they are so wrapped up in their addiction, that they may not be able to recognize that. The truth is the drugs or alcohol solve a problem for them. They lack the skills or ability to deal with that problem, and drugs have provided an answer, however misguided or temporary that solution may be. Now, relying on the “solution” of drugs or alcohol, they become a slave to the substance and are unable to function or “cope” without it. Drugs are never the problem, they are a symptom of an underlying problem. As a loving sibling, you are in the position to break down the walls and show them that there is hope, there is a way to deal with the problems in life without drugs or alcohol and there is a way to live life free from the shackles of addiction. The critical point to always remember is to never stop trying, no matter what. You will be successful if you persist.

Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, CCS



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.