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How Addiction Affects Sibling Relationships

Long before I understood what a dysfunctional family was (much less that I was growing up in one); I learned the story of Cain and Able. Sunday school was a mandatory part of my upbringing and the only thing I found even slightly interesting were the stories. I knew that “raising cane/Cain” was a bad thing and my childhood impression was simply that Able was a good son and Cain was not. I wanted to be a good son and could not understand why my best efforts to do so went unnoticed.

Sibling Love or Competition?

It’s natural for children to think in black and white terms. Prior to early adolescence, the child’s brain cannot work with abstract concepts like faith and belief systems. They will simply absorb what you teach them. In adolescence and early adulthood we develop the capacity for choosing our own beliefs and values. This developmental process moved me away from organized religion but it also made me aware that my siblings and I had a lot in common with Cain and Able.

It’s a myth that siblings naturally love each other. They don’t. What siblings do naturally is compete with one another. They have to be taught to be loving and accepting of each other.

In families that experience ongoing abuse, neglect, and/or addiction, these lessons are often not instilled. Competition leads to increased dysfunction and unhealthy relationships between kids who are surviving the same family.

Everyone Has a Role to Play

Why are we so different?

In families like mine, children are unofficially assigned roles. My sister was the smart one, my brother was the funny/talented one, and as the eldest, I was the responsible one. For all that went unspoken, we knew what was expected of us and we provided it. We did this in pursuit of approval and acceptance. We did this to compensate for the craziness of our parents. Even as kids, we understood that maintaining appearances was vitally important.

Watership Down

As a family therapist; I consistently find that whatever affects one member of a family impacts all members of a family whether directly or indirectly. Nowhere is this more apparent than with addiction. Regardless of who the addict is, the rest of the family compensates and conflicts rage, internally and externally, overtly and silently.

Watership Down is a great children’s book that I recommend to families. It describes the behavior of unhealthy families through a story about rabbits. In the midst of highly stressful situations and fear, the rabbits have a simple choice – pull together against a common enemy or turn on one another. Just as the rabbits in this story, families of addiction often “circle the wagons and shoot inward.”

Compensating & Homeostasis

When the addict is an adolescent or young adult, their brothers and sisters often learn to live under a microscope of attention. The addict is Cain and the siblings are expected (by their parents and/or themselves) to be Able. Perfectionism and over-achievement follow. This is compensation in action. Families seek equilibrium, even if it means going to equal and opposite extremes.

Alternatively, the siblings of addicts become invisible. Parents put their lives on hold looking for the addicted child to become a prodigal son/daughter. The siblings grow up in a vacuum of emotional unavailability. The addicted child becomes resented for their ongoing impact on the family unit.

Changing Dysfunctional Dynamics

Living with powerlessness, unhealthy demands, and an ongoing example of what not to be inhibits growth and self expression. Balance is key to healthy change. The family comes to see that its collective whole has been overshadowed by the sickness of one member.

Meeting the needs of each family member to the greatest degree possible promotes healing and supports the well being of the family unit. This starts with the parents/caregivers getting on the same page to accomplish two important tasks:

  1. Ensuring that enabling does not occur
  2. Renewing their commitment to meeting the needs of each family member

This is usually messy, awkward, and uncomfortable. It’s also the only way to return from being a group of individuals to being a functioning family unit. There’s a lot that’s gone unsaid and there’s a lot to work through.

Expressing Feelings and Needs

In the course of any healing process, expectations and feelings need to become overt and clearly expressed. Siblings of addicts often feel pressured to be supportive and to make sacrifices to shore up their parents/caregivers. They often feel unable to express their negative emotions regarding the impact the addict/alcoholic has had individually and on the family as a whole.

It’s vitally important that each member be able to express what they feel, want, and need. This requires turning focus toward self and making ourselves vulnerable enough to share. Family therapy provided by those trained in addictions and Structural Family Therapy can make these waters far easier to navigate.

Siblings of addicts will almost assuredly have very strong feelings about drugs and alcohol. Some will be straight edged and others will resent the idea that they cannot use or drink in moderation. Respecting these views is important – siblings never enjoy being compared to one another.

Learning to live with unknowns is a challenge for any family. We hope and pray our loved ones enter recovery. Independent of their choices, we need to be as healthy as we can be.

Clinical Social Worker/Therapist
My story is I'm forever a work in progress and I love connecting with REAL people who are doing great things. I'm blessed to be making a living doing something I love. I'm a proud dad and the luckiest husband ever. I'm an aspiring author - check out my recovery blog at: Thanks! Jim

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