Louise Stanger Ed.D, LCSW, CIP, CDWF-Candidate and Roger Porter

brother and sister on beach

As parents, when we think of substance abuse and mental health issues, we usually think first about the child who is abusing and causing havoc. Rarely do we turn our attention to his or her siblings and the impact the negative behavior has on other family members. This complex sibling relationship and the way parents respond and teach their children are issues that often perplex and baffle us.

We know from research that sibling relationships are complex, multidimensional and often contingent on their relationships with their parents and other caregivers. When siblings band together, they are a force to be reckoned with. The flipside is they can also cause fractured relationships as the Old Testament tale of envious brothers Cain and Abel illustrates.

Older siblings may be heroes by teaching younger siblings how to ride a bike, do math, and make friends. They can also be villains and vixens by fighting with siblings, lying to parents, and exposing their siblings to sex, drugs, alcohol and more. As such, we can’t escape the kinetic pull of a sibling’s life. Brothers and sisters take the good with the bad in familial bonds because through it all, they are the ones who know each other best. If siblings are a snapshot of our identity, then we must look to those relationships to unravel our own behavior and better understand family dynamics. In families that are experiencing a sibling with a substance abuse or mental health problem, the whole family feels the effects of the lone member’s struggle.

Parents often focus their attention around the troubled child, making the other children in the family feel left out. It is important to understand how the family roles may shift. In 1976, Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse adapted the works of Virginia Satir and Claudia Black into a schema titled The Family Trap. The work explains how families unconsciously take on survival roles, which allow them to maintain equilibrium and function with the least amount of discomfort. The pioneering efforts of Wegscheider-Cruse, Satir and Black comprise much of the language we use today when clinicians and health experts look at family dynamics, including the roles of “chief enabler”, “family hero”, “lost child”, “scapegoat” and “mascot. These same behaviors, ways of looking at and reacting to the world may be passed down from one generation to another.

In the recent Time Magazine investigation of siblings, author Jeffrey Kluger reveals that “between the two – parents and siblings – the siblings’ role is often the more influential one.” Why? Because sibling relationships are forged in the trenches together, they know each other’s defenses and denials. “They’re good at the subtler business of gently picking one another’s locks, feeling how the emotional tumblers fall, and opening a sibling up in a way no professional, or even parent, ever could.” So it’s no mistake that clinicians and health professionals study these relationships to aid in the healing process when a family member is experiencing a substance abuse or mental health problem. Think of siblings as the key to unlocking the safe.

A look at sibling relationships shows that negative influences start at a young age and can accelerate quickly. Although there are other factors at play, family dynamics always play a key role. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth looked at over 11,000 adolescents aged 14 to 22 on the impact smoking cigarettes has on younger or older siblings. “Forty percent of kids whose older sibs smoke take up the habit themselves, compared with 10% of those with nonsmoking sibs.” And the study also found evidence that shows individuals who see their siblings smoke start at a younger age. Finally, the results aren’t limited to older to younger siblings. Evidence also shows the influence freely flows from younger to older siblings and bleeds into drug use, truancy, delinquency and teen pregnancy.

The good news is that the same radical influence an older or younger sibling has on their fellow kind can flow in positive ways. “If it’s true that siblings can steer one another into danger, it’s also true that they can steer one another out of it, playing a role that’s not corrupting or destabilizing but healthy, therapeutic and even wise.” And it’s not just a passive influence – many siblings take on a proactive role to steer siblings away from the harmful effects of alcohol and drug use. In academic studies of older siblings influence on younger siblings, the research shows that “when the sibs do take such initiative, they can do a remarkable amount of good.”

If such a push and a pull exists in a sibling relationship, then it’s important to get the help needed in situations where substance abuse and mental health issues are in play. Sibling relationships, tightly coiled around shared experiences, can make it difficult to say something when a sibling struggles with addiction. The remaining siblings can feel left out and wonder why so much parental attention is being given to the sibling with the addiction issue. This can cause resentment towards the brother or sister with the issue. Therefore, it is important for parents to be aware and address these issues when they come about. Parents must learn about addiction and mental health. They can communicate this knowledge to their children and acknowledge that they have been preoccupied with trying to help the brother or sister with the issue and in doing so have not been as available as they would have liked. Parents need to let their other children know they love them and are proud of them. Here are some ways parents might communicate:

1. Pick a convenient and comfortable time to talk either individually or as a group.
2. Make sure conversations are held in a quiet space with no digital distractions.
3. If it’s a two-parent family, it’s best that both parents talk with the children together. If there is a large age gap between siblings, then talk one-on-one.
4. Make sure that you indicate that the conversation is not secretive. Everyone in the family needs to be on the same page. You want to avoid pitting one sibling against another and make it clear that addiction is a disease that affects the whole family.
5. Ask your children what they have observed about their brother or sister but understand that as siblings, they may be hesitant to share.
6. Ask what their concerns are for the sibling with the addiction.
7. Talk to them about substance abuse and mental health disorders in ways that are age appropriate.
8. Open up the conversation to the whole family, allowing questions, concerns, or even ways they think might help their brother or sister.
9. Make sure that you are not asking them to tattle or tell secrets. If your child comes to you first with news of strange or bad behavior about a sibling, acknowledge their concern and assure them you are addressing the issue.
10. If the house is loud and disruptive because of the fighting and antics, let them know they are not at fault.
11. When siblings bring home good report cards or excel in sports make time to pay attention to them.
12. If your child seems forlorn, make time to talk to them to see what’s bothering them or what’s on their minds.
13. If your children are teenagers, Alateen may be an option.
14. Private Counseling with someone who is skilled in family systems, substance abuse, and mental health is always appropriate.
15. As parents, it is best to try and keep a united front with your family. Sibling splitting or having one child try to curry favor with the addicted sibling can be hazardous toward a joint effort in finding your loved one a path to recovery.”

In addition to the resources here in the United States for treating addiction, Australia has taken the lead in developing fact sheets, toolkits, and a website that is devoted to siblings dealing with substance abuse or mental health disorders. The Self Help Addiction Resource Center, or SHARC, advises brothers and sisters to talk with their sibling about their addiction, and to address their behavior and not the drugs. SHARC also offers siblings fact sheets which are designed to take them from confusion and disbelief to acceptance and understanding. Colorful graphics and charts help them get their lives on track and gives specific ways they can learn to express their feelings, engage in activities which are healthy, create lasting boundaries and keep them safe. Here are the stages a brother or sister may experience with a sibling struggling with addiction:

1. You may sense that something is wrong in your brother or sister, however, full acknowledgement has not yet settled in.
2. You recognize it is a substance abuse or mental health disorder. You may feel helpless, want to fix the problem or seek information and understanding. Tension and conflict may occur between family members grappling with the issue.
3. You learn to respond to the issue by realizing you may not be able to solve your brother or sister’s problems and that change takes time. You also seek out support for yourself; learn new ways of communicating with the family, and feel acceptance.
4. You reclaim your life. This is where you set boundaries, get support when you need it, support your brother or sister’s change, learn ways to deal with your feelings, and may even feel a sense of relief and hope.
5. You may experience relapses and it feels like you’re taking steps backward. Feelings of confusion and anger make you want to fix the problem yourself and focus on the drug use. However, because of the strides you’ve made, you will bounce back quickly.
6. You see the big picture and continue to get on with your own life.

Acceptance is key to understanding your sibling’s long-term work to control their addiction. This will help you build trust with your sibling.

Once a treatment process for the sibling in need has started, family dynamics will change as new roles and responsibilities emerge. This is normal. As a representative from the SHARC organization points out, “dealing with a brother or sister’s alcohol or drug problem tends to be a continual process, which can be seen as a series of stages.” While the sibling with the substance abuse/mental health disorder gets help through treatment, the other brothers and sisters must also get help, develop their own boundaries, understand their vulnerabilities and evolve their own relationships. Family Programs, Counseling, 12-Step Programs, support groups, Alateen and Alatot are all programs that are especially geared to help brothers and sisters find help when their sibling is experiencing a substance abuse or mental health disorder.

Dr. Louise Stanger – Speaker. Writer. Teacher.
Louise Stanger Ed.D, LCSW, CIP CW received her bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University of Pittsburgh, her Masters in Social Work from San Diego State College and her Doc-torate in Educational Leadership from the University of San Diego. Her book Falling Up: A Memoir of Renewal is available on Ama-zon and Learn to Thrive-An Intervention Guidebook is available is on her website

Roger Porter has two bachelor degrees, film and marketing, from the University of Texas at Austin. He works in the entertainment industry, writes screenplays and coverage, and when he’s not do-ing that he tutors middle and high school students. As a college alumnus he is committed to being an advocate for public discourse on college campuses.