Siblings of People With Addiction Need Support Too

By Kelly Burch 05/20/19

An expert discusses the impact that dealing with a sibling's addiction can have on their loved ones.

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As it has become more socially acceptable to talk openly about addiction, groups have popped up to support family members who have had their lives interrupted by a loved one’s substance abuse.

While groups for parents and spouses are common, siblings of people with substance use disorder are often overlooked, despite the fact that they need support too. 

“Kids aren’t prepared for the kinds of emotions that they’re experiencing watching a sibling go through these kinds of crisis,” Tim Portinga, a psychologist at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation told WHYY. “I hear this just consistently over and over again from siblings: that nobody understands how painful it was to have their brother or sister not show up at their basketball games, or to see their brother or sister intoxicated and passed out on the floor, or to try to understand why their brother and sister are in trouble with the legal system again.”

Oftentimes these siblings are going through their own tumultuous teen years. Sixteen-year-old Natalie of New Jersey told WHYY in another report that she started lashing out at friends after her sister went to rehab. Ultimately she found support through Alateen, a 12-step program that is a spinoff of AA and supports teens who have a family member struggling with addiction. 

“My first meeting, I wasn’t expecting to open up, but as soon as everyone was seated, I was like, this is a safe space, like I can trust all of these people and I know nothing bad will come of it,” she said.

Natalie said Alateen helped her learn healthy coping and boundaries, like not to try to parent her sister. 

Today, Alex L. coordinates Alateen in Pennsylvania, but he has been utilizing the program since he was 12. He said that the groups can be an important resource for siblings and other teens touched by addiction.

“These meetings, these gathering points, are vital to our development and our growth and our mental health and our sanity.”

Portinga said that dealing with a sibling’s addiction can have lifelong consequences, so it’s often appropriate for siblings to get therapy too. 

“The basic thing keeps coming back to the trust that’s broken, and often in ways that are deeply painful,” he said. “So siblings build up these defenses against building relationships. They get really fearful around trust. They have really complicated ideas about what a brother or sister should be or could be.”

Living with a person with addiction can also increase the risk that teens engage in risky behavior themselves, he said. 

“It’s a particularly painful thing because siblings will sometimes, under the umbrella of trying to be kind brothers and sisters, will often share substances,” Portinga said. “I often hear stories amongst my own clients about how their first using experiences happened with a brother or sister.”

That’s why it’s important for siblings like Natalie to know that they need to focus on their own health. 

“I need to work on myself and healing,” she said. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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