Your sibling’s struggles with alcoholism leave you feeling lost, helpless, and afraid for the future of your family. These six ways to help an alcoholic brother or sister are inspired by a book called Sober Siblings, and they may give you insight into your sibling’s drinking problem.
If you’re struggling to decide what behaviors to accept from an alcoholic sibling, read Sober Siblings: How to Help Your Alcoholic Brother or Sister – and Not Lose Yourself. It’s the first book geared towards helping siblings of alcoholics, and is written by the sober sister of two alcoholic brothers. Also offering expert advice is Petros Levounis, M.D., the director of The Addiction Institute of New York and chief of addiction psychology at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals in New York City. Sober Siblings is a good practical guide for brothers and sisters of alcoholics.
There are no easy ways, quick tips, or fast solutions for coping with a brother or sister who has a drinking problem. Alcoholism is a serious, destructive disease that can’t be overcome with a few strategies or psychological coping mechanisms. The sad truth is that love isn’t even enough to solve your sibling’s problem with alcohol. That’s the bad news. But wait, there’s always good news! Let’s see what we can find…
When you want to help your alcoholic sibling, you must set your boundaries and stick to them. At the end of this article, I link to a fantastic book called Boundaries. You’ll love that book – especially if you tend to be the black sheep in your family.
“Maturity involves being honest and true to oneself, making decisions based on a conscious internal process, assuming responsibility for one’s decision, having healthy relationships with others and developing one’s own true gifts,” writes psychologist Mary Pipher in Reviving Ophelia. “It involves thinking about one’s environment and deciding what one will and won’t accept.”
Maturity – especially when you need to learn how to help an alcoholic brother or sister – involves being realistic about what you can and can’t do about the drinking problem. This is part of setting and maintaining healthy boundaries with all your family members, not just your sibling.
The reality is you can’t help a sibling with alcoholism if he or she doesn’t want to be helped. But, you can help yourself cope with an alcoholic in the family, with these tips…
6 Ways to Help Your Alcoholic Brother or Sister
Take time to grieve the loss of your brother or sister. Your childhood sibling is lost, and will never be the same. Either will you or your family. It’s important to grieve this loss, for it is deep, painful, and real.
Every sibling and family is different, even though the thought patterns and behaviors of alcoholics may be the same. These general tips for helping a brother or sister who has a drinking problem can apply to most families. If your sibling tends to drink more during the holidays, read Family Fights at Christmas – Tips for De-Escalating Conflict.
1. Learn about your sibling’s perception of alcoholism
The more you understand about alcoholism and the way an alcoholic thinks about his or her disease, the better able you’ll be to help with the treatment process. And, the more open you are about your family history and interactions, the better. Your brother may not consider himself an alcoholic. Your sister may refuse to admit she has a drinking problem. And if there’s no problem, what’s all the fuss about?
Whether or not your sibling admits to being an alcoholic, talk to a counselor, or someone who understands alcoholism, about the dynamics in your family – not just your brother or sister’s alcoholism. This will help you understand your family, and help give you direction. “Whatever the reason your brother or sister became alcoholic, it’s helpful for a counselor to hear about your family dynamics in order to know what direction to take,” writes Dr Levounis in Sober Siblings.
2. Accept your personality differences
Personality issues always arise in families, often unrelated to the disease of alcoholism. Take time to untangle your own personality conflicts from the actual drinking problem. This can get complicated, especially when personality differences are extreme, long-lasting, and exacerbated by alcohol.
Separating your personality differences from the serious issues that affect your alcoholic sibling may be part of the healing process for both of you. If you’re dealing with a mom or dad who is trying to control you and your brother or sister, read articles about coping with controlling parents.
3. Recognize if you are enabling your alcoholic brother or sister
“Enabling” is allowing your alcoholic brother or sister to keep drinking. Married and romantic couples sometimes fall into this trap, which is why I wrote How to Live With and Love Your Alcoholic Boyfriend. But, siblings can enable each other in unhealthy ways, too.
Enabling an alcoholic includes covering up, providing alibis, minimizing the addiction, attempting to take control by getting rid of the alcohol, and removing consequences (such as bailing him or her out of jail, or lending money). Sometimes people have a deep-seated need to keep an alcoholic brother or sister in the role of being needy and helpless. Family dynamics are confusing and complex, which is why therapists are helpful. Especially when you’re trying to help an alcoholic brother or sister; counselors can see issues that aren’t always obvious to people.
4. Consider ways to change your response to your sibling
To stop enabling your brother or sister’s alcohol problem, you need to recognize what you’re doing.
“You have to realize that it not only doesn’t help your brother or sister but actually allows – even helps – him or her to continue drinking,” write Olsen and Levounis in Sober Siblings. “Sometimes it’s hard to know where to draw the line. No one’s perfect, and things are not always black and white. Allow yourself a few gray areas, for your own sanity.”
Relationships – especially where addiction is concerned – are difficult. You’ll make mistakes, even when your heart is in the right place. All you want to do is help your sister or brother heal from the disease of alcoholism…and sometimes your attempts to help backfire. It’s hard.
5. Learn about alcoholism treatment options
You can’t help an alcoholic sibling by forcing him or her to get treatment, but you can be well-informed about treatment options for drinking problems. Learn about the addiction treatment centers in your area. Ask what resources and support they provide for families and siblings of alcoholics.
The more information you have, the more you’ll understand how alcoholism affects families, brothers, and sisters. You may not find all the answers – or be able to use all the services, solutions and resources for alcoholic families that you find – but at least you’ll know what’s possible. Take heart, have hope, and know that your family will come through this.
6. Accept that relapse is part of the process
“It’s natural to have hope for your brother or sister, but don’t be disappointed if she stops drinking and then starts again,” write Olsen and Levounis in Sober Siblings. “Relapse is not a sign of failure or weakness; it’s part of the disease, and often more than one stay in rehab is necessary if the person is to be successful.”
Here’s an excellent book that will help you figure out how to help an alcoholic sister or brother cope with drinking without losing yourself: Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.
If you have any thoughts on how to help an alcoholic brother or sister, please comment below. I can’t offer advice, but it may help you to share your experience. And of course, take time to visit the local Al-Alanon chapters and meetings in your area! The more support you gather, the better.
For more ideas for supporting a family member with alcoholism, read How to Help an Alcoholic Husband.
May your family find hope, healing, and peace. Alcohol and drug addictions are difficult diseases to deal with – often very confusing and destructive for everyone. Your brother or sister’s drinking problem is sad, and I’m sorry your family is experiencing this. Take time to grieve the loss of the brother or sister you knew, of the past you shared.
Take good care of yourself, for you are worth taking good care of.
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