Take a moment and think back on your family, the one you grew up in as a child. Were you the oldest, youngest or somewhere in between? Did you get along with your brothers or sisters? Were you like friends or enemies? Was someone else the favorite? Whatever the familial environment, that was then – this is now. Though what took place before does play a part in what is today. As an adult with your children, are you repeating the patterns of the past and recreating the old dysfunctions? It can happen without our knowing it. For years we’ve been taught to believe that sibling rivalry is a healthy part of the family dynamic. Beyond that, sibling rivalry and enabling drug addiction can go hand in hand. The tipping point lies in what you choose to hang on to and what you’re willing to let go.
Role Playing Isn’t an Act, It’s Lived for a Lifetime
Where you fall in the sibling line comes with its own set of preconceived notions and expectations that either set us up for success or failure. For example, if you’re the oldest, you set the tone for expectations. Usually, parents will set the bar high for the oldest child with a defined list of unrealistic goals and encumbering rules to live by. The middle child may have to fight for a way to be recognized, creating a key differentiator, good or bad. The youngest sibling may be content in remaining hidden amongst the chaos of the others, observing what to do to stay out of trouble or elect to head right into it.
This all may seem innocent but it does make an impact in who we are and how we view ourselves in the world.
Family History Revisited
Nothing brings family together like the holidays. Siblings come from their adult home towns to get together but there’s a strange phenomenon that takes place. Each adult child reverts to who they were as a child, with respect to their sibling role. It isn’t just about your place in the sibling lineage but the designated role you carried. If you were the oldest and the “responsible one” or the “leader” that remains what is expected of you by your parents and your brothers and sisters. If you were the “instigator”, stirring the pot of family gossip, you will still wear that hat. For the youngest child, a “reckless adventurer” with no boundaries or consideration for others, the behaviors associated with this role may not be as strong as they once were but to the family, it’s what resonates the strongest.
The sibling roles create personal identifiers but also help design a roadmap to drug or alcohol addiction that can be coerced and experienced collectively amongst brothers and sisters.
If You Can’t Beat Them, Join In
Sibling rivalry can feel like a rite of passage in a family, whether there are two children or ten within a household. The term, sibling rivalry, at its best, is a healthy competition for a myriad of responses from mom or dad: affection, affirmation, approval, attention and let’s not forget love.
Competition amongst siblings can be healthy, much like one would find in a work environment, as it generates motivation, communication and results. Where it all goes south is when the desire to “one up” a brother or sister outweighs the positive aspects of the family unit. Basically, where one child succeeds while diminishing others.
For example, if the Responsible One gets suspended from school for two days for starting a fist fight with another student, the parent may say “this is the kind of behavior I expect from your brother, not you,”. Here, the parent reprimanded the one child who got into trouble. However, the parent also referenced the brother not involved in the incident, the Troublemaker, using him as a negative gage of expectation for the Responsible One.
In another instance, if the Troublemaker stands true to form, not performing well in school and is subsequently suspended from school, the same parent may respond with, “Why can’t you be more like your older brother?” This comment will no doubt emotionally hurt the Troublemaker, makes the Responsible One bear an awkward sense of guilt and between the two siblings, creates a wedge full of negative consequences.
In numerous studies, medical practitioners and scientists examined the correlation in families between sibling rivalry and the instance of substance abuse and addictive behaviors amongst brothers and sisters. “Findings suggest that older sibling substance use has a direct effect on younger sibling use, but relationship dynamics and reinforcement played a significant role as well.” One study also notes that when the relationship between an older and younger sibling is in conflict or shares conflict, the younger sibling was drawn to substance abuse with their peers as well.
To understand further, when two siblings are in a family where there is a shared struggle (parental issues, economic issues, other hardships) then often the siblings band together and find comfort through substance abuse, with the older sibling being the heavier influencer.
Odd Man Out for One, Safety Net for Others
When a family is in crisis due to one adult child’s drug or alcohol addiction, a recurring scenario continues to play out, though the players may differ. An adult child with an addiction problem will disappear for days on end, then return. The addictive child creates a sense of loss in all family members, then relief, guilt, anger… the emotions are like a merry-go-round that wreaks havoc on everyone else’s livelihood. In the moments where the addictive child is seemingly okay, the family subconsciously will designate another family member to be on the outside position. Why?
Addiction in families creates a normalcy founded on imbalance. To maintain this altered sense of normal, parents and siblings will often create an argument, for example, to provide a reason for someone else to be on the “outs”, to get to their idea of balance. Anything else is uncomfortable and emotionally foreign. Once the addict acts out, uses or the use creates another problem, the addict goes on the “outs” and the others may come together – though it’s all a permanent state of flux.
Jealousy in the Mix
If you have a sister addicted to opioids or Xanax or a brother who can’t stop drinking, you know full well the shame that comes with the territory. Much as you’d like to somehow shake that off, you can’t. But it doesn’t come close to the jealousy that can crop up. Yes, jealousy.
Siblings that have an addicted brother or sister may develop feelings of jealousy. It’s not that they wish they were the addicted child but more about yearning for the attention that is never bestowed on them. No matter how well-behaved or accomplished they are, the highlights of their livelihood are diminished. Some siblings of addicts refer to themselves as being invisible in their parents’ eyes.
Adult Children with Addiction and Siblings Need to Heal, Together
Once your sibling, no matter the age, enters a drug treatment program – the family dynamic will shift and continue to shift throughout the recovery process. Emotional scars will appear opening old wounds that hurt brothers, sisters and their parents. As the addict begins to heal, every family member needs to heal. Consistent family counseling helps a patient’s path in recovery while strengthening the family and setting up a support system for addiction aftercare.
Let’s Talk About Bringing Family Together Again by Removing Addiction
Talk to Someone Who’s Been There. Talk to Someone Who Can Help. Scottsdale Recovery Center holds the highest accreditation (Joint Commission) and is Arizona’s premier rehab facility since 2007. Call 1-888-NODRUGS
Authored by Melanie Stern, Content Director for Scottsdale Recovery Center, Arizona Addiction Recovery Centers and Cohn Media, LLC. Writer and broadcaster covering the following industries: addiction rehab, health care, entertainment, technology and advocate of clear communication, positivity and humanity at its best.