Rescuing Adult Siblings
April 21, 2011 · Posted in Adult Children, Communication, Therapy · Permalink

By Lisa Merlo Booth

It seems as if countless people have troubled siblings.  One person’s sibling is struggling with addiction, another’s with bi-polar syndrome, and another’s with depression, still another’s is in a violent relationship and yet another’s is just plain mean and reactive, and on and on.  The possibilities are endless, yet the problem is always the same: How do I help my troubled sibling?

Regardless of whether the issue is substance abuse, depression or reactivity, the key is to not work harder than your sibling is working for himself or herself.  Too often we are so anxious to help them that we end up spinning ourselves into a state of frenzy while they sit back and complain…but take no action.  Stop your frenzy.  Be willing to help if they ask, but don’t pursue.  It is even okay to offer to help…and then wait until they take you up on your offer.  And…don’t pursue.

Often people in trouble need to feel the pain of their struggles before they’re willing to do anything about them.  Make sure you are not protecting your sibling from that pain.  Do not save them, rescue them or minimize the consequences of their behavior.  Saving them from feeling the way their actions hit is called enabling.  When you soften the consequences, you enable the destructive behavior to continue.  Don’t do that.  Enabling makes matters worse.

It’s also important to make a distinction between behaviors that are hurtful to your siblings (e.g. depression or a violent relationship) and behaviors that are hurtful to you (reactive or emotionally abusive).  With behaviors that are self destructive, you offer help and then pull back until they are willing to accept the help.  Behaviors that are abusive to you require self care on your end.  It’s one thing to enable drinking, it’s another thing to throw yourself under the bus by being an emotional punching bag.  Do not be empathetic to a sibling who is abusing you – be loving and firm.  Love your sibling while setting a limit on their toxic behavior.

Too often we allow our love for our siblings to get in the way of doing what’s best…for our sibling and ourselves.  Stay level-headed.  Your goal is to be effective and compassionate—not enabling or rescuing.  You cannot save your sibling from himself or herself, only your sibling can do that.  You can be a resource and a friend, not a savior.  If you think they have a problem, speak to them about it honestly.  Don’t minimize it, avoid it or think it’s none of your business—be straightforward, compassionate and honest.  Set limits to protect yourself, help where you can and leave the onus for change on them.

Remember that loving someone sometimes requires tough limits.  Don’t work harder for someone than they are willing to work for themselves.  Offer assistance without doing all their work.  And don’t ever allow yourself to take a hit from someone because you have pity for them.  Have empathy for you and take care of yourself while feeling compassion for them.

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  1. Alexa
    June 29th, 2011 | 2:55 pm

    I stumbled across this site when searching for “bullying by adult siblings”. I thank you for the insight it has given into my role in allowing this behaviour to continue.

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