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Health

What to Do When Your Parent Is Enabling Your Sibling's Addiction

If every conversation with your folks devolves into a tearful screaming match, it's time to set some boundaries and get a little space.
December 17, 2020, 4:14pm
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Hard to Say is a column about delicate situations and difficult conversations, for people who wish they could hire a ghostwriter for all their texts.

When a sibling is dependent on substances or has an addiction, and your parent is enabling their use or is in denial about it (or both), you might find yourself having some intense and exhausting conversations with your folks that really take a toll on your own well-being. Even if you know every conversation with your parent about your sibling is likely to quickly devolve into a tearful screaming match, it’s not always easy to keep your cool when the topic comes up, or to change the subject in the name of self-care. 

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If you’ve noticed that despite all of your efforts, nothing seems to be changing for the better—for the sibling in dealing with their substance use, or for the parent who can’t stop enabling them—you may start to get the sense that you need to divest from the situation in order to protect yourself. But it can be hard to know how to do that when you are used to getting involved.

Nedra Tawwab, a North Carolina–based therapist and author of the upcoming book Set Boundaries, Find Peace, told VICE that when someone in a family has an addiction, other members in the family often become enmeshed, which she defined as “when we become consumed with an issue and start to act as if everybody in the situation has to respond in the same way.” She said it’s not uncommon for you, the sibling, to become enmeshed not with the person who has an addiction but with the parent who you are trying to help. 

But, Tawwab said, if your parent is being hurt by your sibling and their substance use—emotionally, physically, or financially— it can be incredibly difficult to not get involved. “It's very hard to observe that and not have some compelling feelings toward your parents for not setting really healthy boundaries with your sibling,” she said. “But I think the thing that is most helpful is to detach from having to save your parents from their child.” 

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Of course, that’s easier said than done—but it’s also not impossible. If your conversations with your parent about your sibling’s substance use are slowly draining the life out of you, here are some things that might help you get a little space. 

Try to have empathy for your parent.

Even if you’re incredibly angry with the choices your parent is making, try to put yourself in their position, and recognize how hard it can be to admit that the person you raised has an addiction or is dependent on substances. “[Your parent’s] level of love and understanding of this person is a little bit different than your understanding of it as a sibling,” Tawwab said. “The parent–child relationship is very different than a sibling relationship, and it may not be something that you're able to understand.” 

“We may come to these situations with a lot of resentment, frustration, and wanting to control,” Naiylah Warren, a therapist at HealHaus in Brooklyn, told VICE, and doing so stops us from being able to hear the other person’s perspective. If possible, try to approach your parent from a place of curiosity: ”I noticed X is happening; what do you think might be going on? How are you feeling about it?”

If your parent gets defensive or shuts down, recognize that reaction for what it is. “Denial is a mechanism that we use to protect ourselves from a very hard truth,” Warren said—like, for instance, what we think someone else’s addiction reveals about us. When a parent is in denial, she said, it might be because they are blaming themselves. “It’s all about, What did I do that led to this? Was there something I did wrong that led them to start to engage? Did I overexpose them, did I underexpose them, did I not teach them about this? Did I give them too much freedom?” 

“It's much easier, then, to deny the severity or even the presence of an issue,” she continued, “because then you can avoid sort of internalizing this issue.” 

Put yourself on an information diet.

There’s no way to feel better about this situation without setting some boundaries; a good way to start is by telling your parent that you can no longer be an audience for updates on your sibling’s life or behavior. “I think a boundary for you would be to know less,” Tawwab said. “Sometimes we hold space for all of the negative conversation about the family member, and we really don't have the capacity to do so. And so as we're listening to this, we're like, Oh, my gosh, you need to do X—because it's so overwhelming to listen to.” 

What to say: 

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  • “When you talk about these things, I feel like I need to do something, but it’s not my situation to manage. I’d appreciate it if you found another support, or talked to [Grandpa/Auntie/a counselor]. I cannot be your person on this thing that personally affects me.” 

After you say this, actually hold them to it; be willing to remind them of your boundary, change the subject, or end conversations if necessary. 

Learn to tell the difference between boundaries and ultimatums.

If you’re getting increasingly frustrated with your parent’s behavior, you might find yourself wanting to raise the stakes to communicate how serious you are—maybe by saying something like, “you better do X about Sibling or you’ll never hear from me again.” But dropping an ultimatum isn’t the same as setting and enforcing healthy boundaries, and likely isn’t going to help the situation, or make you feel that much better.  

If you’re not sure of the difference between a boundary and an ultimatum, Warren said that boundaries tend to come from the “I” perspective, while ultimatums often focus on the “you.” Setting a boundary might sound like, “I’m no longer willing to have alcohol at family events I’m hosting” or “I’m not loaning Sibling any more money,” while an ultimatum might look more like “If you don’t stop giving Sibling money, you’ll never see my children again.” 

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Also know that you can really only set boundaries for yourself. “We are not responsible for the boundaries that people have in their relationships with other people,” Tawwab said. Of course, there can be gray areas within a family when shared resources are involved—for example, if you give your parent money each month to help them cover their expenses, and then you discover your parent is behind on their bills because they keep giving your sibling money. In situations like those, you’ll likely need to renegotiate how your collective finances are managed, Tawwab said. On the other hand, if your parent is loaning your sibling money from their personal account, then it’s not really something you can set boundaries around—and realizing that can be freeing.  

Make sure you have realistic expectations of both your sibling and your parent. 

“Oftentimes, we have a rigid plan of what it means for this situation to be resolved, and it always ends in this person being completely sober,” Warren said. “And that can be an incredibly hard expectation for someone struggling to live up to.” Unrealistic expectations can also put a lot of pressure on a parent who is ultimately trying to make everyone happy. 

If you don’t actually know what is reasonable to expect in terms of sobriety, or you’re just not very familiar with the science and psychology of substance dependency and addiction, Tawwab recommended the book The Complete Family Guide to Addiction: Everything You Need to Know Now to Help Your Loved One and Yourself by Thomas F. Harrison and Hilary S. Connery. “I think it's a really good book for not just boundaries, but understanding what an addiction is, and how it can be treated—understanding just the cycle of addiction, how to actually help a family member and how you're getting in the way,” she said.

And remember that you can’t control other people—your parent, your sibling, anyone but yourself—or force them to seek help. “It is heavily on the individual to decide when they're going to be ready to take this step,” Warren said. “And that's the part that no one can do for them, no matter what. Because this journey is fully individual, and it is really tough. If someone's not ready to make it at that time, or is struggling to move through it, no one can do that work for them—even with the best support, even with the top professionals, even with the most empathetic family members.” 

Know that you don’t have to cope with this situation alone.

If you’re feeling sad, angry, or otherwise bad about your sibling’s behavior or your relationship with your parents, make sure you’re actively tending to your own needs—and that you’re making a point to regularly connect with folks who are in your corner. Warren recommended joining Al-Anon, a support group for people whose loved ones are dealing with addiction; meetings are held around the world (and, now, online).  

“[Al-Anon] can be a huge place of support. To be able to hear some of the things that other people are going through can be really validating and make us feel less alone,” she said. “And it also helps give us a lot of ideas on how we can set boundaries, other ways that we can support—being able to hear that is really important. And it can free us up to be able to also take care of ourselves.” She also said Al-Anon is helpful regardless of where your sibling is in this journey—whether they are actively using or are in recovery, and regardless of whether the sibling is still in your life, you’ll be able to get guidelines for taking care of yourself. 

If you can’t or don’t want to do Al-Anon, Warren suggested turning to your friends or other support networks—the folks who will remind you to take care of yourself and hold you accountable. 

“There is a phrase in addiction that we used to use a lot in the clinic, which is ‘the addicted person is addicted to the substance, and the family is addicted to that,’” she said. “So really think about, ‘How can I recover from being in relationship with this person?’” 

Note: An earlier version of this post used the term "substance abuse," which is outdated language that can perpetuate stigmas and negative stereotypes. It has been changed and updated throughout. 

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