Sibling ties are just like any other relationship: complex.
But when your sibling becomes a toxic influence on your life, what do you do? We’ve gathered some experts’ insights on how to deal with a toxic sibling.
Clinical Psychologist | Professor of Psychology |
Author, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?”
Set limits and boundaries
The biggest struggle with siblings is that you often think you can “make them change” because of your long history with them. Not likely to happen. Have realistic expectations, accept who they are, and engage with them accordingly.
Figure out the workarounds
You may continue to engage with one toxic sibling because you love your other siblings, or because you want your parents to be happy. You don’t have to be your toxic sibling’s enabler though.
The toxic sibling may be the price of admission – but you can minimize your engagement with that sibling and also – don’t try to convince your other family members your toxic sibling is toxic. Either they get it or don’t – you won’t be the wakeup call.
Don’t fight too hard for it
Many people feel “robbed” if their sibling relationships don’t work out. You can end up losing a lot of yourself if you keep “fighting” that relationship.
At some point – give yourself permission to let go, and recognize that shared genetics don’t always mean friendship.
Nathan Fite, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist, Cincinnati Child Anxiety Center
Blood relationships, particularly those as close as that of siblings, complicate a child’s ability to simply move on. That is, living with this sibling is most likely an adverse reality that cannot be changed. This is often exacerbated by the fact that toxic sibling behaviors often occur in tandem with toxic parenting.
Establish an emotional boundary
In situations where the relationship does not pose a safety risk, “detached contact” is an important tool in the arsenal of the sibling who is learning to cope. The idea is to establish an emotional boundary in which their toxic behavior is ignored and relational contact is limited.
This is based on an enduring principle from behavioral psychology called extinction. It is empowering because although it is impossible to directly control the behavior of a toxic sibling, it is possible to control the degree to which one’s own actions reinforce those behaviors.
It also trains the sibling who is coping with how to devalue or to reinterpret those behaviors so that their emotional resources can be reinvested in people who treat them with respect.
Jillian Perry, M.A., LCPC
Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, Clarity Clinic
Sibling relationships are a unique type of relationship. Unless one is the oldest, these relationships have been present since birth.
Cultural, societal, and family pressures dictate certain expectations for these relationships, often leaving us to ask – How do we love someone that we do not always (or ever) like?
Acknowledge your truth
If your sibling is not someone you care to be friends with, acknowledge that within yourself. When we feel any strong emotion, particularly one that we perceive as uncomfortable or “negative,” our tendency often is to avoid that experience.
Instead, feel your truth – explore and examine it with the curiosity of a young child or a scientist. What about the relationship that does not feel okay?
Label the behaviors (or your feelings), not the person
When emotions are strong, the behaviors and the individual start to blur. Labeling the person, however, does not create space for solutions and leads to defensiveness. “John is so critical,” for example, does not leave space for solutions other than for John to not be critical.
However, if we identify, “It is a problem for me that John criticizes my choices,” we can work towards solutions for addressing this behavior.
Furthermore, if I call John “critical,” it is unlikely he will want to further hear what I have to say, as he will want to defend himself against this. If I tell him that his criticism of my choices is problematic, that creates space for dialogue.
Examples to consider might look like:
- Does it seem that your sibling manipulates situations and emotions?
- Does your sibling leave you feeling left unheard or intruded upon?\
- Does it seem that your sibling makes unreasonable or frequent demands?
- Does it seem that your sibling is overly critical of your choices?
Identifying these problematic behaviors allows us to move towards actionable steps which contributes to feelings of self-efficacy and control.
Communicate openly if it feels safe
If you feel comfortable and safe enough, communicate your feelings to your sibling. Use “I” statements to express how the behaviors you identified impact you.
Explain what you would like to be done. Be willing to compromise. Use clear, non-blaming language as much as possible.
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries
Clearly explain your needs (either to your sibling, if applicable, or yourself), and what is and is not acceptable to you. Identify the consequences if these boundaries are not adhered to. Stick to those words.
Bonus points, Internal boundaries, even if you clearly articulate your feelings and layout your boundaries and what you believe to be a fair compromise, you cannot control how your sibling will respond. You can, however, always control your own behaviors and reactions.
Things to consider:
- How will you respond when your sibling makes unreasonable demands?
- What will you do if your sibling intrudes on your space or oversteps an established boundary?
- How will you establish a sense of safety and well-being, despite your sibling’s toxic behaviors?
- What will you do to manage your physical and emotional needs?
Examples might include: Setting time limits for talks and/or visits; identifying specific topics you will not discuss with your sibling; identifying and responding to your own emotions and needs.
Know when to walk away
For some, the “best friends” sibling relationship just is not attainable or sustainable, and that is okay. If bad behavior is repeated or intensified or there is any violence present, it might be time to walk away.
Ask yourself if this is the behavior you would accept from a close friend or anyone else in the family. If the answer is no, consider why might it be different from this person? Not all sibling relationships are close, and that is okay. Tell yourself that. Then tell yourself again.
Consider re-framing the relationship, if possible; see a sibling as a father of a nephew instead of a brother, if that allows you to maintain a connection with a valued family member (your nephew), without sacrificing your own needs to your brother.
Hollywood, society, and sometimes even our own families may pressure us to feel a sense of obligation to our siblings, but at what cost?
While the family may mean blood relatives, it means so many other things and includes so many other people. You do not need to force yourself to accept maltreatment for the sake of the family.
Certified Health and Wellness Coach | Behavior Change Specialist |
Founder and Managing Editor, Zivadream
Here are some key tips on how to deal with a toxic sibling:
Get support for yourself
First and foremost, seek help for yourself. Because your sibling has been in your life for a very long time, family patterns have become ingrained, and you may have beliefs that work against you.
It takes a skilled therapist or counselor who has knowledge of toxic and narcissistic behaviors to help you navigate the rough waters of your relationship. Educate yourself on people with toxic behaviors, and those with drug and alcohol problems, so you are less likely to be hurt.
Related: How to Live with a Narcissist
Accept that they won’t change
Dr. Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., an expert on toxic and narcissistic behavior, says that dealing with toxic people is like second-hand smoke, it makes you sick and exhausts you mentally as well as physically.
The best way to steel yourself against a toxic sibling is to accept that they probably won’t change, so don’t waste your time. Instead, focus on your own self-care.
Don’t buy into the guilt
Toxic siblings can manipulate you with guilt. In fact, they are masters at manipulating your feelings and emotions. They can make you feel sorry for them, trick you into bailing them out of bad situations, giving them money, and even letting them move in with you.
Don’t fall for it. When you keep helping them, and they refuse to change or help themselves, you are enabling the toxic behavior that keeps them stuck.
You have nothing to feel guilty for.. Allowing someone to be responsible for their own lives is the most loving thing you can do.
Don’t engage in any drama
They want to push your buttons and hook you into a fight because that is where they feel most powerful. You must be very aware of the situation, paying attention to your feelings, without absorbing their negativity.
Stay as calm as possible, using an even tone of voice, and refuse to engage in any fighting or name-calling.
Think of yourself as being a reporter, speaking only the facts. Set firm boundaries as to what you will and will not accept, and remember, it is not up to them to stick to your boundaries, it is up to you to uphold them.
So don’t make threats you can’t keep. Be willing to hang up the phone, or walk away from a tense situation if they are ignoring your boundaries.
Do not allow yourself to be treated disrespectfully from anyone, especially a family member. You deserve to be treated well and live a healthy, meaningful, and happy life.
Jaime Bronstein, LCSW
Licensed Therapist | Relationship Expert | Radio Host
Express your feelings
If you are feeling hurt by a toxic sibling, use “I” statements to let them know that you are feeling hurt. For example, “I’m feeling hurt by what you said” vs. “You are a horrible person to say those mean words to me.”
When you use “you” statements, you risk the chance that your sibling will get defensive and the conversation will not be productive.
Talk to a therapist
Talking to a mental health professional can help to ease the burden of a toxic sibling. It can feel heavy at times but talking to a therapist can help you feel lighter.
A good therapist will be non-judgmental and will allow you the space to feel seen and heard. A therapist can help you navigate your journey to healing.
Related: 25+ Warning Signs of a Bad Therapist
If you have expressed how you feel, and your toxic sibling seems to not care, then you need to do everything in your power to establish safe boundaries that keep you mentally and physically safe and healthy.
Give yourself permission to not feel obligated to see your sibling or speak to them unless it’s at an obligatory family event (even when you see your sibling in person, you can still avoid engaging in conversation with them).
Bottom line, you should do what makes you feel the most comfortable.
Don’t try to hurt them back; ignore them instead
When people try to “get back” at someone for hurting them, usually it does not get them the result that they hoped for and they end up feeling even more hurt. The best thing that you can do to try and stop your toxic sibling from hurting you, is to ignore their behavior.
When you ignore someone, they will see that they aren’t bothering you and they will have less motivation to continue their adverse, disrespectful, and offensive behaviors.
Surround yourself with supportive people:
Make sure that you have a good support system in place; people who love you unconditionally and people who you trust and love. Spend time with those in your life who love you and treat you with kindness and respect.
Feeling loved will help you to feel comforted and empowered. When you can focus on the positive aspects of your life, the negative ones (such as a toxic sibling) don’t bother you anymore.
Addiction Therapist | Relationship Expert
Siblings can be the most difficult relationship out of all relationships. A sibling knows you better than anyone else and will also know your soft wounded spots when things get tough. There can be jealousy, competition, and problems that other relationships don’t have.
Here is how you deal with a toxic sibling:
Know with clarity what you are dealing with and get wise on what to expect. Think in animal language- a cat is a cat and a lion is a lion. Don’t confuse the two.
If you have a sibling that has toxic energy- know what to expect. Don’t be insane and think that a lion will act like a cat. In energy wisdom, you have to diagnose what is the reality and then move from there. If your sibling is a sociopath or a psychic vampire then don’t expect Dracula to be nice.
Deal with them with clarity and don’t spend any time trying to change them.
Do the best you can, by keeping strong boundaries and shields of protection. Know that toxic people will make you blame yourself, they will also make you feel depressed, tired, and very angry.
Be on the alert for how you feel normally and then how you feel after you deal with them. This is the radar you need to gauge the relationship. If you get sick and unwell, try and live your own life and don’t engage so much.
Stop trying to change them
Remember it is important to take care of you. Self-care and healthy self-esteem is the answer. Don’t waste your time trying to get them to see your point of view. They are like a wall and won’t hear you.
Put your attention on you, your life, and don’t worry so much about them – you can’t control them, all you can do is control how you react.
You can invite them to change, by keeping healthy boundaries and letting them know that you are not taking any bad behavior.
Make up healthy boundaries that you can live with
I call this the sovereignty of the self- which is self-love, self-care, and laws of inner peace. For example:
- I will never let anyone put me down.
- I will not allow anyone to criticize and hurt me.
- I will love myself unconditionally.
- I will not need others and outside people to validate who I am.
When you have a toxic sibling- You get healthy and take care of you. That is the answer.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist | Behavior Coach | Consultant
Recognize the limitations of the relationship and set appropriate boundaries
For example, a toxic sibling might not approve of your partner or life choices for no apparent reason. An example of a boundary in this situation would be to agree that when you and your sibling get together, to not discuss how much they don’t like your partner and to focus on the relationship between you.
Recognize whether this person is temporarily toxic or permanently toxic
Everyone has temporarily engaged in toxic behavior through feeling stressed or overwhelmed—an example of this is lashing out verbally at a family member when work didn’t go well.
However, there is a difference between this being a one-off incident and a pattern of behavior. It’s possible for someone to have a relationship with a sibling who learns how to manage stress or takes accountability for their negative behavior.
However, someone who is permanently toxic—for example, someone lacking affective empathy on the narcissist/psychopath spectrum—will most likely see no issue with their behavior and blame you for their verbal lashing out (“The reason why I yelled is you did x,” for example).
If you must be at an event with a toxic sibling, find ways to cope
Plan a way to “detox” from their presence during or after the event. There are several ways to do this—including but not limited to deliberately limiting your time there, planning an event with more positive people afterward, having a supportive friend on speed-dial, and planning to have a therapy session after the event.
The point is to do something to bring you closer to baseline, back to the state you were at before you had to interact with this person.
Assess whether or not the relationship is worth it
If the relationship causes you emotional distress to the point that it outweighs any good you might get from it, it could be time to let the relationship go.
The reality is that family is not always supportive, affirming, or healthy.
If you are not legally required to take care of this person, you have a right to walk away from any relationship that is a strain on your mental health.
Relationship Expert, Self Development Secrets
Healthy sibling relationships are considered to be loving, empathetic, compassionate, and helpful. Unfortunately, blood relations don’t necessarily mean that your sibling relationships would be healthy.
Sometimes, it is not that easy to engage with other family members who you enjoy, when a toxic sibling is around.
From time to time, everyone argues with their siblings, but when it’s a constant argument and when it is not possible to exist altogether anymore, that is definitely the case with toxic siblings.
Here are three tips about how to deal with your toxic siblings.
In the majority of cases, your sibling might not even know that they are hurting you. It is very important to speak up with your sibling who is causing you pain and to tell them what you are feeling.
Going into this conversation can be very difficult because you might think that he doesn’t care, but you can consider how to handle the confrontation if it were to get to that point.
Set clear boundaries
Another point is that even if it’s often hard to avoid your sibling, that doesn’t mean that you can’t set boundaries about what you can and can’t tolerate. If you feel that some conversations can be harmful to you, let them know that it’s not acceptable for you.
Be ready to listen from your toxic sibling that it isn’t an appropriate way to behave. But what your toxic sibling thinks in this case, it doesn’t matter.
What matters is whether it’s right or wrong for you. Let that guide your response and when you can, who’s in and who’s out.
Stop spending your time and energy on your toxic sibling
You cannot change toxic people – you just can’t. Decide where you stand and stay strong. Sometimes, you’re not able to do more than that. And it’s not about you, it’s always about them.
I don’t say that you should never help your siblings out and that you should leave them in their hard times, but perhaps consider helping them to get professional help instead of always being that person for them.
Relationship Expert, Feely Feelings
Have an open conversation
If you have a toxic sibling, chances are that you’ve already tried talking to them many times, to no avail. Yet it might be worth trying to talk to them once again, as mature adults, in order to air your grievances and establish a healthier way of communicating moving forward.
Create boundaries to protect yourself
However, sometimes, it’s not so simple. If your sibling is toxic and you don’t see them changing in the near future, create boundaries in order to protect yourself.
Keep out the negativity by minimizing contact with them as much as possible and limiting your appearance at family gatherings when they’re present.