Do You Have a Sibling Rivalry or a Toxic Sibling?
If your relationship with your sibling routinely takes a toll on your well-being and mental health and includes any kind of abuse, it may be a toxic sibling relationship.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
January 10, 2024
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It’s normal for siblings to have some conflict. For instance, research shows that an older sibling might act out when a younger sibling is born. However, when a sibling relationship becomes defined by challenge and (at worst) abuse, it goes beyond rivalry and can turn toxic.
A toxic sibling relationship can significantly impact a person’s well-being and mental health into adulthood. People who are the targets of sibling aggression are more likely to have depression, low self-worth, and participate in risky behaviors, data shows.
If you have a toxic sibling, knowing how to navigate the relationship can be incredibly tough, especially in a society that emphasizes the importance of having a close family relationship. Keep reading to learn how to recognize the signs of a sibling’s toxic behavior and how to navigate a toxic sibling relationship.
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How do I know my sibling relationship is toxic?
The difference between a sibling rivalry or a challenging sibling relationship and one that is toxic is largely related to abuse and mental health impact. “Violent and abusive behavior or other actions that cause severe anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem are all signs that a sibling relationship has become toxic,” said Charlie Health Primary Therapist Kathleen Douglass, MA, LCPC, an expert in family dynamics. She added that criticizing a sibling’s appearance, success, or choices is also a sign of a toxic sibling relationship.
The first step in differentiating between normal sibling conflict and toxic relationship dynamics is knowing the signs of toxic behavior, including those outlined above. If you’re still unsure if your sibling relationship is toxic, consider the following questions:
- Does your sibling constantly blame you for things that go wrong?
- Does your sibling use insulting and hurtful language when they talk with you?
- Does your sibling ignore your boundaries even when clearly stated?
- Does your sibling gaslight you, making you feel like your experiences are unreasonable?
- Does your sibling give you the silent treatment, choosing to actively ignore you?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, it may mean you have a toxic sibling relationship.
Recognizing the toxicity in your sibling relationship is the initial step toward making positive changes in that relationship.
The impact of toxic sibling relationships on mental health
As mentioned, a certain amount of sibling rivalry and conflict is common in family dynamics and can actually strengthen conflict resolution and communication skills. By contrast, a toxic sibling relationship can take a toll on mental health.
An analysis of over 30 studies shows that children with lower-quality sibling relationships (defined by conflict, among other factors) may be more likely to view themselves as unworthy of love and have a negative and untrustworthy worldview. As a result, these children are more likely to develop anxiety and depression and struggle with substance abuse and aggression, according to the data. Also, a toxic sibling relationship can lead to a dysfunctional family dynamic, causing attachment trauma.
5 tips for how to navigate toxic sibling relationships
If you find yourself in a toxic sibling relationship, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of further harm. Everyone deserves a sibling relationship that is respectful, Here are five tips for navigating a toxic sibling relationship:
Set clear boundaries
Enforce those boundaries
Consider family therapy
Stay realistic about the relationship
Know when to let go
1. Set clear boundaries
“In toxic situations, it becomes imperative for the person who is feeling wronged to set healthy boundaries in order to protect themselves from emotional and physical harm,” said Douglass. Some ideas she recommends are limiting contact with that sibling and having an agreement with your sibling about what is acceptable and not acceptable in your communication with each other.
2. Enforce those boundaries
Just as important as setting clear boundaries is actually adhering to them. “Let your sibling know what the consequence will be should they continue to engage in behavior that feels harmful to you,” said Douglass. While your sibling needs to take steps to change, it’s also important for you to remain true to your boundaries, express your needs, and follow through on what you committed to do if your needs aren’t met.
3. Consider family therapy
While healing old wounds and addressing toxic behavior may seem daunting, remember that you don’t have to navigate this alone. Seeking support from a licensed mental health professional who specializes in family therapy can be a valuable resource, facilitating collaborative efforts toward positive change in the family relationship. Ideally, as you and your sibling come to respect and understand each other’s needs, a glimmer of hope will emerge for a healthy sibling relationship.
4. Stay realistic about the relationship
In some cases, reconciling with a toxic sibling and developing a healthy sibling relationship may not be possible. First and foremost, if your toxic sibling engages in constant threats of violence toward you or other family members, the situation may be past the point of mediation. If you’ve tried tactics like those mentioned above and sought professional help without improvement, cutting ties may be necessary for your well-being (at least until there’s a chance for change or both parties seek additional help to resolve the conflict).
5. Know when to let go
Letting go of a relationship, even when it is toxic, is an extremely challenging choice. “Oftentimes, we continue to love our toxic siblings, and cutting them off may feel counterintuitive or cause feelings of guilt, but it is important to realize that we must take care of our own mental health,” said Douglass. “Sometimes, that means we need to love people from afar, even if they are brothers or sisters.”
And Douglass added that there’s no wrong way to feel about ending a toxic sibling relationship. “While it can feel like a relief for some people to rid themselves of the toxic dynamic, it can also create a great sense of loss and feel almost as if you are grieving a death in some ways,” she said. Discussing your feelings with a friend or trusted family member or seeking professional mental health services can help in coping with the loss of a relationship and provide a safe space for healing.
How Charlie Health can help
If a toxic sibling relationship is taking a toll on your mental health, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people dealing with complex mental health conditions, including the mental health impacts of toxic relationships. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapies into individual counseling, family therapy with trusted family members, and group sessions. With treatment, managing your mental health is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.