6 Ways to Help Your Alcoholic Brother or Sister

If your brother or sister struggles with alcoholism, you may feel helpless. These six ways to help an alcoholic sister or brother are based on a book called Sober Siblings – they may help you understand your sibling’s drinking problem and figure out what you can do to help.

Sober Siblings: How to Help Your Alcoholic Brother or Sister – and Not Lose Yourself  by Patricia Olsen and M.D. Petros Levounis M.D.is an excellent book on family alcoholism. It’s where I found some of these tips on helping a sibling with recover from alcoholism.

One of the first ways to help your alcoholic brother or sister is to learn what a mature relationship is. Psychologist Mary Pipher says, “Maturity involves being honest and true to oneself, making decisions based on a conscious internal process, assuming responsibility for one’s decision, having healthy relationships with others and developing one’s own true gifts. It involves thinking about one’s environment and deciding what one will and won’t accept.” Maturity involves being realistic about what you can and can’t do when you’re coping with toxic family relationships. You can’t rescue or save your brother or sister from alcoholism, but you can reach out in healthy ways and stay true to you.

If you’re struggling to understand how alcoholism is a disease, read my blog post The Disease of Alcoholism – a Simple Explanation. I wrote it in response to a reader’s question about her alcoholic sister – I posted it on my Counselors’ Corner blog (I’m working in the alcohol and drug addiction recovery program for my counseling practicum).

6 Ways to Help Your Alcoholic Brother or Sister

One of the best ways to help an alcoholic sibling is to attend an Al-Anon meeting, and get support from other siblings who are dealing with alcoholic brothers or sisters.

Every sibling and family is different, even though the thought patterns and behaviors of alcoholics may be the same. These general tips for helping a brother or sister with a drinking problem can apply to most families.

Learn about your sibling’s perception of alcoholism. The more you understand about alcoholism and the way an alcoholic thinks about his or her disease, the better able you’ll be to help with the treatment process. And, the more open you are about your family history and interactions, the better. “Whatever the reason your brother or sister became alcoholic, it’s helpful for a counselor to hear about your family dynamics in order to know what direction to take,” writes Dr Levounis in Sober Siblings.

Let go of personality differences. Personality issues may crop up, which may or may not be part of the disease of alcoholism. Separating personality differences from real issues that affect your alcoholic sibling may be part of the healing process for both of you. If your relationship with your alcoholic brother or sister is affected by your mom or dad, read How to Deal With Difficult Parents.

Stop enabling your alcoholic brother or sister. “Enabling” is allowing or encouraging your alcoholic brother or sister to continue their disease. Enabling an alcoholic includes covering up, providing alibis, minimizing the addiction, attempting to take control by getting rid of the alcohol, and removing consequences (such as bailing him or her out of jail, or lending money).

Recognize what you’re doing. To stop enabling your brother or sister’s alcohol problem, you need to recognize what you’re doing. “You have to realize that it not only doesn’t help your brother or sister but actually allows – even helps – him or her to continue drinking,” write Olsen and Levounis in Sober Siblings. “Sometimes it’s hard to know where to draw the line. No one’s perfect, and things are not always black and white. Allow yourself a few gray areas, for your own sanity.” In most alcoholic families, events and behaviors aren’t cut and dried – especially during family celebrations.

Learn about alcoholism treatment options. You can’t help an alcoholic brother or sister by forcing him or her to get treatment, but you can be well-informed about treatment options for drinking problems. If you’re in an alcoholic family, find out about the addiction treatment centers in your area.

Don’t be disappointed if your sibling relapses into alcoholism

alcoholic sister brother

“6 Ways to Help Your Alcoholic Brother or Sister”

“It’s natural to have hope for your brother or sister, but don’t be disappointed if she stops drinking and then starts again,” write Olsen and Levounis in Sober Siblings. “Relapse is not a sign of failure or weakness; it’s part of the disease, and often more than one stay in rehab is necessary if the person is to be successful.”

For more tips on helping a family member with alcoholism, read How to Help an Alcoholic Husband.

Here’s an excellent book that will help you figure out how to help alcoholic sister or brother cope with alcoholism without losing yourself: Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

If you have any thoughts about helping an alcoholic brother or sister, please comment below. I can’t offer advice, but it might help to sort through your feelings in writing.

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21 Responses

  1. Rhonda says:

    Hello even if no one ever reads this, I am going to post to get it out for once and for all! I lost one sister to alcohol 3 years ago. My sibling and I have had a strained relationship for years. They are your typical alcoholics. I am at wits end, both my sibling are alcohol dependent and have decided now after not seeing my parent 1 to 2 times a year to become part of her life again……sounds wonderful doesn’t it… My father passed away last month after a short hospice (11 days). My father took care of my mother who has dementia. Now I am here with my mom most of the time however now I am having to put up with my drunk sister because she thinks she is moving in. I am in between a rock and a hard spot because I have no desire to be roommates with a drunk! I would love to go home but I feel that would be a disaster. Yesterday I returned to work for the first time in 2 months because I thought if she is gonna be here might as well. Let me tell you an alcoholic doesn’t usually make a good babysitter , so I found out yesterday! She took my mother with her to town after drinking a “few beer”, however she didn’t drive her car drunk she drove my parents car! So today there was a Hugh explosion here because I am sick of her giving my mom cigarettes and beer! Her and I had a confrontation today she was screaming and yelling telling my mom that I am in it for money and that I want to keep her car. Now keep in mind my parents have given her not one car but 3 cars over her drunken years. My sister was screaming ” mom keeps telling me …you are making her miserable” making my mom
    miserable( my mother has dementia). She doesn’t remember to bath or eat but she insisted that my mom is miserable! I can’t take this one more moment I can’t eat or sleep I have the stomach pain! she was in my face backed and slapped her chest and said in that voice “bring it on” I am 51 years old she is 47 my son heard it and said I am on my way ! She is gone tonight but what about tomorrow or Monday? I would have called the police but my poor mom
    Sorry this is from my iPad it is hard for me to type a lot on them,

  2. Margaret says:

    December 15, 2014, another update. My sister found a new therapist. This therapist is using an unusual treatment on her -a form of shock treatments. Nothing radical or too painful, but just enough to snap her out of her mind set. She tweeks my sister every time she rattles off the things that make her angry and want to drink. Geez, she hasn’t had a drop of alcohol in 35 days. She says she doesn’t even have the craving. I talked to her for over an hour yesterday, this was the best conversation I’ve had with her in over two months. Can this sobriety be sustained? Don’t know. She really seemed to want to stop drinking, though she also looked forward to doing just that. Never heard of this type of treatment, so we’ll see how she does.

  3. Riya somani says:

    I have an alcoholic brother. He is very good by nature but every night he comes home drunk which pisses me off. We belong tp a respectable familt in india but he doesnt care about our image in society and ends up drinking and creating nuisance in the streets.. how to deal with him? Im helpless..feel like killing him.

    • Margaret says:

      To Riya,
      Alcoholics have to hit bottom on their own When you can’t reach them anymore, I think the only solution is to walk away. It really hurts. Sounds like you really care about your brother.
      My problem was my sister’s alcoholism was starting to make me sick. That’s when I walked away. Maybe when an addict feels truly alone do they do something about it, but don’t count on it until it happens. All my sister cared about was booze.
      I’ve now chosen to move forward and have a happy life. You owe that to yourself too!

  4. Haley says:

    Thank you so much for this information. I am 21 and my brother is 25. I’m loosing myself trying to find his answers.. & I will not do it anymore!

  5. Margaret says:

    I can’t believe it is October 2014, that I had written here back in February. After numerous stays at my house (my sister came to detox). Much has happened, she was able to stay sober, after leaving my house, for a couple weeks. She was lucid, sharp and cheerful. I guess a ‘dog must have crossed the road’ (as her husband calls it) as her reasoning to drink again. Basically she doesn’t need a reason.
    Well, I have stopped communicating with her. I was having physical problems from the stress of seeing her drunken rages. And I mean rages. I’ve had back pains, sharp stomach pains for about 3 months where the pain woke me up in the middle of the night while I’m screaming in pain.. That progressed to clenching my teeth to the point that my jaw was in agony pain. I was taking aspirin 3 times a day. Then there were the bouts of crying (me!). She was now calling me and blaming me for something I supposedly ‘did to her when she was 10’. I spoke to the folks at my Church and they said “you have to stay away from her” (I was even crying in Church). Well, I followed their suggestion, I knew I had to do something drastic and after two more weeks of crying, anguish and frustration over that decision, my pains are all gone and I am happy again. She had become so poisonous to my whole aliveness. I will always love her greatly, but I know nothing will help her. She chooses her addiction over everyone. Actually I was the only one in the family talking to her out of 8 brothers and sisters. Now she doesn’t even have me. We’ll see what happens next.
    Kindness to all,

  6. Margaret says:

    Thank you Laurie for your supportive words. I have re-read this site again today, and I believe I was able to focus on your words that I had somehow not caught in the first reading. Since there is nothing we can do to stop my sister from drinking, let her know “we will be there in every way with her recovery.” That takes the weight off my shoulders, also the guilt I put on myself thinking there was more I should or could be doing. I now know that’s not in my power and it frees me from the mental drain.

    Margaret :-)

  7. Margaret says:

    Wow, what an incredible lady you are. You have a wonderfully deep enriching ancient, wholesome soul.

    Don’t worry, I didn’t take it personally what you wrote.

    After an alcoholic dad who was abusive, I hated him. He died over 20 years ago and just recently I have forgiven him. Clearly he was not able to move on to heaven or hell until then. I held on to my anger for a long time. You’ll be okay with your sister. My opinion is that, like with my sister, I don’t discuss her drinking anymore with her. I talk about ours animals and her animals. She only calls me when she’s been drinking and she’s always crying and saying how much I hurt her. Her complaint is unfounded and I don’t react to what she says. She is a very angry drinker. Her real personality comes out and she can be very spiteful. When she’s sober she’s great. Go figure. I have separated my frustration away from my feelings for her and I am letting her be. Not getting directly involved with her, but I’ll always be her sister. After all, she’s not doing this to me.

    You are such an amazing person, I am convinced that your feelings for your sister won’t be damaged. Looks like we need to remain steadfast with the “care and feeding” of our own families and let our sisters marinate. We only have what’s so. We move on and if it’s supposed to happen our sisters will catch up with us down the road.

    Always good to hear from you.


    • tracy says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Margaret. I reached out to my sister a few hours ago, and it was okay. I never know what to expect, so this time I reminded myself that our interaction could go either way( positive or wishing I hadn’t called). Either way I made an attempt, her disposition is not in my control. So I have to remember to not have any expectations (positive or negative) cuz it is often my expectations that set me up for emotional conflict…like you said…we only have what is so….now I must go shovel the snow as more is due…boo hoo . have a good day.tracy

  8. Margaret says:

    Hi Tracy,
    Your first paragraph said it all.
    I do believe that most. …. . most…. people have the attitude that prayer is usually suggested by religious fanatics and they don’t like to be preached to.
    My sister’s husband went out of town and asked it I would stay with my sister for those four days and keep her from drinking. She took him to the airport for a 6:30am flight and went home and got drunk knowing I would be on my way soon to her house to “watch over her” (I’m over 2 hours drive from her house). The whole four days I was there I followed her around the house making sure she didn’t drink. However, addicts know how to sneak that secret drink in a matter of seconds.. She would go into her office and shut the door, within 5 seconds I was at the door checking on her. She had already taken a drink from a bottle she had hidden in there. She is fully aware that this is harmful and she doesn’t care.

    At least with me there with her she had three meals a day. Usually she just drinks all day with no consumption of food. Her stomach is so distended.
    We went for a 2 hour walk together and within a half hour of arriving back at the house (and unknown to me) she had put wine in her water bottle and began to weave and trip where I had to stop her and sit her down to get her balance. It never occurred to me to check her water bottle to make sure there was actually water in there. I’ve spent many hours on the phone with her husband with him explaining to me what the last 5 years have been like for him and his family. Addicts are self absorbed, everything is about them and how unfair everybody else is towards them. And they lie about everything.

    I love my sister dearly, and I am not going to get dragged down just to show everyone else that I care. It’s not about me. She knows I love her and I tell her so all the time. If you sense a little frustration in my writing it’s because I know I am helpless to help her. That is why I ask God to keep watch over her and not let her kill herself. She’s the only sister I ever had. I don’t wish this on to any family. The addict injures their family with their addiction. They all suffer horribly.
    God bless.

    • tracy says:

      Hi Margaret…..I read somewhere that alcoholism is the worst disease because of the damage it does to others…especially family. I think what i wrote was directed More at myself because I worry I will “move on” and become indifferent to my sister….Its fear of all the unknowns…this fear plagued me as a child, I now realize… I will seek out this fear and learn how to overcome it. I once read that faith overcomes fear….master faith…master love.. and you automatically master fear. Margaret, it is a soul wretching experience to see what this disease does to people…I apologize for coming across as being indifferent to how you feel. What I wrote is what I strive for…I see that now. I guess I don’ t want to be frustrated, but often I am. I think I should have this disease all figured out and I should be living serenity now…its been a long time since I worried about someone’s drinking…I had forgotten the angst it causes…and turmoil within. I will do what I can to keep the love I have for my sister untainted by this disease. I’ m gonna need help cuz I know the disease tainted the love I had for my parents at times.. I will keep praying for wisdom and the truth I need to see about me. Tracy

  9. Laurie says:

    My practicum is in an alcohol and drug recovery treatment program, and I’m learning that family can’t do much to help the ones they love. It’s sad, but the alcoholics I’m working with tell me that their family couldn’t do anything to save or help them. Many of the counselors on our team are recovering alcoholics, and they too say that their families tried, but couldn’t do much. The only they they could do is be there if and when the alcoholic hits rock bottom and decides that enough is enough.

    AA is founded on the belief that we are powerless over the alcohol, and we need God or a Higher Power to give us the strength to quit drinking. It seems like you’re not doing enough if you “just” pray for your sister…but maybe prayers are more powerful than you think. Prayers, and constantly reminding your sister that you are there for when she needs you to walk alongside her during her recovery.

    • tracy says:

      Hi laurie…I do know that nothing I ever did or said helped my parents to stop drinking. They both came to the decision because of events that happened because of their drinking. I also know that I did pray for both of them for years, and my prayers were answered. I know the power of prayer, I must remember to be patient….and I have to work on my reactions to this disease…at times my reaction/ feelings come from my childhood when I was afraid. Sometimes I just don’t want to “deal” with this disease anymore, its all so familiar and exasperating! I feel less worried today, and I have been praying for just that. Thanks for reminding me…tracy

  10. Margaret says:

    Hi Tracy,
    Believe me, I feel the same pain you feel. To me there is nothing more frustrating then not being able to help someone from destroying themselves. We are very lucky we didn’t inherit the gene that pushes people over the edge. Seeking AA for support is a wonderful thing. Stay focused on your life and family. That is what I am trying to do. Each day, for me, has it’s ups and downs. I try to call my sister and most days she never answers because she’s usually passed out. God is the only answer. The only answer. I’m trying to move on.

  11. tracy says:

    I do need to take care of myself. I have found an Alanon meeting to help me with the sadness I am feeling. I have never felt such intense sadness, and both my parents were alcoholics. I lived the experience your sisters children are living, and so did my sister. 30 years ago we both read the book ” it won’t happen to me ” (we wouldn’t, become alcoholics) and within the last year it has happened to her. I am tired of watching alcohol destroy people I love, but I have learned to hold onto the love I have for them while hating the disease of alcoholism. For me the tragedy of alcoholism is grieving the loss of a loved one while they are still living. I distanced myself from my parents to protect myself, and I got help to work through the anger and resentment I felt. When my parents both chose sobriety I was with them and I thank god for giving me the ability to support them. Last night I had a good cry because I don’ t know if my sister will seek sobriety and I will lose her to the disease. I do know that the love I have always had for her will not be tainted by this disease. I keep praying for her and for me and I thank god it didn’ t happen to me, because it could have…tracy

  12. TA says:

    Thanks for your info on alcoholic siblings. I am struggling with my sisters alcoholism in the following way: I am feeling so afraid for her and I worry about what will happen next, and I feel guilt for not speaking with her…my sister is in total denial and would be offended if I spoke up.

    We are both children of alcoholic parents. I took the recovery path years ago, she didn’t see the need, more denial,unfortunately. I think I’m most afraid of something terrible happening to her and I will carry the burden of not doing anything, not speaking up. Yet I know speaking up will not help her,as she will feel shamed. I have read shame is the root of many addictions, and surely I have struggled with the shame of helplessness with my parents in the past. I don’t know what to do and at the same time I know there is nothing I can do, save get help for myself. I am upset that what I learned with my parents isn’t all that I need.

    Its so different when its your sister and your both adults compared to growing up with alcoholics, as a child you don’t know all of the possible consequences and the tragedies of this disease .

    Any insight or direction you can give is so appreciated…I will get book you spoke of for siblings. Thanks for reading …tracy

    • Margaret says:

      Hi Tracy,
      I have commented on this site because I have a beloved sister who has put her drinking above the rest of her life. Family spit up, children leaving (staying with friends) and husband clinging on for dear life to keep the business going and hold onto the house. I am no longer going to suffer. I have said “Good bye” to HER. I told her I loved her and that if she drinks herself to death I want to know that I said “goodbye” She didn’t react. You have to get on with your life and not get dragged into this addiction. I’ve come to the realization that this is what she wants, if she decides she’s had enough booze she’ll stop, if not, she’ll die (she’s been hospitalized 3 times with a .32 reading), she had accidentally taken two doses of her blood pressure meds as well as Xanax. She didn’t do it on purpose, she just didn’t remember because she was drunk. Her husband said the only thing left is that she would get stopped for a DUI and put in jail, AND hopefully not because she created an accident where someone else is injured. Basically, our family has learned that with my sister there is nothing we can do to help the addict. It hurts so much, but I refuse to get sucked into her decline. I have let her family know that I will be there for them if they need anything. And, of course, I pray for her everyday and I ask God to take this burden. I makes it so much easier.
      Take care of yourself.

  13. Laurie says:

    Dear Margaret,

    Thank you for being here, and sharing your thoughts. It sounds like your sister is really struggling with her drinking, and she’s affecting you and her husband in serious, negative ways. It must be frustrating, disappointing, and sad to see her this way.

    Your thoughts inspired me to write an article about alcoholism:


    I hope it helps, and welcome your thoughts. I will keep you and your sister in my thoughts and prayers.


  14. Margaret says:

    My sister refuses to go to Alanon meetings and drinks herself into unconsciousness. I had her stay with me for 5 days and she went berserk everyday -and after the first two days of the shakes. She complained that she needed to get back to work. She cried and acted like she was dry-heaving. I now know she was wanting booze. I took her to 2 Alanon meetings, but it was a waste of time. I’ve already told her “goodbye”. Her husband has hung in there but after 5 years of this he’s wearing out. I’ve backed away. I am struggling with the notion this is a “disease”. To me it’s a mental illness and lack of character. Sorry, I guess I just don’t understand obsessions.
    I wish everyone well

  15. Laurie says:

    Thanks Roxanne – I added your suggestion for finding an Al-Anon group to my article, because it is a great way to help an alcoholic sister or brother.

  16. Roxanne says:

    Try to find an Alanon group in your area. You will learn so much about how to deal with an alcoholic. There are Alanon groups in every state, and most cities. :-)

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