Why Your Sibling Could Actually Be Toxic, and How To Help Them

As with friends and partners, sibling relationships can become toxic. When this happens to you, it's important to take precautions and protect yourself.

Over eight in 10 children in the U.S. grow up with a sibling, which is more than the number of kids living with a father. Children spend more out-of-school time with their siblings than with anyone else, including parents and friends.

For this reason, sibling relationships can influence children's lives just as much as parenting. Studies have found that they impact a surprisingly broad spectrum of the human psyche. For example, younger siblings teach empathy to their older brothers and sisters, while other studies have linked sibling bullying to depression, anxiety, and self-harm.

Although you can't choose your siblings, you can choose whether they get to be part of your life. If you have noticed patterns of toxicity, it may be time to re-assess your relationship and role in each other's lives.

Newsweek spoke to psychology experts to understand when a relationship between siblings can be considered toxic, and how to address the issue without causing damage to the whole family.

How to deal with your toxic sibling
A stock image shows two siblings having an unpleasant encounter. Experts told Newsweek when a sibling can be labeled toxic and how to deal with them. Getty Images

How To Tell If You Have A Toxic Sibling

Yasmine Saad, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder/CEO of Madison Park Psychological Services, told Newsweek that most people think of a sibling as toxic when their attitude and behavior are regularly having a negative impact on their life. This can be when a sibling is jealous and acts in a detrimental way towards you, or when they are demeaning, put you down, or destroy your mood and/or property.

For a sibling to be labeled "toxic" there needs to be a regular pattern of negative, detrimental behaviors, which in most cases will leave you exhausted after interacting with them, and not just an occasional thing or a one-off.

1. Unhealthy Competitiveness

Chloe Carmichael, a clinical psychologist and the author of Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety, told Newsweek there are three main ways that toxicity can happen in sibling relationships, and one is unhealthy competitiveness.

This competitiveness rises from a sibling rivalry that just never settled down. It can be direct—for example, your sibling may boast that they make more money than you or they have a better job. In adulthood, it can also manifest through children, subtly and constantly comparing your children to each other. But the most alarming example is if they try to win that competition by insulting or belittling you, your children, or your job.

2. They're Taking Advantage Of You

The second category of toxic siblings are ones who take advantage of the family's desire to care and be there for each other.

You may have a toxic sibling that has issues with drugs, alcohol, or just general neediness and they exploit the fact that siblings often feel a family obligation to stick together and be there for each other during hard times. While it's good to be there for your family, this behavior can become toxic, if your siblings start exploiting you.

Maybe they ask you for a few hundred bucks to get to the end of the month, but then you notice they're going out for tacos and margaritas every night, or, they're buying a new car or new clothes, and you feel like they're, again, just exploiting what you're giving to them, and they sometimes to this by trying to guilt trip you into it.

3. They're Trying To Control The Narrative

The third category is family triangulation. This is where your toxic sibling is always trying to control the family narrative in certain ways, or be closer to mom and dad and make you feel excluded.

In this case they also usually talk badly about you to your parents, telling them you are doing something wrong. Again there can be guilt-tripping about, like using the fact they're taking more care of your parents than you are in order to feed their sinister desires to manipulate parents over inheritance and material things.

How To Deal With A Toxic Sibling

According to Saad, one way to stop this toxicity is by focusing on the best communication tips or techniques to stop your sibling. However, the first step is to understand how your sibling's behavior is affecting you. "It is all about understanding how you receive your sibling's toxicity."

Letting go of a sibling is neither easy nor practical, so in most cases, according to Carmichael, you absolutely want to do everything you could to fix your relationship. And even if you end up blanking them, you will feel much better knowing that you tried everything you could.

"You'll be more peaceful with that decision, knowing that you really did try every possible thing, that you didn't in any way, just lightly or casually stop having your sibling in your life," she said.

1. Offer To Help Them To Get Some Help

If your toxic sibling is category number two, always guilt-tripping you into giving them money, you can point out you've been happy to help but won't be able to do so anymore. In exchange, you can offer them something practical, like helping them get a financial consultant or a therapist who can professionally guide them through their decisions, taking the burden off you.

At this time your toxic sibling may get angry or insult you because they're no longer getting their way. If this is the case, it gives you confirmation that you did the right thing, because it shows you that person is not really coming at this relationship from a place of mutual respect, but it is just using you for their personal gain.

2. Stand Your Ground

Dealing with a toxic sibling is not easy, they usually put you down and manipulate you with the excuse that they're "doing it for you," but if you're not comfortable with their behavior, you should address this sooner rather than later, and stand your ground when doing so.

According to Carmichael, you could start by saying that you appreciate that they're coming from a loving standpoint, but you're really not finding it helpful, and want it to stop, saying you're not open to that type of commentary about yourself or your children.

"You have to hold your boundary, but I do think it's important, at least to try to preserve the relationship. So be clear and firm about what your boundaries are, and hold your ground but be polite about it, don't just go off on them," she said.

3. Shift Your Mindset

Saad says that just labeling someone toxic and distancing without trying to solve the issues first will lead you to a fight-or-flight response. Instead, she suggests shifting your mindset and asking yourself "what am I to learn from this about myself and how I can better protect myself from the negativity of others" in order to find growth and truly feel empowered.

4. Try To Understand Where They're Coming From

Before deciding to cut contacts, you should also first try to understand where your sibling's toxicity is coming from. According to Saad, most often toxicity comes from envy and not feeling connected to one 's self-worth and putting you on a higher pedestal but not acknowledging, only attempting to take you down.

"This understanding can help you focus on what your sibling needs and help them get there indirectly. For example, a sibling might need help boosting their self-esteem, socialization skills, managing their moods, etc..." she said.

Sometimes your sibling can also be "inadvertently toxic," meaning that they are so preoccupied with their own negative inner state that they engulf you in it for help and you end up drained, exhausted, and in a bad emotional place. "Being ok with only helping them a little bit or not at all is what is needed for them to not affect you negatively," said Saad.