How to Know If You Have a Toxic Relationship With Your Sibling


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In a perfect world, a sibling is a best friend and an ally. In the real world, sibling relationships can be incredibly complicated—and although there will always be the less-than-perfect parts, there can come a point when the flaws rise to the level of being considered toxic.

One sign that a sibling relationship is toxic is if “every time you walk away from an interaction with them, you end up feeling disempowered,” said Imi Lo, a psychotherapist, mental health consultant, and author of the book Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity: How to Manage Intense Emotions as a Highly Sensitive Person. “It’s not always obvious.”

Toxic sibling relationships are often very polarized 

As Lo wrote in a Psychology Today article from last year, toxic sibling relationships often fall into one of three dynamics: the golden child and the black sheep, the mature adult and the eternal child, or the bully and the silenced child. No matter which role you find yourself in, the end result isn’t healthy.

Being a golden child comes with the constant fear of failure or rejection, and being the black sheep comes with the burden of never being quite good enough. Always being the mature one means growing up way too early, while always being seen as a child means losing out on the opportunity for growth. “A lot of times what underlies a toxic relationship is polarization,” Lo said.

These dynamics often start during childhood, usually as a result of what is going on at home. “These [relationships] are not necessarily the child’s fault, but [are because of] the way that the parent has set up the relationship,” Lo said. These types of relationship aren’t necessarily problematic, but if they continue into adulthood, at a level that causes an excess amount of stress, then they can become toxic. “Becoming aware of [these dynamics] and the roots of it are important,” Lo said. “The work is for the children who are adults now, for becoming aware of how this is set up.”

Signs that a relationship is toxic 

Relationships are complicated, and there will always be some amount of misunderstanding, especially when it comes to family. However, some signs that a sibling relationship is toxic include a general pattern of feeling stressed or uncomfortable around a sibling. This could include a pattern of constantly undermining or challenging your decisions, talking down to you, or a general refusal to move on from the relationship dynamic that was established during childhood.

“Some degree of challenging you can be healthy,” Lo said. However, if this happens to a degree that you feel constantly dismissed or belittled, that’s an indicator of a toxic sibling relationship. Another red flag is if you don’t feel safe being vulnerable with them.

Boundaries are essential in a sibling relationship

When it comes to dealing with a sibling relationship that is less than ideal, it’s important to establish healthy boundaries. What that looks like will depend on your particular situation. If a sibling is ready and willing to work on what happened in the past, and shows a willingness to move on from a toxic dynamic that was established during childhood, there is the possibility of creating a new, healthier relationship. “That can be very healing,” Lo said.

If that is not the case, growth will require a different sort of journey, one that requires assessing whether the relationship is repairable or not, and what sort of boundaries are required. In these situations, therapy can helpful, preferably with a therapist who has experience dealing with toxic family situations. It can also help to write about what you are feeling, or to practice talking out loud about what you feel. “Sometimes the reality won’t change, but you can confront your feelings,” Lo said.



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