14 Signs You Might Have A Toxic Sibling

Their behavior goes beyond just playful jokes and teasing.

by Carina Wolff and Kaitlyn Wylde
Originally Published: 
Shiv and Roman's relationship in 'Succession' is an example of toxic sibling behavior
Peter Kramer/HBO

Being tight with a sibling can be a huge blessing — they’re like a built-in friend for life. But if you have a toxic relationship with your siblings, you might feel like you’re stuck with a frenemy. Just because someone is related to you doesn't automatically make them a positive part of your life. Everyone wants a good relationship with their family, but if you feel like crap after every interaction, you might want to look out for some signs you have toxic siblings. Chances are, if your browser history includes a toxic sibling quiz, or you’re often asking yourself, “Are these signs my sister is jealous of me?” or “Is my brother disappointed in me?” the relationship you have with your sibs needs some attention.

"The things that make a sibling toxic are the same things that make a friend toxic — only with a sibling, it's even harder to separate yourself from the drama," says therapist Jill Whitney, LMFT. "Toxic people consistently make you feel worse about yourself in an unhealthy way. Some siblings might give honest, kind feedback that kind of stings or might make you feel bad in comparison because they've made different choices that have worked well​ for them. Those are not toxic situations. They're just uncomfortable information that you might learn from."

According to Liz Higgins, LMFT-S, founder of Millennial Life Counseling, there are three things that puts a behavior in the realm of toxic: It’s consistent, ongoing, and intrusive. “Identifying toxicity in sibling relationships may feel difficult, especially if there is a historical nature to the unhealthy or abusive dynamics,” she tells Bustle. “People can sometimes grow up in abusive or less than ideal family dynamics but go their whole life feeling it was ‘normal’ and living in acceptance of it because, as children, you don't know any differently.” It’s worth noting that toxic behavior isn’t necessarily abusive, but it is manipulative and can be draining to be around.

Brothers and sisters can cause as much strife in your life as friends or coworkers, and sometimes it can be hard to take a step back because of your familial obligations. Everyone has to find the right way to deal with their unhealthy family relationships, but the first step is identifying that your sibling is causing harm to your life. Here are 14 signs that your sibling is toxic.


They're Manipulative

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It’s not always easy to see the signs someone might be manipulating you. According to Whitney, you can look at the kinds of positions your sibling puts you in and how they make you feel. "A toxic sibling might borrow money to resolve crisis after crisis and make you feel bad if you say no,” she says. "Sometimes, these people have an addiction. They may constantly need money for food or rent because they've spent their money on something else, and you wouldn't be so mean and selfish that you won't help them out in their time of need, would you? It's hard not to help, even when your gut is telling you that more help is really enabling."


They're Overly Critical

Constructive criticism coming from a place of love is one thing, but a sign your sister is jealous of you could be that she intentionally makes you feel bad about yourself, instead of dealing with her own feelings. "[It’s toxic] when your sibling is highly judgmental and overly critical of you," says family counselor Christene Lozano, LMFT. "You may often feel as though you can't do anything right because your sibling will nitpick and find 'flaws' in you."

It’s important to let your sibling know when their words start to sting, and create boundaries for yourself when necessary. If you didn’t ask for advice, you don’t have to take it just because it’s coming from a family member.


They Blame Others

With toxic siblings, your brother or sister is never wrong. If you notice your sibling blames others for their own mistakes or faults, is constantly deflecting, and lacks the self-awareness necessary to take responsibility for their own actions, Lozano says there are major red flags. "They often have the mentality that nothing is their fault, and everyone else is wrong," she adds.


They Never Show Remorse

A toxic sibling never apologizes, no matter what they did or how much it hurt you. "When your sibling doesn't express remorse, it ties into the previous sign of blaming others," says Lozano, adding that they genuinely don’t feel “at fault,” and so “there is nothing to apologize for."

A healthy relationship with a sibling, according to family therapist Dawn Friedman, LCSW, comes with an “open line of communication,” meaning that if you tell your sibling that they hurt your feelings, “they should be receptive to that, and be willing to meet your needs [for an apology].”


You're Always Exhausted Around Them

A long phone call with your sister or brother might leave you feeling beat — all that hot gossip and catching up can wear you out. But if every time you talk to your sibling, you’re left feeling like they took something away from you, be it your energy, your good mood, or your confidence, that’s a pretty good indicator that they’re toxic.

Lozano says to watch out for signs of exhaustion after interacting with your siblings. "Due to their unhealthy behaviors, it is natural to feel depleted of energy when engaging with your sibling."


They Betray Your Confidence

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Your siblings likely know a lot more about you than the average person, but that doesn't mean they have the right to share it. In a healthy sibling relationship, secrets are not for sale. With toxic siblings, “secrets are weaponized” and used to “keep you on your toes,” Friedman says.

"If your sibling often tells other people private things about you, you can't trust them," says Whitney. And while you might be inclined to dole out second and third chances, this behavior is evidence that the relationship is lacking loyalty. If this is the case, Whitney says to "give them as little personal information as possible."


They Actively Undermine Your Relationships

If your relationships are often tarnished once you bring your sibling around, this likely isn't a coincidence. "Out of jealousy or competitiveness, some siblings go out of their way to damage your connections," says Whitney. "They might tell your new boyfriend about the time you cheated on your boyfriend back in middle school. They might tell your mom the mean thing you said about her when you were frustrated. Or they might tell your old friend how much time you've been spending with another friend. This kind of interference is destructive and mean-spirited."


They Ignore Or Ostracize You

Sometimes, the toxicity of your sibling is a bit more subtle. So subtle, they might not be paying much attention to you at all. "[Toxic siblings] don't deign to consider your opinions, or they treat you as if you have nothing of value to offer," says therapist Holly Brown, MFT. "In some ways, this can be even more painful than being criticized directly, because it's about a refusal to recognize your worth. That can contribute to low self-esteem and self-hatred.”

They might go as far as never addressing anything directly with you. “If there’s an issue or a conflict, they talk to another sibling, your mutual friends, or your parents about what’s bothering them, but they won’t talk with you directly,” says family therapist Anita Chlipala, LMFT. “Involving others prevents your relationship from growing and can keep people stuck in the same patterns.”


They Don’t Allow You To Grow Up

It might seem innocent to be “babied” by your siblings as an adult — especially if you’re the baby of the family — but according to Friedman, healthy sibling dynamics need to evolve. “As we reach adulthood and meet new milestones like partnering up, having kids, changing jobs, non-toxic siblings will adjust and compromise — even if it isn’t easy.”

In toxic relationships, Friedman says, “siblings don’t allow each other to grow; you’re always the spoiled baby of the family or the know-it-all eldest.” This behavior can be hurtful and also limiting, as it doesn’t allow siblings to “be friends” in the way they can be as they age.


They Tease You Just A Little Too Hard

Just because you’re siblings doesn’t mean you have to weather each other’s worst insults in the name of “comedy,” Friedman says. “If a sibling is constantly telling you that you’re too sensitive, or that you can’t take a joke, they’re not validating your feelings, and that’s an issue.” While a little bit of silliness can be healthy between siblings, if you’re feeling hurt by the “jokes,” it’s a sign your sibling is undervaluing your emotions. “It’s not OK for people to treat us lousy just because we’re related to them,” Friedman adds.


You Change The Way You Act Around Them

Unless you’re super close with your sibling, you probably only show them a certain tailored side of you. Who you are with them might not be the exact person you are with your BFF or when you’re alone, and that’s OK. But that’s completely different than if you’re constantly adjusting every decision, behavior, and emotion around them. “This is a form of learned relational defense,” Higgins explains. “Often to protect you by seeking control over outcome. When we learn to adjust ourselves around someone else's intrusive ways, it begins a pattern of needing external validation to be OK. You begin to need others' approval and feel more responsible for others' feelings and choices because you're overworking to avoid conflict or a negative response.”

If you feel like you lose yourself to cater to them or protect yourself from them, you might be dealing with a toxic sister or brother.


They Prey On Your Weaknesses

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Toxic siblings will do anything they can to take advantage of you. “For instance,” offers Chlipala, “if they know you’re a people pleaser who has a hard time saying no, they will keep badgering you until you finally cave. They might even tell other family members about your weaknesses so that they can take advantage of you, too.” They know you won’t stick up for yourself and will guilt-trip you into getting what they want.


They Demand You Act A Certain Way

“I've had clients who have had intrusive and abusive parents and whose siblings have learned to ‘carry the torch forward,’ so to speak, in demanding that the client continue to do certain things,” says Higgins. The whole toxic dynamic is continued on, and the sibling will try to enforce certain “rules” or expectations of you. “For example,” offers Higgins, “feeling obligation to pay for things for your sibling because they're younger or feeling that you're supposed to minimize your success in life so as to not hurt your siblings feelings about themselves.”


They’re Hypocritical

You can do no right, while they can do no wrong. “Rules don’t apply to them,” says Chlipala. “Where they hold you accountable, they give themselves a free pass.” There’s always an excuse or a reason why your situations are different or why they’re not in the wrong — even if you both took the same action or made the same mistake. “They minimize your feelings but give themselves the space to process theirs, or expect you to show empathy for what they’re going through but don’t acknowledge your feelings,” Chlipala tells Bustle.

Whether you want to address the relationship together in family therapy or alone with a personal therapist, there are ways to heal and move forward.


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Jill Whitney, LMFT

Christene Lozano, LMFT

Dawn Friedman, LCSW

Liz Higgins, LMFT-S and founder of Millennial Life Counseling

Anita Chlipala, LMFT, author of First Comes Us: The Busy Couple’s Guide to Lasting Love

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