Dealing With an Estranged Sibling in Constructive Ways

Published March 16, 2021
Siblings having a conversation

Having an estranged sibling may bring up an array of complex emotional responses within you. Whether you want to work on reconnecting with your estranged sibling, or are hoping to begin processing this experience, there are healthy ways you can go about doing so.

Estranged Sibling

Being estranged from your sibling, even if your relationship was unhealthy, can bring up intense and possibly painful feelings. Knowing your options when it comes to processing the experience of being estranged from your sibling and having the tools to assist you in potentially reconciling with them can help you feel empowered to make the healthiest decision for yourself.

What Is Sibling Estrangement?

Sibling estrangement takes place when one or multiple siblings choose to completely disconnect from each other. This is also known as cut off. This means:

  • Zero contact- no calls, no emails, no texting, no letters
  • You may find out about their major life events via social media, a mutual friend, or other family member who is still in contact with them
  • You may or may not know the reason for the estrangement

What Causes Sibling Estrangement?

Sibling estrangement may be caused by:

  • Non-compatible personalities
  • One or multiple siblings holding grudges and not resolving conflict in healthy ways
  • Competition fueled by a parent/caregiver or parents/caregivers
  • Childhood trauma/attachment issues within the family of origin
  • Child favoritism in the family of origin that pushes siblings apart
  • Divorce, family separation

How Common Is It for Siblings to Be Estranged?

While there isn't a ton of research on the total amount of individuals estranged from their siblings, it is estimated to be around 8%. In other words, it is not super common to be estranged from your sibling, but keep in mind many others have strained and hostile relationships with their siblings, but are not totally estranged from each other.

two men having serious conversation

What Is a Toxic Sibling?

A relationship with a toxic family member can completely drain you, and may be unsafe for you emotionally and/or physically. Examples of toxic sibling behavior:

  • Manipulative, takes advantage of you
  • Has made you and/or your loved ones feel emotionally and/or physically unsafe
  • You feel emotionally depleted after spending time with them despite maintaining appropriate boundaries
  • Your relationship feels unbalanced with them always taking
  • They violate your trust and boundaries often
  • You often feel used by them
  • They incite chaos

How to Cope With Sibling Estrangement

Whether you decide to attempt reconciliation with them down the line or not, there are healthy ways you can begin to process your experience with your estranged sibling.

  • Speak with a therapist who specializes in family estrangement.
  • Connect in a support group with siblings experiencing similar estrangement related issues.
  • Journal about your experience with sibling estrangement to help release some of the associated thoughts and emotions (may focus on grief related feelings, the timeline of the estrangement, and/or free journal about your thoughts).
  • Try to understand the circumstances surrounding the estrangement from an objective and non-emotional perspective.
  • Delve into your family of origin's relationship history. (What did closeness look like in your family? Were siblings encouraged to connect? How was conflict handled?) This may help provide some insight into your own behavior and thought process, as well as your sibling's.
  • Consider if estrangement is the healthiest solution. If you initiated zero contact, was it to protect your emotional and/or physical safety, or was it a quick reaction to an argument or situation?
  • Connect with a trustworthy friend who can share your feelings and thoughts with regarding the situation.
  • Allow yourself to grieve this loss. Even if you were the one who initiated zero contact, you may still experience grief related feelings regarding the loss of your relationship and/or longing for what you wished your relationship with a sibling in general looked like.

Keep in mind that it may not be possible to reconcile with your sibling. You only have control over your own behavior and decisions, and your sibling may not feel ready to reconnect, or may not want to reconnect whatsoever. This can be an incredibly painful aspect of sibling estrangement, especially when one sibling wants to work on the relationship, but the other sibling does not. If your sibling does not want to reconnect with you, be sure to seek out appropriate support to help you process this loss.

How to Reconnect With Estranged Sibling

If you would like to reconnect with your sibling:

  • Reach out to your sibling and ask if they are comfortable speaking with you.
  • If not, respect their decision and ask if it's okay to check in at a later date (be sure to give a date).
  • If they ask you if you'd like to reconnect, take your time deciding whether this is the healthiest choice for you.
  • If you do decide to speak with each other, be sure you share your thoughts in a calm, courteous way; remember, it's important to understand your sibling's perspective as well.
  • Discuss what your goals of the conversation are and avoid diving into the nitty-gritty details of the estrangement, at least during this initial conversation.
  • Use "I" statements and avoid blaming. Focus on what you both want as your ultimate relationship goal with each other.
  • Check in with yourself during the conversation. Notice if you feel any tension in your body or feel any strong emotional responses. If so, take a few deep breaths.
  • If you feel too overwhelmed or notice your sibling becoming flustered or angry, suggest taking a short break and reconnecting after cooling off.
  • If one or both of you feels uncomfortable and wants to reconnect at another time, be sure to pick a date to check in with each other.

Healthy Ways to Process Sibling Estrangement

Sibling estrangement is a complex experience that will vary depending on the sibling group. Whether you opt to reconnect with your sibling or not, be sure you find healthy ways to process what you are going through.

Dealing With an Estranged Sibling in Constructive Ways