My sister is drinking too much!

Originally Published: May 21, 2004 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: April 25, 2008
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Dear Alice,

Help! My sister is a first year college student and never drank in high school. Now that she's away from my parents, she's using her freedom to drink heavily at parties and take rides home with guys she doesn't know. I'm very concerned, but she always regards my concerns as interference. Everything I say, even a simple question about her day, is taken the wrong way. She asks if she has to tell me where she's going and when she'll be back. I don't agree with her drinking, but the main issue is that I want her to be more careful. I offered to pick her up after parties and she just laughed and said, "Like you'd be up then." I told her that I was, but it also didn't matter what time it was, I'd come get her. One more thing, she doesn't know that I know she's drinking. I have several reliable sources that are telling me. How do I approach her without threatening her and our relationship, and without using the tactic that I'll tell Mom!

Very Concerned

Dear Very Concerned,

Sounds like a challenging situation. No doubt, sibling relationships can be tricky and stressful. First, take a second to breathe.

Your sister is experiencing one of life's big transitions — moving away from home, perhaps for the first time, to go to college. She has the chance to make her own decisions now. People adjust to these kinds of life changes in all sorts of ways, and your sister seems to be making some risky choices. Her excessive drinking impairs her judgment and affects her behavior. By getting into cars with guys she doesn't know, who may have been drinking, she places herself at further risk for sexual assault, a car crash, injury, or death. She may think that these possibilities seem melodramatic, but they are all realistic.

Since your previous attempts to talk with your sister made her defensive, you might be wondering if other strategies might be more effective. In thinking about your questions, it's not clear if you've talked with her about alcohol. What about striking up a conversation about drinking? You might consider focusing the conversation not necessarily about whether or not she's drinking alcohol at parties, or drinking too much, but rather about the social scene. What about a chat about drinking culture at parties in general, along with flirting, dancing, safer clubbing, etc.? You could start by saying, "So, what was the scene like at the party last night?" or, "Did you have fun?" or, "Were there any hot people there?" If the conversation becomes fairly comfortable, you can talk about some of the risks associated with certain decisions.

Or, maybe the messages you want to get across to your sister would be better received from someone else. You mention "reliable sources." Perhaps these are friends who could talk with her. Maybe she has a roommate or a resident advisor (RA) who could talk with her. Being a responsible friend, or in your case, sibling, sometimes means involving people who can most effectively help — in your sister's situation, it may be her RA, a dean, or someone from the college counseling center. Maybe your parents need to know; perhaps they would be best at connecting with her. Clueing your parents in on what is happening with her is not being a tattletale; it's being responsible, caring, and compassionate. It's understandable that you're worried about upsetting her, and it is okay to upset her by calling out the troops when her safety is at risk.

In the meantime, have you tried strategies like giving your sister money for cab fare? That way, she has another option to get home if she needs to, and you have let her know again that she may need to take advantage of her safety net.

You may also want to work with a professional, like a counselor or health educator. These people can help you practice what you want to say before talking with your sister, as well as provide you with support regardless of her reaction – it's important to take care of yourself, too! If you are at Columbia, you can make an appointment with Counseling and Psychological Services by calling x4-2878. Your sister may not respond right away, or at all, but you will have done what you can. While you can't control her decisions and behaviors, you can control your own. Remember to tell her that you love her, care about her, and also that you wish that she valued herself as much as you value her.