My sister has a shopping addiction – please help!

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Stanton Peele Response by: Dr. Stanton Peele
Posted on April 4th, 2011 - Last updated: October 11th, 2019
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My sister has a shopping addiction. She is 26, she lives at home, she works 30 hours a week at my parents dance studio.

Her shopping addiction has escalated exponentially in the past two years. She has gone from maxing out her own credit cards and writing bad checks to embezzling from the family business (over $25,000), stealing cash, and forging checks (over $10,000).

With my limited knowledge of shopping addictions, I have been shocked at her level of desperation and her powers of deception. This mother’s day she snuck in when everyone was at church, picked the locks on my parent’s file cabinet, and stole more checks from my father. She left, then came back for dinner, smiling and chatting without the slightest hint of guilt.

I’m sure you can tell from how much she’s been able to steal that my parents are classic enablers.

They are terrified of her going to jail, so they continue to bail her out financially and cover up for her. She is a key part of the family business, so they haven’t fired her, though being in that environment is bad for her. They pay for her car and cell phone. They are constantly depressed and angry, but refuse to act. When they confront her (which is a weekly occurrence) she cries and threatens to commit suicide and they back off. They feel like they can’t fire her, because the business would fail. They believe they can’t kick her out, because she would literally be on the street.

When she stole checks from my eighteen year old brother, who also lives at home, they pressured him into not pressing charges, though he did begin the process.

I have tried to reason with (beg, plead, shake) my parents, but (although I am a 30 year old woman, married with three children of my own) they see me as a child and tell me it is none of my business.

My questions are:

Have you ever heard of a shopping addiction this severe? Is it more probable that she is hiding a drug addiction? (She does seem to bring home enough merchandise to fit the expenditures–is she returning them?).

Should I stay out of it? I hate to see my parents so unhappy, and I fear that if she is involved with something more serious, she could be putting them in danger.

Should we/can we hold an intervention for my parents? How? What is the most effective way?

I know I have a lot of questions. Thank you for any help you can give me.


Dear Suzanne:

Sure, it’s possible the shopping addiction itself is this bad. What you see may well be what there is. A quick psychodiagnosis seems to be that you sister has nothing else emotionally gratifying in her life.

I can’t tell you to intervene or to stay out of it – but I can say that when two parties are participating in something, for an outside party to intervene is highly risky – they can both turn on you. In fact, you already say that your parents rejected your inputs in this matter – indicating that you already have your answer. Some could say that they have reached a strange accommodation (in what you believe is a sick way).

If you want to continue to try to help, you need first to gain your parents’ trust and confidence sufficiently that they agree with you to take steps – to do so you have to address this sentence – “She is a key part of the family business, so they haven’t fired her, though being in that environment is bad for her.” How do you deal with her key role in the business while allowing your parents the freedom to move her out, temporarily or fully, or whatever it takes to break the cycle between them?

As for an intervention, as you point out, it would have to involve your parents. Generally, the people closest to an addict create interventions for the addicted individual. I don’t recall anyone ever suggesting performing an intervention on the “enablers” in an addiction situation. But that’s the problem – people might say, you’ve tried to talk to them, they disagree with you, why do you have the right to force them to take your perspective? And, if they refuse to accept the intervention – what then? Do you send them to a codependence treatment center?


Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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