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Family Dynamics

When One Sibling Knows They Had a Toxic Parent, but Others Say They Didn't

A closer look at family dysfunction.

 Annie Spratt/Unsplash
Source: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

"How is it possible that my older sister’s view of our mother is utterly different from mine? She is Mom’s staunchest defender and advocate. Heaven forbid I say anything negative about her, or I absolutely get attacked. She says it’s all in my head. Is it?” —Leslie, 44

"The party line is that Dad is a great guy and that his way of talking — laced with contempt and put-downs — is just the way he is and that it’s my problem that I’m too sensitive and that I need to man up. Mind you, I am the oldest of three sons and my father’s namesake to boot, and his criticism of me is never-ending and withering, despite the fact that I am the most successful male in the family by far. He’s not nearly as tough on my brothers, but I wouldn’t call his treatment of them much better. It’s created a terrific rift between us because I’m not taking the old man’s garbage any longer.” —Ted, 41

Of all the questions I field from unloved daughters and the occasional unloved son, among the most poignant are those that focus on the fractiousness of sibling relationships when a toxic parent is at the helm, especially an unloving mother; some of these relationships are contentious in childhood, but many are simply distant and detached until adulthood. Mothers who are controlling, combative, hypercritical, or high in narcissistic traits usually orchestrate relationships among and between siblings, especially if they play favorites and engage in scapegoating, as many do. When a mother is center-stage in this way, and her children are reduced to orbiting planets, self-interest can easily trump whatever comfort or camaraderie could possibly be derived from sibling ties. The children who are trying to stay in a mother’s good graces or, alternatively, under her radar, may tattle on sisters and brothers as a matter of course, as well as engage in blame-shifting and scapegoating. The following story is fairly typical:

"Our mother was a puppeteer, and the three of us all had specified roles to play. I was the troublemaker, my younger sister the baby, and my brother was the Boy Wonder. Mom always needed someone to blame when anything went wrong, and that someone was always me, even if my brother was actually responsible. I was dumbfounded when I got married and saw that my husband was actually close to his brother and sister. I actively dislike both of mine and have as little to do with them as possible." —Jill, 51

Under healthy circumstances, sibling relationships run the gamut from close to detached, but other patterns emerge in the dysfunctional family where every child tries to cope, if maladaptively, with circumstances that are far from ideal.

Differential treatment, personality, and defenses

Playing favorites happens in almost every family — Parental Differential Treatment is so common that it even has an acronym, PDT, for ease of reference in research — but when it’s part of a dysfunctional family, the damage tends to be long-lasting, especially since the favored child or children are likely to have a very different vision of their mother than the child who’s been picked on, marginalized, or ignored. Even if the home is chaotic, and there’s a fair amount of yelling, each child will prioritize — focusing on either staying out of the line of fire or holding on to a favored spot, no matter what. (In households where the abuse is meted out to every child, sibling relationships can become extremely close or, as psychologists have it, closely identified. These connections are called “Hansel and Gretel” pairs after the fairy tale popularized by the Grimm Brothers. This article is not about that.)

All children tend to normalize their experiences, believing that what goes on at their house goes on everywhere, until the pivotal moment at which some adult children begin to recognize toxic behaviors or, more likely, begin to see their own inability to thrive in the world. It can happen in therapy, often sought not because of childhood experiences, but because of problems in adult life, such as a series of failed relationships, a pattern of choosing partners who are emotionally unavailable, and the like. It can happen because the adult child is exposed to other families which throw the peculiarities and dysfunction of her family of origin into high relief; it might be an empathic sister-in-law or a mother-in-law who is genuinely pleased to have the daughter she never had who will spark recognition. (Yes, cultural tropes to the contrary, this happens. Readers have written to me about it.) Sometimes, a significant other — a close friend, lover, or intimate — will point out how damaging her mother’s treatment is.

Yet not every child in the family will necessarily have that moment of epiphany, in part because there are many forces stacked up against the recognition itself. There’s the tendency to normalize, which is intertwined with the need to belong to your family and, of course, to be on the receiving end of your mother’s love. There are maladaptive coping methods, such as dissociating from the emotional racket so that you can go along to get along, and blaming yourself for your mother’s treatment of you.

A number of studies have shown that there’s a significant difference between a survivor’s labeling an act or acts as abusive and researchers’ definitions of abuse. For example, in a large sample of 11,660 college students conducted in 1994, only 26 percent of those who had experienced severe physical punishment or mistreatment — some of it even requiring medical attention! — were likely to label it as physical abuse. How can a person experience abuse, especially at the hands of a parent, and be so loathe to call it out for what it is?

That’s what researchers Rachel E. Goldsmith and Jennifer Freyd explored, looking at whether people who had been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused had trouble identifying their feelings; not surprisingly, they did. But additionally, they found that those who’d been emotionally abused — by the researchers’ definition — weren’t likely to call their treatment abuse. What could explain that? The researchers point to the fact that since children are essentially trapped in their childhood homes, they develop ways of dealing with an abusive environment. These strategies include denial and dissociation; keeping threatening information out of consciousness does make coping with the day-to-day stress easier, but it also prevents recognition years later. But their insight into why children are more likely to attribute their treatment to their “badness” is even more valuable; self-blame, they write, “inhibits the thought that a caretaker can’t be trusted and may help to create an illusion of self-control.” Again, what’s more scary than realizing you’re unsafe with the very person entrusted to take care of you?

The researchers’ second study, this one conducted with Anne DePrince, used two intervals, several years apart, to ask participants about identifying abuse; interestingly, they found that those who did label childhood experiences as abusive at the first interval showed more psychological stress at the second than those who didn’t. Why would psychological stress increase over time with admission, the researchers wondered? Their surmises yield more insight into why denial (and self-blame) are unconscious efforts at self-protection.

The researchers point to the fact that, at the first interval, the subjects were college freshmen, just recently out of their abusive home environments, and hadn’t yet had time to make sense of their childhood experiences. That said, it’s also possible that asking them the question — were you abused? — acted as an intervention, prompting the first step of recognition and thus inducing psychological stress. They note, too, that even therapists tend to focus on symptoms, such as anxiety or depression, without tracing these symptoms back to their roots.

There are thus many factors at play which begin to explain why siblings living under the same roof with the same parents may emerge into adulthood with such irreconcilable views of their parents. There’s no question that how a child adapts to his or her circumstances, what strategies to cope are adapted, as well as his or her personality are also part of the mix.

Take the example of two brothers, a scant 15 months apart, with their stay-at-home mother and their successful-but-binge-drinking father. Their father didn’t drink at home; he simply disappeared, leaving his wife and children to wonder and worry. The two boys dealt with these circumstances differently, despite their proximity in age; even though they were only one class in part, it was the older brother whom the younger looked up to as a guide and continued to through adulthood. But it was the older brother who took his father on, and the younger one who dissociated, telling stories of an idyllic childhood and only commenting on the painful of aspects of his upbringing when pressed. Their visions of childhood are markedly different. How close are they? It depends on which brother you ask.

Drama and adult sibling warfare

Physical distance and deliberate low-contact can keep sibling relationships on a simmer or low-boil for years, until one unloved adult child makes a move to redefine her relationship to her mother either by direct accusation, challenge, and the establishment of rules or boundaries, or by going no contact. In those families where the mother has orchestrated sibling relationships, this perceived threat to her power and control will usually involve retaliation on the adult who is challenging the status quo, and, often, the other adult children in the family are required to pledge their loyalty and fealty to one side and one side only. Usually, allegiance is to Team Mom at her insistence. Again, the defense mechanisms that function as inner cheerleaders which push adults to join in are normalizing, wanting to belong, avoidance of conflict, and the fact that their family of origin remains of primary importance to self-definition. If you have redefined yourself in your adult life, the old drama might be one you can sit out.

Finally, what each adult considers filial obligation kicks in as well, along with the implications of that Commandment that tells us to honor our mothers and fathers.

The "yikes" factor and smear campaigns

This didn’t happen to me personally, but it’s hard to overstate the vehemence of these family smear campaigns. I thought they might be a rarity until I heard so many stories that it appeared that the silent fade-away was usually the exception. This isn’t just a turf war — it's also about ownership of the family mythology. The vehemence of retaliatory campaigns cannot be overstated; many seem over-the-top, but trust me, if you read enough of them, as I did for my book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, you park your skepticism by the door. Sometimes, the attacks are just renewed versions of old childhood chants: “You’re crazy,” “A troublemaker,” “You were never one of us, or “You’ve always been a liar.” Granted, this is painful, and the daughter (or son) who has chosen to depart from the family script may ache and hurt, but it’s not totally unexpected. (If you are considering divorcing a parent, please read my piece on it here.)

But, but, but . . . There are scenarios — many of them, as I discovered during my writing and on my author Facebook page — that go way beyond name-calling. There were mothers who bad-mouthed their daughters to bosses, colleagues, neighbors, and clergy. There were some who falsely accused their daughters of adultery and called social services about child neglect. And then there were siblings who stepped into the breach, as this story told by Margaret, 50, demonstrates:

"I am a pariah in my family — the crazy one, the mean one. My sister and brother have seen an opportunity for themselves when I went low-contact with our mother and worked it to their advantage, painting me as ungrateful, impossible, and, yes, a narcissist. Which is pretty ironic, given the givens. Family gatherings became even more impossible, and they waged a campaign for our mother to ‘fire’ me. Ironic, because I had been back and forth in therapy on whether or not to go the final step. Long story short: She divorced me. It made it harder on me in some ways and easier in others."

It will surprise no one that inheritances and property are often part of the script.

The difficult journey of healing

For the daughter (or son) who’s trying to carve a different life out for herself, losing her entire family of origin and not getting validation from the people who shared her childhood add more layers to the complexity of recovery. But as one reader of mine, Devon Carter, put it: “I was my mother’s scapegoat. I morphed into my family’s black sheep. Eventually, I realized that the problem wasn’t what kind of sheep or goat I was, but the sickness of the herd itself.”

Copyright © Peg Streep 2018

Facebook image: Mladen Mitrinovic/Shutterstock


Goldsmith, Rachel and Jennifer J. Freyd,” Awareness For Emotional Abuse,” Journal of Emotional Abuse (2005), vol, 5 (1), 95-123.

Goldsmith, Rachel, Jennifer J. Freyd, and Anne P. DePrince, “To Add Insight to Injury: Childhood Abuse, Abuse Perceptions, and the Emotional and Physical Health of Young Adults,” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, and Trauma, (2009),18, 350-366

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