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Family Dynamics

3 Toxic Sibling Relationship Dynamics

2. The Mature One and the Eternal Child

Key points

  • Toxic sibling relationships can result if parents are unavailable, depressed, aggressive, narcissistic, or controlling.
  • In the Golden Child and the Black Sheep Dynamic, one child is favoured over the others. The Black Sheep is the scapegoat of the family.
  • In the Mature One and the Eternal Child Dynamic, one sibling is mature beyond their age while the other is not given the opportunity to grow.

Specific toxic sibling relationships can result if parents are unavailable, depressed, aggressive, narcissistic, controlling, or favour one child over the others. When the parents do not set boundaries or manage the siblings' relationship healthily, these dynamics can become polarised and increasingly detrimental.

1. The Golden Child and the Black Sheep

Although many would deny it, parents often favour one child over others. When they do so explicitly, the Golden Child and the Black Sheep dynamic can result.

The Black Sheep of the family is the scapegoat who is always portrayed as "bad" and can do nothing right. With the defence mechanism of projection and projective identification, the family projects all woes onto the scapegoat. The scapegoat is pushed aside most of the time and blamed when things go wrong.

As the parents think of the Golden Child as an extension of themselves, the parents would not allow the Black Sheep to threaten the narrative they have set up. So when the scapegoated child does something well, their achievements are ignored or dismissed. The Golden Child always has to be the best in everything, and the Black Sheep can only be acknowledged to the extent where the Golden Child’s brilliance remains unthreatened.

If the Black Sheep has internalized their family’s message for them, they may struggle with low self-esteem, carry toxic shame, and don’t believe they deserve to be happy and successful. Unconsciously, they may feel if they achieve something they will be attacked and criticized. So even as adults, they may rather self-sabotage to dodge the attack they unconsciously expect.

Since the Black Sheep never felt they belonged, or that they are welcome in their own home, they may also carry a deep sense of loneliness for the rest of their lives.

Being the Golden Child, however, does not mean everything is perfect. As Jung often said, "The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.” The Golden Child is the one parents project their aspirations onto. Whilst the Black Sheep is pushed to be autonomous and find their way in life, the Golden Child is forced into enmeshment with their controlling parents. They are subtly punished or threatened if they do not follow the path laid down for them. Therefore, even as adults they always feel they have to "do the right thing," or appease their parents. They may struggle to be spontaneous or do something outside of the conventional.

Also, the Golden Child may suffer from unconscious guilt as they see their sibling being unfairly treated but could not do much about it. Later in life, they may have a "rescuer complex," be attracted to vulnerable partners who need help, or exhibit people-pleasing behaviours and subjugation.

2. The Mature One and the Eternal Child

The Mature One in this sibling dynamic is the one who is mature beyond their age. They are always responsible, disciplined, and reasonable. The Eternal Child, in contrast, is typically the opposite. They are the wayward ones who follow their own will, are driven by passion, and cannot discipline themselves.

In Jungian psychology, The Eternal Child embodies the Puer/Puerlla archetype. They detest boundaries, limits, and commitment. They have a lot of ideas about what they can do in the future but rarely put in the hard work to make their dreams come true. They have little tolerance for hardship, so whenever things get hard, they escape into their fantasies. They may run from one situation to the next, one job to the next, one relationship to the next, and never commit to any meaningful course of actions.

The Eternal Child is often charming, spontaneous, and playful. They are fun to be with but are not dependable partners. In many ways, they are children living in grown-up bodies and have difficulty being a functioning adult in the real world.

When there is an Eternal Child in the family, there is paradoxically the Mature One. Dynamically, the Mature One feels that since their sibling is a disappointment, they cannot afford to be. Thus, they feel they have no choice but to follow the path that was laid down for them, and to become a successful, functional member of society. The Mature One does everything that is expected of them. But this is not a free choice. They do so because absolute compliance is what was once required of them. They may be filling in for a depressed parent who makes it clear they have no extra energy for parenting, or they are overcompensating for a violent and unpredictable parent who would be enraged if things are less than perfect.

Having been a peacemaker and mediator all their lives, the Mature One’s agenda has never mattered. It is always about what they "should do" but not what they want or feel passionate about. They learn to neglect their own needs and desires. They do not feel they are allowed to let their hair down, relax, have fun, and do something outside of what was expected of them. While they over function at home, they are also likely to overfunction at their work, in their romantic relationships, and in their parenting. Eventually, they are overburdened with responsibilities and may become burned out.

One factor that makes this dynamic complicated, especially when it turns into adult sibling rivalry, is envy. For all their lives, the Mature One is consciously or subconsciously envious of how carefree their younger sibling seems to be. They love their brothers and sisters, but could not help but feel bitter and resentful for the fact that they never had a real childhood. Caught in a bind between love and resentment loyalty and the need for freedom, the Mature One may be plunged into an emotional and existential crisis in later life.

3. The Bully and the Silenced One

In a healthy scenario, a parent would discipline a child when they speak disrespectfully or act aggressively. Some parents, however, may fail to do so due to their own attachment needs and trauma history. They deeply fear conflicts and abandonment by their children, so they would do everything they can to please their children. They avoid being the "bad cop" and don’t do anything to discipline a child that is acting out. The parent's inability to assert parental authority means the children are left to find their limits, which is an impossible task.

When there is sibling abuse, the polarised dynamic involves a Bully and their victim, the Silenced One. For the Bully, being able to get away with aggression and even abuse is not a blessing. Children need boundaries and often test to find if there are any. When the Bully cannot find the lines that should have been drawn by their parents, the world would feel like a chaotic and frightening place. Often, the Bully is a neglected, abused or hurt child. They feel helpless and ashamed on the inside but do not have a better way to channel their hurt than to inflict it on their siblings.

The Silent One has learned to be silent because, all their lives, their story could not be told. They were threatened by their sibling’s violence, or no one would believe them. Their only choice might have been to dissociate and bury the trauma deep within their bodies and souls. Later in life, their traumatic symptoms may show up as chronic fatigue, bodily pain, depression, or anxiety.

Rather than rightfully expressing their anger and setting boundaries, the Silenced One often blames themselves and internalizes the aggression they have suffered. They may become very harsh towers themselves, and hear an "inner critic voice" that constantly puts them down.

The Silenced One may take the psychological scars and the internalised shame into adulthood and not feel legitimate as a person. They may not believe they deserve to be loved and sabotage opportunities and loving relationships. They may also become bullies to others, as a way of releasing the unprocessed resentment.

Moving Forward

When people who are supposed to love us hurt us, betray us or abandon us, the scars can cut deep and affect other areas of our lives. When the relationship with our sibling is fractured, we are often left with a lingering longing for reconciliation. We may be stuck in grief if we cannot let go of the sibling we are supposed to have but do not have. We may still be waiting for an apology that will not come, the recognition for what we have done, or finally, or an acceptance of our true self into the family. When we have tried again and again and are not able to get anywhere, we can be left feeling helpless. Sometimes the solution lies in making an effort to reconcile with the sibling. And at other times, we may have to accept that we don’t have the sibling love we want and let go.

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