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Family Dynamics

Neglectful Parents and Eldest Siblings

When parents have several kids and neglect them, the eldest one takes the heat.

Flickr, "We are Born Free," by Nagesh Jayaraman, CC by 2.0
Source: Source: Flickr, "We are Born Free," by Nagesh Jayaraman, CC by 2.0

I have recently come across several examples of another interesting pattern of family dysfunction. It takes place in families that consist of several siblings and in which the parents were severely neglectful of them when they were growing up. The patterns I am about to describe are particularly likely to occur when the adult who neglected the kids is the mother, and the oldest child is a female.

(As with all patterns I discuss in this blog, I describe prototypes or the most typical scenarios. This means that there will always be plenty of variations in the patterns that are determined by a literally infinite number of biological, psychological, cultural, and historical variables).

Parental neglect of a large family of children may stem from any of a number of factors: parental depression, parental alcohol or substance abuse, mothers who had been bullied by demanding and violent husbands, husband who had made sure that their wives were perpetually pregnant, parents who were overly-enmeshed with their own families-of-origin, families that are subject to severe religious strictures against the use of birth control and/or against mothers working outside the home, and a host of others.

In many of these families, childcare duties fall on the oldest of the siblings, who is pressed into service to take care of the younger ones. This situation is a setup for highly disturbed sibling relationships later on in their lives, after all of the siblings have grown into adulthood.

There are three reasons for the sibling discord in such a situation that I would like to focus on and describe:

  1. The siblings are angry at the neglectful parents, but they protect their parents from those negative feelings by displacing them onto the older, mother-substitute sibling. Displacement is a defense mechanism that had originally been described by old-fashioned psychoanalytic psychotherapists. Analysts tend to think of it as something people do essentially for themselves to protect themselves from feelings they find unacceptable internally. In the theory behind my therapy, unified therapy, I conceive of it more as a means to protect the parents from feeling bad about the way they have mistreated their offspring.
  2. The older sibling, having no real power in the family and being ill-equipped to be a parent, becomes verbally or even physically abusive to the younger siblings. The younger siblings then come to resent the older one for two reasons: the abuse, and the fact that the older sibling is not the one they wanted taking care of them in the first place. In other words, reasons #1 and #2 often co-exist.
  3. In situations in which the oldest sibling is a male who is a few years older than the younger siblings, the younger ones are female, and when there is no parental supervision—as there often is not in such cases—the boy sexually molests the girls. (Occasionally, older sisters will also molest younger brothers or even sisters).

These types of problems lead the younger siblings as adults to isolate or even completely exile the older one from the rest of the family. As the parents age, the younger siblings may get together to keep the eldest away from the parents, and to make sure that he or she is disinherited in one way or another. They may force elderly parents into changing a will, for example. Vicious gossip about the eldest may make the rounds. The children of the eldest siblings, as proxies for their parents, are often gossiped about and/or exiled as well.

Whenever I hear about incest between siblings, I find that, at least among my patients, parental neglect is nearly ubiquitous. Sometimes the unsupervised children are literally never taught that there is anything wrong with doing this. When the elder sibling grows up, he (or she) becomes totally ashamed of what he (or she) had done. Usually, the siblings as adults will never even discuss what happened. They may go on and act like nothing at all had ever happened. They may avoid one another, but sometimes they may even become quite close!

Patients that grew up in such families often report that everyone in the family stuffs their feelings when in one another's presence, and that no one will ever speak up when someone else displeases them. Family members are also highly prone to giving one another the “silent treatment” when upset with each other or may cut off contact for years at a time.

Child neglect by parents can have a variety of insidious consequences. I have often heard patients who were severely neglected as children opine that they would rather that their parents had been abusive rather than neglectful if they had to choose between the two. At least then, the reasoning goes, they would seem to matter to the parents. There are few feelings worse than having your whole family act like you just do not count for anything and that your very presence is one big bother.

More from David M. Allen M.D.
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