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Family Dynamics

Parental Abuse, Siblings, and Dueling Family Narratives

Loyalties are complicated and may propel adult sibling estrangement.

Key points

  • Parental abuse may be rationalized by one sibling and not by another for reasons that may be simple or complex.
  • People tend to guard their family narratives fiercely and, when a sibling asks for validation of his or her experiences, it is often denied.
  • When one member of a family pushes back against parental abuse, other members will chose a side whether they are asked to or not.
 Thomas Park/Unsplash
Source: Thomas Park/Unsplash

While Josh and Frank agreed that their father could be tough and unyielding when they were growing up—a “my-way-or-the-highway” kind of guy—the stories they tell as adults about the family they shared could not be more different. Josh is four years older than Frank—they are now both in their 40s and fathers themselves—and while Josh is still in the family fold, Frank hasn’t spoken to his parents or his brother in five years.

According to Josh, his father believes in “tough love”: “My dad believes strongly that there’s one right way of doing things, and he’s not shy about telling you what that is. But it comes out of a good place in his heart; he wanted me and Frank to be strong, and he doesn’t believe in sugarcoating the truth. It’s just the way he is.”

Frank, an attorney, calls his brother’s narrative “total self-serving hogwash” and notes that Josh works in their father’s construction business, which he alone will inherit: “My father is a bully, plain and simple. He bullies my mother, his children, and the people who work for him. My brother tolerates his bullying and puts a positive spin on it because it’s his bread-and-butter. My father’s verbal abuse frightened me as a child and made me angry as I got older; I had very little contact with him once I went to college. I might add that he did not offer to contribute to my college expenses and actively disparaged what he thought was my effort to show him up with my education. I cut bait entirely when, one Christmas, he dressed my 10-year-old down in front of the family for being ‘a runt’ and ‘probably a fairy.’ That was it. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.”

This story is about two brothers who are the sons of a verbally abusive father, but, in the course of writing Daughter Detox, reading comments on my Facebook page, and gathering stories for my upcoming book on verbal abuse, it could just as easily be two sisters or, for that matter, a sister and a brother. You’d think that siblings would likely share a narrative if a parent were abusive, right? Actually, no.

How is it possible that two people can grow up in the same family and have such different family narratives?

The importance of personal narratives—and why we defend them

We emerge from childhood, and we define ourselves, first and foremost, by the stories we’ve heard about ourselves from our parents and immediate family and then, later, the stories we tell about ourselves and our families of origin. In functioning and loving families, while there may be differences of opinion and even grievances and siblings may not be all that close to each other, family get-togethers look more like a Norman Rockwell painting than not. The personal narratives of these siblings may not be identical, but they tend to share the same arc.

That’s usually not true of dysfunctional families. When there’s verbal abuse, scapegoating, a mother or father playing favorites or comparing one sibling unfavorably to another, pitting one sibling against another, or permitting one sibling to terrorize another—the narratives of each sibling and his or her assessment of the two parents and the family as a whole are often vastly different, as was the case for Josh and Frank. That was true as well for Mary, 50, whose parents were divorced, and whose older sister Trish, 55, was her mother’s “star”:

“I cannot remember a single nice thing my mother has ever said to me. I know that sounds dramatic and exaggerated but it’s actually true. I grew up hearing that nothing I did was ever good enough because Trish had done it better. When I actually surpassed her in something—getting better grades, higher SATs—my mother turned a triumph into a criticism, saying that I was a ‘grind’ and a ‘nerd’ and that I’d never be popular like Trish. I was the Ugly Duckling because I was tall like my father, the man who had divorced her, and my sister was short like my mother; they both made fun of me for having big hands and feet. I knew my mother was wrong about me, and I loathed her pettiness and cruelty. My father and his wife were somewhat of a safe haven but therapy in college and after helped me get a bead on how badly she treated me. I cut her out of my life when I met the man I ultimately married. That said, the two of them have actively waged a war against me in family circles, calling me out for my supposed ‘crazy stories’ and ‘lies.’”

Alas, this isn’t atypical. When adult children call parents out for abusive treatment, parents may force siblings to take sides; sibling estrangement is often the collateral damage of recognizing parental abuse.

Looking at the causes of sibling estrangement

A study on sibling estrangement published by Lucy Blake, Becca Bland, and Alison Rouncefield-Swales in March 2022 echoes my own anecdotal observations. A survey was sent to some 1,600 people, all of whom had already sought support for estrangement, asking three questions: 1) Are you currently estranged from or experiencing relationship breakdown with your sister/s, brother/s?; 2) Please confirm your relationship with your sister/brother (full genetic sibling, half, adoptive, step, other); and 3) Please describe your relationship or lack of a relationship with your sister/brother in your own words. Roughly half (807) of those contacted responded.

Most respondents reported estrangements with parents and siblings as being a consequence of having “sided with the parent” or having chosen to maintain “the parent-child relationship over the sibling relationship.” The researchers note that some respondents “described their estranged parents as being in control of their sibling through manipulation, brainwashing, or blackmail.” Needless to say, the more dependent the adult child is on the parent—for financial help, babysitting, or anything else—the more likely he or she will be to toe the line, as the researchers found, and stick to the parent’s narrative.

Not surprisingly, parental favoritism was a factor in some sibling estrangements, either stemming from differential treatment beginning in childhood or becoming apparent in adulthood. It’s worth pointing out that Parental Differential Treatment is so common that it has its own acronym (PDT) in the literature. While some respondents report that estrangement was precipitated by a showdown or fight, others experienced a slow fade out over time.

In this survey, estrangements with brothers were most often associated with a brother’s choice of partner or spouse, while those with sisters were attributed to jealousy.

The idealization and mythology of sibling ties

Because the sibling relationship is the longest in an individual’s life, it’s mythologized as always being close, supportive, and life-enriching—think Little Women or Hansel and Gretel. And while it will be true for some, the myth papers over the complexity of most sibling relationships and the toxicity of more than a few of them. People guard their family narratives fiercely, and Parental Differential Treatment means that, sometimes, both parties are right. For example, one sibling can have a completely different view of a parent and experience different treatment; similarly, a big age difference between siblings may also yield a different experience in the same family of origin. Other times, though, hewing to the party line is just a matter of self-interest.

One thing is clear: Parental abuse, like a stone thrown into a pond, has a ripple effect on the connections within the family, and personal narratives usually reflect that truth.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2022

Facebook image: leungchopan/Shutterstock


Blake, Lucy, Becca Bland, and Alison Rouncefield-Swales." Estrangement Between Siblings in Adulthood: A Qualitative Exploration>" Journal of Family Issues, 2022..

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