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Family Dynamics

What Happens to the Siblings of Psychopaths?

Growing up with a callous, unemotional sibling.

Over the years I have treated people who were tormented in extreme ways by siblings. I have been told of sexual abuse in bathrooms, spit in drinks, gun threats, being hit over the head with wooden boards, being pushed down flights of stairs, being held under water and being set up to take the blame for sums the sibling stole. A professor of mine, an expert in personality disorders, told me that these people “terrorize their families.” Sometimes one family member is targeted.

Siblings play a great role in shaping us. Childhoods characterized by a disturbed sib’s pattern of covert, overt, psychological, or physical transgressions are not uncommon. Mind manipulations may be more damaging than anything for trusting, often younger family members. One’s ability to believe in one’s own judgment and capacity becomes compromised.

So what is the root of the problem? According to researchers P.J. Frick and S.F. White, callous-unemotional character (CU) in a child can be a precursor to psychopathy, a condition characterized by lack of conscience. The traits of CU include:

  • Lack of empathy and fear.
  • Poor recognition of fear or distress in others.
  • Reduced reactivity to challenging events.
  • Over-focus on reward and insensitivity to punishment.
  • Diminished guilt following negative actions .

According to Jennifer Kahn, writing in the New York Times Magazine, researchers believe that CU traits distinguish "fledgling psychopaths” from children with ordinary conduct disorder.

Evidence suggests that genetics play a role, but strong limits, stated rules and clear consequences help to contain and redirect callous, unemotional individuals. Coddling enables psychopathic behavior and exacerbates the problem.

Growing up with a CU person can influence a developing personality in important ways. Perpetual fear of what a violating or vicious sib will do can render a child hypervigilant, overly dutiful, guilt-ridden, guarded, driven to please, and unable to tolerate conflict. Sometimes these qualities paradoxically lead to great success and a strong work ethic. However, fear, shame, anxiety, and depression may flourish in one's inner life. Even after the sibling moves out of the original home, the sense of an unsafe world stays within. The sib may have severe startle reactions. These maladies can be treated later but may involve cutting off ties.

The general clinical recommendation is to steer clear of psychopaths but children rarely have this choice. Many parents cannot or are not willing to grapple with this foreboding, frightening problem. They may deny, minimize, refute, or even feel swept up by the charms of the CU child.

Psychopaths are often charismatic, funny and entertaining, so parents might feel light, carefree, or even relieved in their presence. Even if parents are intuitively aware of the sinister side, they cling to the positive because they wish or need for it to be the case.

On the other hand, the abused sib can be labeled as crazy, exaggerating, or overly emotional. But if the truth is an untenable mess, freaking out or falling apart may be the appropriate response. Shame researcher Brene Brown asserts that vulnerability is not weakness. An honest response is a strong response.

My client Julie slouched at a family gathering after a sibling tormented her. Julie was told that her posture suggested her own “guilt” to others. And so the situation becomes twisted.

As psychopaths typically lack insight and do not take responsibility for their destructiveness, dialogue is often useless. It is futile to battle or negotiate because they go to unusual extremes and cannot be relied upon to fulfill obligations. Psychologist George Simon writes, “Psychopaths, in addition to being the most heartless predators, are the most ardent and skilled of manipulators. And they lie for many hard to understand reasons.”

A powerful sense of entitlement allows these beings to break moral codes without anxiety, regret, or discomfort. As masters of disguise, they project ease and lightness in public settings. They don’t show guilt because they don’t feel guilt, whereas their victims, who are often sensitive souls, feel guilt, confusion, and shame when they shouldn’t. A self-doubting person can feel blameful even if they are not responsible for what happened. Victims may be unable to garner the support they need because they cannot tell the truth as effectively as the sociopath can lie. Those around them are easily deceived.

Some people, age eight or eighty, trained or untrained, have psychological astuteness. They naturally perceive or sense underlying destructiveness in a personality. In time the situation becomes clearer for those less savvy. Exposed, caught, or confronted the psychopath may panic, explode, rage, deflect, lie bigger, or accuse. Once revealed, he or she unravels. This may lead to help or containment, which in the end helps all.

The traumatized sib needs to know that a sane, just, ordered, moral world is possible and that he or she is not the only one trying to create it.

Chloe Barron
Source: Chloe Barron

Bottom line and the good news:

  1. If you grew up with a psychopath and are a fearful person, you are not alone and you can get help.
  2. Psychopaths wreak havoc but in time their path of destruction catches up with them. Sooner or later people figure it out.
  3. Trust what you know and see even if others cannot perceive it right now.
  4. Go your own good way.

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