Brother-Sister Problems © Martyn Carruthers 2008
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Continued from Part 1: Problems between Brothers & Sisters
I wanted to write about the consequences of birth order … yet the existence
of siblings (living, dead, aborted or missing), vanishing twins and parental behavior create complex patterns of family dynamics. (If two families with children merge – everything I mention here will likely be more complicated – see HERE) Martyn
If the birth order is changed, for example if an older child dies, a younger child may try to adopt the responsibilities of the older child. If a stronger child takes the duties of a weaker child, this often results in role confusion, with strong emotions and fights. Sibling rivalry is common. The children’s fighting will probably reflect family issues, not just childhood problems.
Younger children who try to adopt the responsibilities of a dead or missing first child may experience emotional problems that can vanish if birth order is re-established.
I was diagnosed with depression shortly after my older brother left home.
During our sessions I realized that I tried to take his place and hold my crazy
family together … I couldn’t … and I paid a very high price for my efforts.
Parents often reward compliant children, and chastise children who are not so obedient. Such favoritism can result in angry children, who show their anger by bullying siblings or tormenting each other. Later in life this childish anger, if not assimilated, may lead to conflicts with family members.
Siblings may fight to communicate emotions, to establish dominance or to gain parental attention. The most intense fights may be about inheritance issues.
Few parents teach children how to express or deal with anger. More likely, parents punish their children for daring to be angry. The result – children learn to hide their anger. The common consequences of hiding anger appear to be emotional explosions, split-off parts (inner conflict), self-criticism and psychosomatic symptoms. Other consequences include depression and mental disorders.
Adults who feel irrational anger towards adult siblings may attempt to justify their anger by listing all possible reasons for it, including early childhood irritations and disappointments. If an adult sibling is blamed for childish behaviors, that sibling may sever connections with some family members.
If a sibling dies or is given for adoption, the fact that the sibling ever existed will likely influence the lives of the other siblings. If a pregnancy is ended by miscarriage, stillbirth or abortion, the subsequent children will deal with this loss (even if they are not told about it!). Another potential loss may occur when a multiple pregnancy results in one living child (see vanishing twin).
Sometimes, a family member may convince a child to reject or alienate a sibling. If the child later discovers that the sibling is OK – the child may then reject the interfering family member.
My older brother was the first son and first grandson in our family. He bullied me yet was always proclaimed right and blameless by our parents. I competed with him to gain our parents’ attention, of course unsuccessfully. Failing that, I became the black sheep and, in time, found a fulfilling life.
When my brother, the golden child, failed to fulfill his (and the family’s) immense expectations, he became a black sheep and continued to gain maximum attention from the family, albeit negative. He tried to commit suicide, gave up ambition, rejected contact with the family and now seems only able to form lasting bonds with pets. He will not seek help as he believes himself smarter than any coach or therapist.
Since my brother’s failure, I got positive attention (for a change) from my family: they suddenly started to see me, but placed their immense expectations on me, the ‘last one standing’. Fortunately, I was mature enough to laugh their expectations away and keep good relations with them.
I confess a strange satisfaction when my brother failed, a sense of, “I told you he was wrong” – something I longed our parents to recognize during our childhood. Also, “I too exist”, a confirmation that I give myself now but as a child I needed from my parents.
Children from chaotic homes who do not feel loved, may feel dissociated or out of control. They may feel disconnected from their parents and from other siblings. Children who cannot tolerate their family chaos may feel an urgent, existential need to leave their homes. Some will never return.
When family members are entangled and in conflict with each other, one or more family members may experience symptoms of mental stress or psychosomatic illness. Superficially solving a problem in one part of the family may trigger a problem in another part of the family!
My father was bipolar and my mother was chronically ill. My sister and I looked after them … and we fought about how to care for them. Our fights included slapping and shouting. You showed us how we were repeating our parents patterns (I had become father!) Since our sessions we can cooperate peacefully. Croatia
Family stress can be increased by perceptions that a sibling is someone else. While prejudice and cruelty may play their part, more often the underlying issue is transference or identification. I may ask, “Do you want to change your emotions and habits – or do you just want to complain?“
A father often bonds to the youngest daughter, while a mother often bonds to the oldest son. This can lead to jealousy amongst siblings – irritations that may continue during their adult lives. An adult child who feels unable to participate in life, except as a caretaker to a dysfunctional parent, may resent freer siblings.
Some parents seem to favor children who are like themselves (this favoritism may override the birth order of the children). In parental alienation, parents manipulate their children’s emotions and beliefs for gain and/or to cause their partners to suffer.
Children under family stress may cling to each other for support or survival. Emotional incest between siblings can result in relationship bonds that limit future partnership. A person who is emotionally bonded to a sibling may not seek a real partner – or may only seek potential partners who have qualities similar to that sibling.
As a girl I was fascinated with my older brother. As an adult I searched for men like him, but after a month or so I couldn’t stand to be intimate with them and left. Since our coaching, my life has changed. I want a man, not a brother! Chicago
My mother had an abortion, but I never thought about it. During couple coaching, I realized that I didn’t really want a male partner – I wanted an elder brother! I married a man whose sister had died – he wanted me to replace his sister! Since our couple counseling we see each other as wonderfully differently. Ljubljana
Exceptional, Sick & Abnormal Children
Siblings of children who are seen as exceptionally bright or talented might feel lost in their shadow, and do things to gain attention – even unpleasant attention may feel better than no attention at all.
Siblings may feel jealous of a sick child who gets more attention and gifts than they do. These children may complain of feeling ill themselves, or become preoccupied with their health. Some children feel guilty for being healthy.
(I find that children of helping professionals and teachers seem to show more medical or emotional problems (especially ADD/ADHD for children of teachers). This may gain the attention of parents who give their time and love to other children).
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Back to Part 1: Problems between Brothers & Sisters