A toxic relationship is one in which two people do not communicate or relate to each other in healthy ways and where conflict easily arises. Siblings because of a combination of factors, most commonly their parents parenting style can end up having toxic relationships. A toxic sibling relationship is one that is unbalanced in its power dynamic. It may involve sibling abuse and dysfunctional sibling rivalry. Here are the most common types of toxic sibling relationship dynamics.
Causes of toxic sibling relationships
Toxic sibling relationships are a product of a variety of factors in the family unit.
When parents favour one child over the other(s), this puts a strain on the sibling relationship through no fault of the children themselves. Favouritism often looks like different punishments and consequences for wrongdoing so that the favoured child’s mistakes are faced with a lot more leniency than the rest. Adult children do not automatically outgrow the resentment and hostility they felt resulting in a toxic sibling relationship.
Lack of parental maturity and competence
When people have children when they are too young, they are largely unable to handle all that comes with raising children. They may not know how to discipline children, they may be afraid of saying no and just overall fail at asserting parental guidance. This immaturity and resultant incompetence create fertile ground for sibling abuse and a toxic sibling relationship.
Parents who abuse their children set a terrible example for their children creating fertile ground for a toxic sibling relationship to develop. Abusive parental behaviours normalize and make acceptable in the eyes of the children such acts which they then replicate in their relationships.
Even as adults, it may be difficult to unlearn things they learnt when they were young and impressionable. Research has found that sibling abuse is frequently associated with dysfunctional families and parents who abuse each other.
Sibling abuse and bullying
It’s expected that there may be some aggression and even mild violent behaviour between siblings. In a healthy family dynamic, parents are expected to step in and teach the children how to communicate and resolve any conflict with each other. When parents fail to stop bullying and aggression between siblings, they normalize abuse and toxic sibling relationships.
Having a psychopathic sibling
Researchers estimate that about 1% of the adult population meets the criteria for psychopathy. While children are not tested for sociopathy and psychopathy, having a sibling with those qualities is guaranteed to result in a toxic sibling relationship.
Signs that a child may be potentially psychopathic
- Lack empathy and do not seem to care about how others feel
- Lie constantly
- Lack fear and are not intimidated by punishments
- Steal from their parents
- Destroy properties or engage in violent play
- Do not seem to feel guilty even when they hurt others
- Hurt animals
Types of toxic sibling relationships
The golden child and the black sheep
When parents explicitly favour one child over another, it can result in the golden child and the black sheep dynamic. In this toxic sibling relationship, the golden child is the one the parents view as an extension of themselves. They are the one who is the best in everything and may even be gifted or talented in some way.
The black sheep is the one who is portrayed as the bad child and who can do nothing right, all the family’s issues and problems are projected onto and may even be blamed on them. The relationship becomes toxic even into adulthood if the siblings believe what their parents say about themselves and each other.
If the black sheep internalizes the message the family is sending them, they may struggle with low self-esteem, carry toxic shame, and believe that they do not deserve happiness and success. They may also feel lonely, never feeling like they fit in with their family.
It’s not all rosy for the golden child who is burdened with parental expectation and their control, not to mention the guilt of knowing that they are valued and celebrated at the expense of their sibling who is being unfairly treated. Overcoming this dynamic is difficult even in adulthood resulting in an unhealthy, toxic sibling relationship.
The mature one and the eternal child
In this toxic sibling relationship dynamic, the mature one is the child who is coded as being mature beyond their age. They are the one who is always responsible, disciplined, and reasonable. The eternal child on the other hand is contrasted as being wayward, driven by passion and unable to discipline themselves.
When this dynamic is in play, the mature one feels the pressure to be everything that is expected of them because their sibling is already a disappointment and so they cannot afford to be one. They are often under pressure to perform and comply and are often filling in for a depressed or missing parent or overcompensating because of other familial issues.
The eternal child on the other hand is often fun, spontaneous, playful and rarely dependable. The mature one’s needs rarely matter and are often subsumed under the needs and expectations of the family. The mature one often neglects their own needs and desires and are not allowed to just relax. This leads to them being overburdened both at work and at home leading to burnout.
This leads to a toxic relationship because of the envy and resentment the mature one feels because of their controlled lives compared to their sibling who appears to be carefree and free to choose their own paths.
The bully and the silenced one
Some parents because of their own trauma including fear of conflict and abandonment may not step in to guide and discipline their children when there is aggression or bullying. They may have a fear of being the bad cop and so they abdicate all calls to assert their parental guidance and authority. This leaves the children to set their own boundaries of what is acceptable which can create an abusive environment.
In this toxic sibling relationship dynamic, the bully is often a neglected, abused or hurt child who feels helpless and ashamed and does not have a better way to deal with their hurt other than inflict it on their sibling. The bully also always gets away with it.
The silent one has learnt to be silent about their abuse either because of threats from their abusive sibling or because they know that no one would believe them. They often cope by dissociating and burying the trauma which does not work in the long run. Instead of defending themselves or standing up to the bully, the silent one often blames themselves and internalizes the aggression they may have suffered. They may also develop a very harsh internal critic and internalize the belief that they do not deserve to be loved. This dynamic marred by abuse since childhood results in a toxic sibling relationship.
These dynamics set in place in childhood are often carried into adulthood if no intervention is sought to change the path of things. While it’s rarely if ever the fault of the children, it is they who suffer as children and as adults. Consider seeking professional help if you believe you may have a toxic sibling relationship. You may be able to change things, or you may be forced to accept that you do not have the sibling you wish you had and move on. Either way, it’s a good idea to address the deep hurt that comes from such a flawed family dynamic.
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