Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Older Siblings and Neglectful Parents

I have lately been coming across another interesting pattern of family dysfunction. It takes place in families characterized by having several siblings and in which the parents were severely neglectful of them when they were growing up. This pattern is particularly likely when the adult who neglected the kids was the mother.

The neglect might have stemmed 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 subject to religious strictures against birth control and/or mothers working outside the home, and probably a host of others.

In many of these families, childcare duties fell on the oldest of the siblings, who was pressed into service to take care of the younger ones. This situation is a setup for disturbed sibling relationships after everyone has grown into adulthood.  There are three reasons for 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. 

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. 

3.  When the oldest sibling is a male and the younger ones 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 sisters).

Problems #1 and #2 frequently occur together, although not always, leading 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. Vicious gossip about the eldest may make the rounds. The children of the eldest siblings 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 had done. Usually the siblings, as adults, will never even discuss what happened. They may go on and act like nothing at all untoward 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 anothers’ presence, and that no one speaks up when someone else displeases them. Family members are also highly prone to giving one another the “silent treatment” when upset with one another, or cutting off contact for years at a time.

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 they would seem to matter to the family. There are few feelings worse than having your whole family act like you just don’t count for anything and that your very presence is a big bother.  


  1. There may be a connection between the parental ambivalence that contributes to BPD and parental neglect as mentioned in your above post. If you have one parent who is significantly ambivalent about parenthood, then the other parent almost by definition has to be be compromised in their own way, leaving the kids, while perhaps not neglected in a material sense, neglected in an emotional modeling sense. The elder children learn to cope in whatever pathological way that was most effective, and teach the younger siblings, exclusively through modeling, how to cope with their neglectful situation. I wonder if anyone has researched on this kind of less explicit neglect scenario?

    1. Hi Richard,

      There is precious little research on family dynamics at all; I see them clinically because I ask probing questions to my therapy patients about family interactions. On that basis, yes, I see a lot of this pattern with my patients with borderline personality disorder.

  2. Dr. Allen,
    Just saw this posted on Psychology Today. Pretty frightening.