My blog on the impact of my narcissistic sibling has generated a lot of comments from people who were similarly harmed by an emotionally abusive sister or brother. For this blog, I’ll dive deeper into how the interactions within a family, especially between siblings, can create or exacerbate shame intolerance patterns. How parents discipline or fail to discipline children and how they protect or fail to protect abused siblings impacts all of the children in the family and may lead children to develop shame intolerance patterns that can affect them throughout their lives. As I experienced in my family, even well-intentioned parents can unwittingly create narcissists (Other-Blamers) and can create or worsen submissive behaviors in other siblings, creating victims who may be anxious, Self-blaming, guilt-ridden, perfectionistic, overly responsible, and emotionally shut down.
What are the Shame Management Strategies?
Let’s begin by understanding how people learn to manage shame in healthy and unhealthy ways. Based on emotional experiences in childhood, most people cope with shame in one the following ways:
- Healthy shame tolerance through self-acceptance
- Other-Blaming or externalizing shame
- Self-Blaming or internalizing shame
- Blame Avoidance
The key assessment tool is considering: How does the person handle criticism? Do they accept it with good personal awareness, equanimity and accountability? This leads to apology, contrition, relationship repair and attempts to change (#1). Or do they (#2 Other-blamers) lash out in defensive anger at others when corrected, engaging in narcissistic behaviors of blame-shifting, accusations, excuses and lack of accountability? Self-blamers (#3) are excessively plagued by guilt and regret, with excessive passivity in the face of emotional abuse. Read detailed descriptions of these behaviors and their causes. Also read many of my blogs on this subject by searching for “shame”.
What Can Go Wrong in Families to Create Unhealthy Sibling Dynamics?
Robin came to me in her mid-20s and on the surface she seemed to function very well: She got good grades in her engineering degree program and was beginning her career with a good job. Although she was pleasant and personable, there was a guardedness to her that made it difficult for her to form friendships or intimate relationships. She admitted she worked too much, was perfectionistic and was very hard on herself, which indicated issues with low self-worth and lack of self-compassion.
As we began working on these issues, it came to light that she lived with her adult brother who barely held down low-paying jobs, did not chip in to the shared finances, and was a complete slob around the apartment. As we dug further back into her childhood, Robin reported that her brother was a difficult child, then became a troubled teen, did a lot of drugs, got arrested several times and argued constantly with their parents, who struggled to manage his behaviors. When I asked how she talked to him about the current issues of chores and finances, it became apparent that she was somewhat scared to talk to him and just did all the chores herself.
Therapists can learn a lot clinically about an individual’s emotional and relationship issues by examining sibling relationships and the family dynamics that created them. This concept is based on family systems concepts. We relate to each other as social beings and one person’s emotional state or behaviors influences others. Our brain’s mirror neurons read our social environment and respond in ways that help us gain acceptance and manage relationships. Ideally in relationships we have two pro-social people who have the same goals: Maintaining and strengthening the relationship in ways that are healthy and balanced for both of them.
Unfortunately, those with narcissistic tendencies have learned to increase their anti-social characteristics and downplay their pro-social traits to get their needs met, specifically the need to avoid shame. Anti-social people (Other-blamers) have a severely individualistic and non-reciprocal stance toward relationships, where they care very little or not at all about others’ needs and the impact of their behavior on others. Anti-social personalities, or severe Other-blamers, may even gain pleasure from dominating, controlling or harming others.
How Parents Create Narcissistic Children with Unhealthy Shame Tolerance
Ideally, parents model and teach healthy shame tolerance skills in children consistently throughout childhood. Parents do this by disciplining children in age-appropriate ways and for age-appropriate behaviors, by provoking some guilt, but not using excessive guilt. Parents should be firm but loving in their correcting comments and a focus on emotional support and teaching children how to be resilient and learn from their embarrassments and mistakes. Parents teach shame tolerance by being available to help the youngster work through the resulting experiences of guilt.
Unfortunately, certain parenting styles can make things worse for all types of children, whether the child tends toward Other-Blamer, Self-Blamer or Blame Avoider. Shame is an emotion like any other, yet most parents have no idea when they are shaming their children — because they likely suffer from poor shame tolerance themselves and desperately want to avoid this difficult feeling. The result can be three styles of parenting:
- Permissive parents
- Authoritarian/Strict parents
- Avoidant/Emotionally Distant parents
Permissive parents are sensitive to shame, so they feel “bad” when disciplining children, even if those corrections are healthy for a child, such as telling her to be home by a curfew or do his homework. Permissive parents may try to protect children from guilt by not setting or enforcing consistent rules and may bail children out when they are in the wrong. While this may be well-intentioned, children need to learn to experience and handle these emotions, because without this skill they cannot navigate the adult world that is filled with experiences of criticism and failure. With these weaker parents, the strong-willed child learns quickly that if he pushes back, parents cave in because they are afraid to hold the child accountable. The parent becomes submissive in the face of the domineering child, which exacerbates Other-blamer tendencies, rather than moderating them.
Some permissive or passive parents fool themselves that they are forceful parents because they ignore the difficult child’s behaviors and only correct the easy sibling who gives no pushback. Obviously, children often notice this unfair parenting style and become resentful (Self-Blamer) or entitled (Other-Blamer).
Strict parents direct excessive amounts of criticism, guilt and shame at children. Harsh, demanding and authoritarian parents can also create narcissistic children by teaching them that “might makes right.”
Avoidant parents teach children that all emotions are to be dismissed and not reckoned with, even helpful emotions such as guilt and embarrassment.
If only parents learned to tolerate shame themselves, then they would not be so afraid of teaching a child that they should be appropriately ashamed of bad behaviors. Importantly, they should then teach the skills to manage what comes next: accountability, and the resilience to learn, grow, change — and stop behaving in shameful ways.
People like Donald Trump have worst-case-scenario parents, as described by his niece Mary Trump in her book, which I reviewed. He had a rejecting, strict, authoritarian, domineering and distant father who modeled Other-Blamer behaviors of greed, hatred and abuse of power. His weak, passive, permissive, non-involved, and non-nurturing mother sent signals he was unworthy of love in the form of discipline. Both parents appeared to be distant and emotionally unavailable. His father was overly critical, likely overwhelming Donald with excessive shame that was not regulated. He was also not appropriately and moderately disciplined by his parents and when he had behavioral problems their solution was classic Avoidant parent: Ship him off to boarding school.
How Parents Create Self-Blaming Children who are Primed to Tolerate Abuse
As we worked out her family dynamics in therapy, Robin learned that as a child she had come to believe she had to be the good, happy child, and had to downplay her own emotional needs — maybe even the need to be a little bit bad or unhappy once in awhile — because her brother occupied the behavioral niche of the “bad” child. The caring, pro-social aspects of her personality were obvious as she subconsciously chose to not over-burden her parents with her needs. Unsurprisingly, she is not burdening her brother as an adult by demanding that he step up and do his share of chores. On a surface level, she witnessed her brother misbehaving and correctly learned the lesson that his behavior got him a lot of negative attention. But she also learned that she got less attention of any kind. Many victims of Other-blamer siblings develop habits of passively waiting for attention, love, or the cessation of abuse in their childhoods.
This was also my experience. I recognized, much later in my adult life, that while I may have had some tendencies toward shyness and passivity, these traits were severely worsened by my sister’s emotional abuse and dominance. Her loud, dramatic, verbose personality sucked the oxygen out of every room, leaving no space for me or my brother to get our needs met for attention, from our parents specifically. I recall thinking throughout my childhood: “Someone please pay attention to me. If I’m really good and quiet my parents will notice my obedient behaviors and I will be loved. If I sit here silently long enough, someone will recognize that.”
During a six-month car trip through Europe when all of us children were elementary school age, I spent many hours in the far back of the Volkswagen van with little view of the countryside we were driving through. Much of the time my sister and brother occupied the forward rear seats and argued who should sit in the best seat. My parents tried to moderate their arguing and failed to notice who wasn’t involved in the arguments — me. I patiently hoped that someone in the family would notice my suffering. It’s no surprise that I grew up to be someone who gave excessively to others, tolerated abuse, and suffered in silence without asserting my needs.
Even events such as shoe shopping with my mother and sister strengthened this dynamic: My wide, large feet that needed special fitting were ignored because my sister, with her average size 7 feet, demanded attention from my mother and clerks. I stuffed my feet into any shoe that came close to fitting and… suffered in silence with blisters. Decades later, while visiting my sister, she wanted to go shoe shopping and I bit my tongue as she rudely demanded high levels of service from the clerk for her “special feet,” completely unaware of the attention-seeking dynamic she was repeating.
A common way of coping with a narcissistic sibling is that the “good child” overcompensates and becomes perfectionistic in the hopes of gaining attention. This leads to traits of:
- excessive and misplaced guilt
- over-protection of sibling
- over-protection of parents from sibling’s behaviors
- excessive rule-following or even obsessive-compulsive traits (if I follow all these rules I’ll be rewarded!)
- excessive passivity in relationships
- tolerance of abuse
- excessive independent, fear of intimacy and guardedness
- or, conversely, dependency, naïveté and unwarranted trust of others
We know that experiences of young children are developmentally significant because their brains are just developing, so that their environment has a major impact on them. The habits, thoughts, emotional regulation skills and relational models they witness via daily, repetitive experiences within a family are being stored up in the brain. If a sibling is difficult and a parent is conflict averse or passive in the face of defiance, the submissive child learns to avoid conflict by observing what the parents are doing toward more dominant siblings. Siblings may replicate unbalanced relationships in adulthood either as the abuser or the abused.
As a consequence of my childhood experiences, it took me years of work in personal growth to develop a strong sense of self, self-confidence and assertiveness skills to overcome what I learned in childhood through an unhealthy relationship with my older sister.
Some childhoods can create longstanding unhealthy dependencies within the family, such as a parent financially supporting a child into adulthood or Robin’s scenario where one sibling does most of the housework and is overly responsible, while the other adult sibling continues to under-perform and acts like an irresponsible child.
Impact of the Non-protective Parent
My brother, sister and I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s when children had a lot of time together apart from adult supervision. Theoretically, this gives children a chance to learn to work things out entirely on their own and this type of environment can foster healthy conflict resolution skills. However, if one of the children is an Other-blamer, it can merely be the perfect environment to create an abusive relationship between siblings. If parents don’t step in and manage unbalanced relationships for the children and moderate an Other-blamer’s tendencies, the children will not have the skills to do so themselves.
If the parents fail to notice this dynamic, these behavioral patterns can become entrenched in both children. I was perhaps somewhat shy, and was younger than my sister, so was naturally deferential. I believe, though, that her domineering personality was likely strengthened by my parents’ failure to check it.
Parents who are emotionally neglectful or uninvolved can cause great harm, even without overt abuse, because they do not protect the weaker child. In fact, they may be more focused on protecting the stronger child, specifically protecting them from shame. For the victim of sibling abuse, it can create a sense of being unprotected.
Looking back, I see that my parents tried very hard to be “fair,” and when we argued as children they tried to issue equal reprimand to all of the combatants and mostly just told us to stop arguing. I see now that my parents were actually very conflict averse in many ways, not just in parenting. I don’t have clear memories given the passing of time, but I wonder if they turned a blind eye to the pattern of my sister regularly being the source of the conflicts and my brother and I being taken advantage of. I suspect they had learned early on that my sister was difficult to discipline and so avoided doing so, instead claiming to be “fair” and doling out “equal” punishments. I wonder if they should they have been more direct and reprimanded a child who was perhaps being excessively controlling and domineering to her siblings (and parents)?
Siblings and parents also learn that nothing seems to control the Other-blamer child and give up trying. Parents may completely abdicate their responsibility and let the defiant child rule the home. The unprotected siblings do not have a choice in this matter and must cope the best way they know how, often with even more passive and compliant behaviors — get along and go along to avoid conflict with the dominant sibling. They are forced to accept that the parent will not protect them from the abusive sibling.
Some parents may turn to a child to help control and parent the difficult sibling or siblings.
Regularly experiencing a narcissistic sibling’s abuse creates tolerance of abuse in adult relationships, a belief that relationships are one-sided and that others will not protect them from abuse.
Other impacts of narcissistic sibling abuse:
- They create excessively guarded individuals who are fearful of vulnerability, because they did not learn to set boundaries that were healthy, moderate and flexible.
- They create excessive empathy or highly sensitive people who are overly attuned to the needs of others and under-attuned to their own needs.
Clinicians: Assess for Sibling Relationships — Especially Narcissistic Siblings
Clinician must assess for family dynamics and must not overlook sibling relationships. It may be easy to spot a narcissistic, neglectful or abusive parent, but even in the absence of that, look for permissive parents who did not clamp down on the Other-blamer sibling. Look for uninvolved or absent parents who forced one child to become parentified. Some latchkey children are asked to manage a strong-willed younger sibling who rules the roost in the parent’s absence every day for a few hours.
I ask clients to describe their relationships with each sibling when they were very young and then at each major stage of development, such as pre-teen and teen. Ask how each parent disciplined each child or when the siblings were together. Be on the lookout for a troubled brother or sister or if the client was the identified “difficult child.” These children may behave in ways that are mildly oppositional or may be severely rebellious, drug addicted or have severe emotional issues, such as depression, self-harming, eating disorders, or separation anxiety. There are many ways to formulate the reasons for these behaviors, but it is important to identify how this impacted the victim sibling, such as by monopolizing all the parents’ attention and energy and creating unfilled needs for attention and validation.
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