Sibling rivalry is a normal rite of passage. But when you have a narcissistic parent, then having siblings feels more like the Hunger Games.
Siblings fight for scraps of love in a decimated emotional landscape. And in the end, there are no survivors.
Ani* (name changed to protect privacy) grew up with a narcissistic mother who never wanted a daughter. Ani’s mother had many unfulfilled dreams and took out her anger on her. She would fly into rages, and in one case, threw Ani against the wall and broke her arm. All of this happened in secret, and Ani’s father did not step in to protect his daughter. In contrast, when Ani’s brother, Luc*, was born, he was doted on by his mother.
The narcissistic parent often pits siblings against each other, setting up a destructive pattern that can stick for decades.
The narcissistic parent often pits siblings against each other, setting up a destructive pattern that can stick for decades. Each child has a role to play, and it only ever benefits the narcissistic parent. There is the ‘golden child’ who dutifully obeys – at least outwardly – every command from the narcissistic parent, and then basks in the praise. There is the ‘scapegoat’ child, who rebels, and bears the wrath.
When children are dependent on their parents for food, shelter and security, they will do what they need to do to survive, even if it means silencing their own normal wants and needs. In a healthy family, it is safe to disagree with your parents. It is safe to advocate for what you want, even if your parents disagree with your life choices. There may be some grumbling, but their love and secure attachment is strong enough to withstand anything. Healthy parents know that their children are growing into independent and separate beings, and they encourage this exploration.
Responsible and emotionally mature parents also help to nourish sibling connections. They help their children become friends and allies to one another. They help set patterns of respect, understanding and empathy between their children. They teach their children that home is safe, and that they are safe to be themselves with each other. These parents model healthy self-care and conflict resolution. Children in healthy homes learn how to express their needs, wants and deal with conflict within the safety net of their siblings and parents.
Children in a home with a narcissistic parent learn that they are rivals for their parental affection.
However, children in a home with a narcissistic parent learn that they are rivals for their parental affection. They learn to hide their true selves not only from their parents, but from each other. They learn from very young that love, acceptance and safety are conditional. They learn that their wants and needs are not valid. They do not feel inherently worthy of love and belonging. Instead, deep in their bones, they know that home and family are not safe.
Zahra* was one of many children in a home with a narcissistic father. He terrorised their family behind closed doors using his barrage of verbal, emotional and spiritual abuse.
As Zahra got older, she started fighting back to defend her mother and siblings. Zahra and all of her siblings had secret lives of their own. Some of them got into unhealthy relationships out of sheer loneliness. Some of her younger siblings who did not feel connected to their father’s religion, but were too afraid to express that at home, hid their opinions.
What happens when children in these chaotic homes grow up and move out? By the time they realise their parent is a narcissist, or has destructive narcissistic patterns, the damage has already been done. Their brains have already been wired from years of trauma. Even as adults, it is common for the golden child to continue defending the narcissistic parent and continue to blame the scapegoat child. In this scenario, it is likely that these adult children will repeat old patterns from childhood.
Now that they are adults, Luc says he ‘cannot remember’ the abuse that Ani endured throughout their childhoods. He constantly defends his parents, especially his mother. Ani is no longer in contact with her brother, but knows that their mother is always worried about him – not her. Never her.
Sometimes, it can feel too difficult to be confronted by living proof of past trauma.
Zahra’s father is no longer a terrifying presence in their lives. Her mother, siblings and her are now able to live full and happy lives. Her siblings who no longer identify with their father’s religion can express that authentically now.
Adult siblings from a home with a narcissistic parent offer something precious to each other – they are the only witnesses in an invisible war. They offer each other reassurance that they grew out of a devastated landscape and made something beautiful. They are living proof of the healing power of time, distance, and love.
Sometimes, it can feel too difficult to be confronted by living proof of past trauma. Adult siblings may choose to keep a safe distance away from each other because they remind each other too much of the bad old days. Zahra knows that her siblings dislike talking about what they went through as children, so she doesn’t bring it up.
Instead, she brings her pain to her therapist. She is also not close to her more liberal siblings, not for lack of trying, but she senses that her own conservatism reminds them of their father. That makes her sad, but she respects their need for closure.
The response of each sibling and how they cope with their own experience with narcissistic parents is different. Sometimes the best thing one can do is to protect oneself and move on.
Raidah Shah Idil is a mother of three, poet and freelance writer. You can follow Raidah on Twitter @raidahshahidil.
For more information see Inside the mind of a narcissist.
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This article is part of SBS Voices emerging Muslim women writers’ series. If you have a pitch, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.