Sibling rivalries in adulthood may be due to invisible childhood trauma
Relationship Advice Tips from Dr. Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.
As chief financial officer in the family bakery business, thirty-eight year old Aaron came in early to get the accounts done for the upcoming board meeting. He erupted in anger and resentment when he learned that his younger brother Blake was taking an extra two days of vacation. Aaron complained bitterly to his mother who was preparing a batch of bread dough for the oven, but got little understanding or sympathy.
Sibling rivalries came out in full force within the set up of the family business
Blake got away with everything and Aaron was sick to death of having to pick up the slack for the sake of the business. He wanted to quit so that his parents would get a real taste of what it would be like without him, but a sense of loyalty and commitment stopped him from walking out and starting his own business- something he had thought of doing several times before, especially when he felt unfairly burdened by the weight of Blake’s nonchalance.
For the rest of that week Aaron kept reminding his parents about how hard he worked and how much responsibility he took on. He wanted them to sort out the sibling rivalries by making things more equal between him and Blake, but they just palmed him off with a pay raise or luxury travel vouchers. He felt that they favored Blake and expected him to carry his younger brother on his back.
He was on the verge of reaching his fortieth birthday and he didn’t have a girlfriend! Blake on the other hand had a doting wife and three kids all going to private school on the fat of the profits that Aaron slaved to make in the family business. Aaron felt trapped within the web of the family business. He rarely had time for a social life. He tried to extricate himself by fighting with his parents and coming down hard on Blake. He had to fight for his freedom to live his life to the full rather than manage the responsibility of the family business as his parents were getting ready for retirement. He wanted to assume his half of the ownership when his parents bowed out, but he was damned if he was going to do all the work for half the profits!
Envy in the sibling relationships triggered buried memories of childhood trauma
Nightmares haunted Aaron as he grappled with this intractable dilemma. He came to work tired, irritable and snappy with his parents. He was point blank rude and cruel to Blake in his remarks, making his parents see Blake as the one needing rescuing rather than Aaron. He became incensed with Blake getting even more protection and sympathy than before. Everything felt upside down and wrong. He accused his parents of blatant favoritism and blindness towards his suffering and his needs, and then he walked out before that all important board meeting. He didn’t like seeming jealous or monstrous but he had no choice.
Alone in his house Aaron was as first pumped with power at having taken action on his own behalf. But within a couple of days he became anxious. He started to have mild panic attacks when he found himself alone and isolated. He wanted to reconnect with his parents but he didn’t want to seem weak and unable to stand his ground. He had no one to reach out to and no way of managing the growing empty feeling that made him dizzy with fear of being alone and helpless.
Fear and anxiety from an early but invisible childhood trauma flooded Aaron's mind and body
Aaron’s parents called to see him. He had a sudden rush of anxiety which then led to uncontrollable sobs. His parents were alarmed and stayed with him trying to understand what was going on. Eventually Aaron felt able to compose himself and tell them that he had a flash back of being left alone in pre-school, waiting for his mother to pick him up at the age of three. He had been terrified of being abandoned and orphaned.
Shock and disbelief gripped Aaron and his parents. How could that incident cause such a huge reaction, and why now? After all Aaron’s mother did pick him even though she was late. His mother had told his teacher that she was picking up the dog from the vet and would be late picking up her son, but that teacher didn’t tell Aaron, and that's what led to the childhood trauma.
Aaron seemed okay after that experience and no one ever gave it another thought. He went back to school albeit a bit teary but it didn’t last. He seemed to have gotten over it and continued to well in school.
As Aaron reeled from facing this awful memory, he told his parents about the terror that he had felt as a toddler, wondering if he would ever see his mother again. He told them that he had imagined being forgotten, thrown away and unable to reunite with his parents. His parents didn’t know whether they should feel guilty or label themselves as bad parents. Now they were in shock. They didn’t understand it until they came to family therapy in order to unravel the childhood trauma and understand the connection to the later sibling rivalries.
In the safety of the family therapy sessions they discovered that Aaron had experienced an emotional trauma as a toddler but that he had buried it. He would not have been able to re-experience those frightening feelings as a young child, but now as an adult he was safe enough to do so. The anger he felt as a child at being left at school was coming out now in the form of sibling rivalry that he demanded his parents sort out – compensation for the loss he experienced as a child on that one fateful day.
Aaron’s experience of being burdened with carrying Blake in the business gave him the vehicle he needed to be angry with his parents and let it rip. He brought his early buried trauma into the present day so he could finally process it and make his parents understand his enormous fear of losing them.
As Aaron and his family shared their experiences of that traumatic event, they gradually recalled other times when Aaron seemed fearful of being alone or away from the family. Aaron and his parents developed a language in which to share their emotional memories. The childhood trauma was processed and defanged. There was no more need to deal with it through the channel of sibling rivalry.
The atmosphere in the family business improved dramatically. Aaron didn’t feel so jealous of Blake. He was able to communicate his feelings and needs in a more collaborative adult business like manner. He didn’t have to behave like a child complaining about unfair treatment because he was no longer stuck in the trauma he experienced at the age of three. He was now free to enjoy a social life and start dating.
So if you find yourself or your family members in a state of constant tension, fighting and demanding fairness when it isn’t an issue, it is probably the beginnings of the working out of a very early childhood trauma. Make room for it and get professional help so that the family doesn’t fall apart.
Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.
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Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educative purposes only. There is no liability on the part of Dr. Raymond for any reactions you may experience while reading the article or implementing the suggestions therein. Interacting with this material does not constitute a therapeutic relationship with Dr. Raymond.