Sibling abuse is one of those things that is apparently quite common but generally under-reported, for reasons that we will look at later. There are various reasons for one sibling to abuse others and here I want to look at one particular group, those with personality disorders. I will first look at the effects of psychopaths on their victims and then look at how these things show up in sibling abuse and how they create many of the problems reported in the literature.
I know that psychopathy is not diagnosed until the age of 18, but psychopaths typically display conduct disorder and callous, unemotional traits from an early age. In other words, for all intents and purposes, they are displaying all the characteristics of psychopathy as children and they have the same effect on those around them as adult psychopaths have on their victims.
I think it's important to know if sibling abuse involves conduct disorder/psychopathy or narcissism because it has profound implications for treatment and recovery. A child who was abused as an adult and is acting this out on siblings is in a different category from a child who has deliberately set out to control and dominate siblings and who is being cruel simply because they can.
It is becoming more widely accepted that psychopaths and narcissists are generally abusive to their victims. What is not so well understood is the pervasiveness of the damage that they do to those around them.
The daily abuse of a psychopath affects the beliefs, the thinking, the emotions and the behaviors of the victims. The victim is forced into thinking and acting the way the psychopath thinks is best. The manipulator will trick, coerce, threaten, bully, deceive and emotionally manipulate a victim into believing certain things and perceiving the world in such a way that the victim's life revolves around the psychopath. The victim organizes themselves to avoid upsetting the abuser and to do things to try and appease the abuser.
If you change someone's world view, their beliefs, thought processes, emotions and behaviors, you have basically changed someone's identity or personality. Psychopaths have been doing this to victims for centuries. However, the process was only studied in detail and documented by a group of psychologists in the 1950s after the Korean war. Edgar Schein was one of these psychologists and he described the process of mind control that the prisoners had undergone as unfreezing the personality, making changes and refreezing the new personality in place. You can read more here about how it happens in cults, in intimate relationships with a controlling wife or a narcissistic boyfriend.
The same process happens in families where there is a toxic parent or a toxic sibling. A significant difference between adult relationships and a family situation is that when a child grows up in a toxic family, their real personality is not allowed to develop at all. They have a pseudopersonality imposed on them from the beginning and this pseudopersonality represses and dominates their real personality. The pseudopersonality is put in place with very powerful influence techniques and it is reinforced over and over, often for years or decades. The pseudopersonality is basically running the show and this causes many problems for the victim because the pseudopersonality is programmed to take care of the abuser, to put the abuser's wants and needs first. The decision making of the pseudopersonality is distorted in favor of the abuser. The pseudopersonality's perception of itself and it's place in the world and the family is also distorted, and not in a good way for the victim.
I don’t have time in this article to explain about personality disorders but these links will give you lots more information about psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists.
You can also read more about destroying the personality, how the pseudopersonality is programmed, how the manipulator creates dependency in their victims and why it's hard for the victim to recognize an abusive situation. This latter idea is also very significant in toxic families because if a person is recruited into a cult, for example, at the age of 30, on leaving they have those pre-cult years with which to compare the cult's behavior. In the case of a child born into a family with manipulators, they have nothing to compare the abusive behavior with.
For the abused child there is often so much abusive behavior that it is considered normal by the child. They may literally not know anything else but abusive behavior. This explains why many children who grew up in abusive families don't realize this fact until well into adulthood. It's not until they get a certain level of life experience outside the family that it begins to dawn on them what kind of environment they were brought up in. This says nothing about the intelligence of the child, nor is it a criticism of someone who didn't know for years that they were being abused. I am simply pointing out that the nature of mind control is such that it makes it difficult for the victim of siblign abuse to recognize what is happening to them.
When dealing with psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists there are certain factors that we should not ignore.
These people have a personality disorder. They are not considered mentally ill and it's not a crime to be a psychopath. However, many of the things they do are illegal or unethical or immoral.
They have no conscience. This means they can do bad things and they don't feel bad about it. They know the difference between right and wrong, they just don't care.
There is no satisfactory treatment for these people at present. But they consider themselves superior anyway, so they don’t think they need to change. Anything bad is always someone else's fault. If they do go to therapy, it's to family therapy to further abuse their victim or they use the therapy to excuse their bad behavior (I have bipolar, there is nothing I can do so you have to accept me as I am...) or they use it to manipulate more (my therapist says I need x so you have to do y for me). Narcissists may go for therapy for depression when their ego is sufficiently bruised but they typically don't stay to sort out the narcissism.
Their relationships are based on coercion and manipulation for their own gain. They are motivated by power, domination, control and will often use money and sex to enhance this power and control.
They are not going to change.
They are practiced liars.
There is no loyalty to anyone except themselves.
You cannot negotiate with them.
Nothing is ever their fault. They always have excuses and will typically blame others for their actions.
The pseudopersonality was imposed upon you without your knowledge or consent.
It is programmed to believe the manipulator, it is programmed to obey the manipulator and it is programmed to put the wants and needs of the manipulator first.
It is programmed to defend the manipulator.
It is programmed to be dependent on the manipulator.
It is not allowed to challenge the manipulator.
The manipulator uses fear and guilt to keep the pseudopersonality in place.
The pseudopersonality feels inferior to the manipulator, and indeed, often to others as well.
The pseudopersonality has difficulty making it's own decisions because it is so used to following the lead of the manipulator.
The victim is blamed for anything that goes wrong and in this way the pseudopersonality learns to accept responsibility (and subsequent punishment) for anything bad that happens (even if it's patently obvious to outsiders that the responsibility is misplaced).
So with these things as background, lets have a closer look at sibling abuse.
There is often confusion about what constitutes sibling abuse because it is considered that siblings fight and this is normal and even healthy. For example, siblings in conflict can push each other further than they might a friend because a sibling relationship is more enduring than friendships. Recognizing this, a child may fight his corner harder with a sibling knowing they won't be rejected as they might be by a friend. In this way the child learns about relationships, boundaries etc.
So when does this conflict become abusive? Sibling abuse is defined by John Caffaro and A. Conn-Caffaro, psychologists who have done work in this area (see below), as "a repeated pattern of aggression directed towards a sibling with the intent to inflict harm, and motivated by an internal emotional need for power and control".
Abuse covers psychological, physical and sexual abuse. And very often when there is physical and sexual abuse, it is preceded by psychological abuse. It's what allows the abuser to continue the physical and sexual abuse over time.
In terms of 'psychopathic' siblings, they certainly have the drive for control although it's not necessarily an 'emotional' drive. And when they are involved, there is little doubt that there is abuse. It goes way beyond healthy sibling conflict or 'a bit of sibling rivalry'.
Sibling sexual abuse is another area that is under reported. Some studies suggest that sibling sexual abuse is three to five times more prevalent than the commonest form of adult child incest, which is the father-daughter situation. How come it's so prevalent but not noticed or reported?
First of all, there are no universally accepted criteria for what constitutes sibling incest. There is a gray area between what is considered normal sexually exploratory behavior and abuse. It used to be thought that sexual activity between children was harmless. Now it is realized that in abusive situations, sibling sexual abuse can be every bit as detrimental to the victim as child abuse by adults.
It was also believed that sexual activity between children of roughly the same age would not cause problems but it turns out that much actual abuse does occur between children where there is a very small age gap.
The criteria that are considered nowadays include whether there is consent or coercion, secrecy, power imbalances, influence on sexual development and the after effects on the individual. But even here, there may be difficulties. What appears to be consent can actually be fear. Or even the trickery of the psychopath in deceiving the victim into thinking that it's their idea to initiate a sexual relationship.
A toxic child who abuses their siblings can have tremendous power. Children are the most vulnerable and defenseless in mind control environments and that includes situations where the manipulator is a sibling.
The toxic sibling can fool their parents into thinking they are the nice, kind child and that they are the victim. They can make out that they are the one who is suffering at the hands of their normal sibling, A toxic sibling may even be causing so many problems for the parents that the parents don't realize the damage that is being done to the other children.
We have seen above that a child with conduct disorder who grows up to be a psychopath wants to control and dominate others. They can verbally abuse, physically abuse and sexually abuse others without feeling bad. If you read some of the things that adult psychopaths write about their childhood, you will find that they often realize early on that they are not limited by these things called emotions. This allows them to begin to try different things to learn how to control those around them. There is no embarrassment for them if something doesn’t work or if they are caught out. It's all just information for them. If something does not work, they stop doing it. If something is effective, they do more of it, practice it and get good at it.
They learn how to manipulate emotions, how to lie, how to get people to do and believe certain things, how to cry, how to hide what they are up to, how to set people against each other and so on.
All this is done on purpose. Those with any real interest in manipulating can become extremely good at it over time. Some of them are so aware of what they are doing that they realize it is actually very easy for them to manipulate adults as children because the adults don't consider that a young child could be so devious or nasty!
Sibling relationships are often the longest relationships that people have in their lives. Studies have shown that siblings can and do have a profound effect on each other. Engaging with siblings is often how children first learn to think for themselves, to share and to notice the differences between themselves and other. Becoming aware of these differences allows individuals to develop their own sense of identity and build their self esteem. The arguments and squabbles are considered to be useful in helping the children to learn how to build relationships in childhood and later in life.
Well functioning families encourage these differences as a way to acknowledge the individual as unique and distinct. Such families also change according to the feedback in the system, that is, the wants and needs of individuals are taken into account and the system will change and adapt as necessary.
So what happens when one sibling exhibits conduct disorder on the way to becoming a psychopath?
Straight away there is a power imbalance in the sibling relationships. The manipulative sibling has certain motives and interests in their dealings with their siblings. They are not just fighting for what's theirs, they are fighting to dominate and control. They may not want to acknowledge a brother or sister as different, they want to be superior to the sibling. They want to be more, they want to do more and they want to have more. These drives have a profound effect on the relationship and on the victim.
As we have discussed above, the manipulator wants to control the beliefs, the thoughts the emotions and the actions of those around them. Obviously a three year old, for example, may not be thinking in these specific terms but the way a manipulative child acts towards their siblings is such that the effects on the victim are a change in these things. The pseudopersonality, therefore, is imposed from a very early age on the siblings and the development of the real personality is inhibited.
This is a profound difference from the situation in healthy families. The abused siblings quickly learn not to upset the manipulator out of fear of retaliation. They will be made to be submissive not only by the manipulator but also sometimes by the parents who are also trying to keep the peace by appeasing the manipulator.
The victims of sibling abuse often feel that the manipulator gets more parental attention, and more benefits in general, then they do themselves. The resentment frequently cannot be expressed, again for fear of retaliation, and even if it is expressed the situation does not change. There is no improvement for the victims because the manipulator has such control over the family.
Remember that such a manipulator has no regard for rules and even if punished, it does not stop them from doing the same things over and over again. This can be devastating for parents because there is no way to control or discipline such a child. The child literally does whatever they like in the house. They can shout, scream, coerce, threaten, bully and physically abuse parents and siblings to get what they want. The household revolves around the desires of the manipulative child and they are basically in charge.
They will lie, cheat, blame the normal children for any problems, not accept responsibility for anything and the whole family lives in fear of them. They will pit parent against parent and parents against siblings by lying, withholding information and distorting facts.
The siblings are trained to please the manipulator. This often shows up as people pleasing behavior later with an inability to say no to others. The siblings often have a sense of hopelessness or helplessness because they have so often been unable to get what they wanted for themselves. They have low self esteem because of the nature of the verbal abuse. They often think very poorly of themselves, 'I am stupid, worthless, not as good an others...'
They believe that when bad things happen they are somehow to blame. This is a very pervasive and deeply ingrained belief and is installed by the manipulator by repeatedly making the victim personally responsible for all sorts of things. When a person believes they are personally responsible for bad things, their self esteem takes a hit, they feel shame and guilt and they also feel obliged to accept whatever punishment is given out. This explains why many victims don't want to talk about having been psychologically or sexually abused. When there is mind control (and psychopaths and narcissists) involved, they have been led to believe that they deserved it or that it was their own fault and in the case of sexual abuse, that they even initiated or wanted the sexual relationship.
This kind of abuse in families can go on for decades. As long as a person is in a relationship with a psychopath or a narcissist, that person can expect to be abused.
In a family where one or both parents are also psychopathic or narcissistic, the damage done to the siblings is magnified. There are virtually no healthy role models for the abused siblings. Even a healthy parent married to a psychopath has a pseudopersonality so the children often learn the submissive patterns of beliefs and behaviors from this parent.
This kind of family is a very common situation for scapegoating, where one child is singled out and blamed for everything. This particular child suffers so much obvious abuse that they know that something is wrong and they frequently do seek help or therapy of some sort later in life. The other children in such families will often pick on the scapegoat, too, because they genuinely believe that it is the scapegoat's fault (they hear it so often!) or they blame the scapegoat in order not to stand out and attract attention to themselves. These people often consider that their family was strict, or somewhat dysfunctional, but they believe that they have survived and are doing ok. They typically don't realize the extent of the sibling abuse and the damage done to them, even if they have decided to stay as far away from the manipulator as possible. They usually do have problems in their lives but may not associate them with the manipulative sibling.
When there is more than one psychopath in a family, the children are exposed to so much abuse that it all seems normal. As I mentioned before the children have nothing to compare their life to, so they are in a position where they cannot leave so they have to adapt to whatever is being thrown at them as best as they can. Obviously a normal, healthy development of their own personality just doesn’t happen. They end up not having many of the normal experiences that children usually have and this affects their ability to form and maintain relationships as adults.
For example, some studies have shown that more than half of sibling incest survivors over the age of 25 do not marry (this includes all types of situations, not just where there is a psychopath involved). But even when there is no sexual abuse, when a psychopath sets to work on a person, there are often many and varied problems for the victim even after breaking off the relationship.
For such a common occurrence, there is precious little valuable information available.
Understanding the nature of psychological abuse is fundamental to healing and there are some interesting research papers available such as this one by John Caffaro and a review of the literature on sibling sexual abuse up to 2012 in this paper done through the Australian Institute of Family Studies (download pdf)
There has been little research done specifically on conduct disorder/psychopathy and sibling abuse as far as I can tell. However, if you are dealing with a sibling in this category, it obviously has important ramifications for recovery and healing.
The reason they don't diagnose psychopathy until eighteen years of age is that some people may change while they are growing. However, by the time many people realize that they were subjected to sibling abuse they have reached adulthood and the abuser has not changed (except to have gotten more abusive and manipulate with practice!). In these cases such a distinction becomes irrelevant.
Psychopaths don’t change. Involving them in therapy often means that the victim is further traumatized. Trying to reconcile a relationship with an abusive psychopath is not satisfactory, it's much better for a victim of sibling abuse to sort things out without the psychopath.
To deal effectively with psychopathic abuse and sibling abuse requires working with an expert in mind control and psychopathy/narcissism. It involves learning how and what the abuser did to you. All those patterns of the pseudopersonality need to be undone and the real personality needs to be developed. The person has to learn to make their own decisions as well as develop other strategies for living, having relationships and dealing with problems.
It takes time and effort to do all these things and an expert will speed up the process as well as help you avoid the usual pitfalls in sibling abuse recovery and will also help you to spot destructive beliefs that are holding you back. Somebody who understands these things will never judge you or blame you for what was done to you. They will never make you responsible for something that was not your fault. This is very significant. As long as you believe you were responsible for what happened to you, you cannot fully recover.
There is more information here about mind control, signs of emotional abuse, dealing with controlling people, the damage done by a controlling mother, how to leave an abusive relationship and dealing with toxic families.
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