“Sisters and brothers are the truest, purest forms of love, family, and friendship, knowing when to hold you and when to challenge you, but always being a part of you.” 

Carol Ann Albright Eastman    

Those who say, “I love God” and hate their brothers or sisters are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister  whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen. 

1 John 4:20 NRSV 


Suppose a parent passes away or becomes absent, the older child steps into keeping the family together. Instantly, worry about finding work and paying bills replaces adolescent concerns, such as prom dates and sports matches. The surrogate parent – sometimes just a teenager  – must manage household logistics and make difficult decisions for siblings. All this while dealing with their own grief and anxiety. How does this dynamic between a caregiving sibling and younger brothers and sisters influence them in later years? 

Causes of Parental Neglect

  1. Parental depression,
  2. Parental alcohol or substance abuse,
  3. Workaholic Moms
  4. Domestic Violence
  5. Husbands who had made sure that their wives were perpetually pregnant
  6. Parents who were overly-enmeshed with their own families-of-origin
  7. Families that are subject to severe religious strictures against the use of birth control and/or against mothers working outside the home, and a host of others. 

The Root of Sibling Discord

In many of these families, childcare duties fall on the oldest siblings, who are pressed into service to take care of the younger ones. Unfortunately, this situation is a setup for highly disturbed sibling relationships later in their lives after all siblings have grown into adulthood. There are three reasons for such sibling discord in such a situation that I would like to focus on and describe:

Siblings’ anger at parents

The siblings are angry at the neglectful parents. Nevertheless, they protect their parents from those negative feelings by displacing them onto the older, mother-substitute sibling. Displacement is a defense mechanism that old-fashioned psychoanalytic psychotherapists had originally described. Analysts tend to think of it as something people do essentially to protect themselves from feelings that they find unacceptable internally. It might be a means to protect the parents from feeling bad about how they have mistreated their offspring.

No Real Authority for the Eldest

The older sibling has no real power in the family.  No one prepares them to be parents. However, the pressure can lead the eldest to be verbally or even physically abusive to the younger siblings. The younger siblings then come to resent the older one. It’s because of the possible abuse and the fact that the older sibling is not the one they wanted taking care of them in the first place. In other words, reasons #1 and #2 often co-exist.

No Parental Supervision

When the oldest sibling is a male, a few years older than the younger siblings, the younger ones are female. As a result of having no parental supervision, the boy can often sexually molests the girls in such cases. Sadly, older sisters can also molest younger brothers or even sisters.

These problems lead 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 they are disinherited in one way or another. They may force elderly parents into changing a will, for example. Vicious gossip about the eldest may make the rounds. As proxies for their parents, young children can exile or resent the eldest.