Overcoming Sibling Trauma Bond Through Healthy Relationships

Sibling Trauma Bonds

Sibling relationships can be complicated. While siblings often share a close bond, sibling relationships can also become strained, especially if there is trauma involved.

Sibling trauma bond refers to an unhealthy emotional attachment between siblings that develops due to shared traumatic experiences, typically abuse or neglect in childhood. Sibling trauma bonds are complex and can have lasting impacts on siblings well into adulthood. 

Understanding the Dynamics of Sibling Trauma Bonds

Sibling trauma bonds form when siblings rely on each other for emotional support and validation in response to trauma, often because caregivers are absent or the source of the 

trauma. This leads to an excessive dependence between siblings, known as a trauma bond. 

Trauma bonds between siblings may develop when:

  • Siblings experience abuse, neglect, or other trauma from caregivers
  • One sibling takes on a caregiver role for other siblings
  • Siblings band together to survive a dysfunctional home environment
  • Parentification occurs when one sibling has to act as a surrogate parent

5 Characteristics of Sibling Trauma Bonds

There are several key characteristics of sibling trauma bonds:

1. Emotional dysregulation

Siblings may become emotionally dysregulated and unstable due to the trauma. They may struggle to identify, understand, and cope with their feelings. This can lead to mood swings, impulsivity, and other dysfunctional emotional behaviors.

2. Idealization and contempt 

Siblings bonded by trauma may swing between idealizing each other as the only source of comfort and viewing each other with extreme contempt. Black-and-white thinking tends to predominate.

3. Lack of boundaries

Normal boundaries between siblings may be absent, with each sibling excessively relying on and trying to emotionally “merge” with the other to cope with the trauma. Siblings may become enmeshed. 

4. Control issues 

Sibling trauma bonds often involve a power imbalance, with one sibling asserting inappropriate levels of control over the other. This can later manifest as one sibling trying to control or dominate the other in adulthood.

5. Love-hate relationship 

Intense feelings of love may be mixed with rage, jealousy, and hatred between bonded siblings. The relationship lacks stability. Siblings may struggle with ambivalence towards one another.

6 Causes of Sibling Trauma Bonds

There are several potential causes of unhealthy sibling trauma bonds:

1. Dysfunctional family dynamics

Growing up in a dysfunctional family with parental abuse, neglect, addiction, or other issues can cause siblings to band together to get their emotional needs met. 

2. Parentification 

When one sibling has to take on parental duties and caretaker roles for younger siblings due to absent parents, parentification can occur. The parentified sibling may both resent and feel protective of their siblings.

3. Shared childhood trauma

Shared traumatic experiences like abuse, neglect, family violence, or the loss of a parent can create trauma bonds between siblings. The siblings rely on each other to cope.

4. Need for validation 

When siblings experience invalidation from caregivers regarding the trauma they faced, they may turn to each other excessively for validation of their feelings and experiences.

5. Attachment ruptures

In healthy families, secure sibling attachment develops. In dysfunctional families, sibling attachments can become fractured, causing siblings to cling to one another intensely.

6. Maladaptive coping

Lacking support and healthy role models, traumatized siblings may develop maladaptive coping mechanisms like substance abuse. Bonding over these behaviors can create further unhealthy entanglements.

6 Effects of Sibling Trauma Bonds

Sibling trauma bond can have lasting harmful effects extending into adulthood:

1. Relationship instability 

As adults, siblings bonded by trauma often continue to have chaotic, unstable relationships 

characterized by intense emotions, blowups, and dysregulation.

2. Difficulty with intimacy 

Many adults struggle with true intimacy and setting healthy boundaries with siblings with whom they have trauma bonds. Enmeshment may persist along with excessive contact.

3. Reenactment of trauma

Old trauma-based behavioral dynamics between bonded siblings are often reenacted in adulthood. Siblings may slip back into childhood roles. Past wounds may be reopened.

4. Social and familial discord 

Unhealthy sibling alliances can undermine the family system. Bonded siblings are often isolated 

from others in the family and have conflicted relations with parents and spouses.

5. Psychological issues

The impact of early trauma combined with damaged sibling attachments can contribute to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, addiction, and personality disorders in adulthood.

6. Impaired functioning 

Adults with trauma-bonded siblings may struggle with low self-esteem, poor boundaries, lack of identity, and inability to regulate their emotions and behaviors effectively.

Healing from Sibling Trauma Bond

If you have an unhealthy trauma bond with a sibling, healing is possible. Some tips include:

  • Seek professional help to understand the bond’s origins and impact.
  • Establish and maintain personal boundaries with the sibling.
  • Deal with your unresolved trauma and emotions separately from your sibling.  
  • Limit contact with the sibling if needed to reduce dysregulation and drama.
  • Build intimacy and trust slowly if reconciling with an estranged sibling.
  • Learn to identify, feel, and cope with emotions in healthy ways.
  • Find support outside of the sibling bond to meet emotional needs more healthfully.

With time, insight, and intentional work, those burdened by sibling trauma bonds can break free of dysfunctional relationship patterns and develop greater self-sufficiency and emotional stability. Healing your part of the bond can inspire change in the sibling as well.

When Sibling Trauma Bonds Form a Lifelong Burden

In some cases, the effects of sibling trauma bonds last a lifetime. Despite therapy and self-work, the bonded sibling remains a negative presence or is cut off entirely:

1. Lingering enmeshment

Some siblings remain so enmeshed they cannot set healthy boundaries or detach. They may continue lifelong dysfunctional attachment patterns.

2. Ongoing abuse 

A sibling may remain abusive, reenacting childhood physical, verbal, or emotional abuse into adulthood. Their bonded sibling may be unable to leave the relationship behind. 

3. Derailed development 

The effects of sibling trauma bonds can be so damaging that one or both siblings struggle to develop a strong sense of self, emotional regulation skills, intimate relationships, and more.

4. Broken bonds 

In some cases, the relationship becomes so destructive the bond must be severed entirely. However, the broken bond may leave lasting scars like grief, guilt, anger, and loneliness.

5. Retraumatization 

Even after years apart, contact with the sibling may destabilize emotions and retraumatize. The sibling may continue to gaslight, manipulate, and undermine.

6. Shared burdens

Years down the road, the lingering impacts of trauma and toxic bonds may leave siblings leaning on one another again in unhealthy ways due to an inability to cope.

Finding Support for Healing from Sibling Trauma Bonds

If you recognize an unhealthy trauma bond with your sibling, know that support and resources are available, including:

1. Individual therapy

An experienced trauma-informed therapist can help you unpack the bond, grieve losses, set boundaries, and heal.

 2. Sibling support groups

Connecting with others struggling with similar sibling relationship issues can help you feel understood and less alone. 

 3. Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) 

ACA and similar groups provide a community for those overcoming childhood dysfunction.

4. Books 

Reading books on topics like toxic family relationships, complex PTSD, and emotional incest can offer insight. 

5. Sibling estrangement support

For those considering or experiencing estrangement from a sibling, supportive communities provide comfort during this complex grief.

 6. Self-care practices

Making self-care like meditation, journaling, yoga, and time in nature part of your routine can support healing.

How to Set Boundaries with a Sibling You Have a Trauma Bond With

If you feel enmeshed with a sibling due to childhood trauma, setting firm boundaries is important. Strategies include:

  • Limit contact to reduce intensity and chaos
  • Decline inappropriate requests for money, time, etc.
  • Don’t share personal information they may use against you
  • Meet in neutral locations to minimize old dynamics reemerging  
  • Establish and reinforce what topics of conversation are off-limits
  • Keep visits brief to avoid falling into old roles
  • Trust your intuition if they are boundary testing and push back
  • Seek support from safe friends, a counselor, or a support group when feeling triggered
  • Be prepared to leave or end unhealthy discussions

Start small, be consistent, get support, and know you deserve healthy sibling relationships, not based on past trauma.

6 Warning Signs You Have Slipped into an Unhealthy Sibling Trauma Bond as Adults

Even years after childhood, trauma-bonded siblings may slip back into old, unhealthy relationship patterns. Warning signs include:

 1. Excessive contact

If you spend more time comforting, confiding in, or dealing with drama involving your sibling 

than anyone else, enmeshment may be re-emerging.

2. Losing yourself

Do you suddenly feel off-kilter, powerless, or devoid of an identity after interacting with your sibling? This indicates a loss of boundaries.

3. Emotional flashbacks 

If you feel like a scared child around your sibling or experience intense emotional reactions like rage or panic, old wounds may be getting triggered.

4. Unsafe situations 

If your sibling manipulates you into risky behaviors, shares destructive gossip, or undermines your sobriety, it’s time to step back.

 5. Role reversal

When you fall back into caretaking, enabling, or placating your sibling or sense them trying to control you, unhealthy old dynamics are at play.

6. Broken confidences

If your sibling cannot respect your privacy and shares things you told them in confidence, they are not acting trustworthy.

Developing Healthier Sibling Relationships After Trauma Bonding 

If you and your sibling had an unhealthy trauma bond growing up, it is possible to develop a healthier adult relationship. Strategies include:

1. Get professional help

By seeing a therapist together, you can understand your bond and how to change destructive patterns.

2. Rebuild slowly with boundaries 

Don’t rush intimacy. Set limits to develop trust and new dynamics slowly over time.

3. Validate each other

Practice active listening and empathy when discussing your difficult past and its current impact.

4. Respect separate experiences

Accept you each experienced hardships differently. Do not force the other to process trauma your way.

5. Support each other’s growth

Cheer each other on as you discover new interests and ways of defining yourselves as individuals. 

6. Make amends carefully

If certain behaviors like scapegoating contributed to the trauma bond, take ownership and make amends – but don’t over apologize.

7. Focus on the present 

Dwelling on the painful past or trying to determine who had it worse keeps you stuck. Live in the now.

Why You May Feel Guilty Detaching from an Unhealthy Sibling Bond

Trying to detach from an unhealthy sibling trauma bond often evokes immense guilt. This guilt stems from:

1. A sense of responsibility

You may feel obligated to “fix” your damaged sibling due to the parental role you once held.

2. Fear of abandonment

Your sibling may accuse you of abandonment if you try to detach, triggering the abandonment 

trauma you both experienced as children.

3. Cultural messaging

Societal messages about family loyalty and sticking together can make detaching feel wrong.

4. Sorrow over the relationship that never was

Letting go can bring up grief for the healthy sibling bond you wish you could have had.

5. Lingering guilt from childhood

Unresolved guilt over real or imagined childhood failures as a sibling can make distance feel like another betrayal.

6. Helplessness

You feel powerless to “save” a floundering sibling you were once so close to.

Know you are not responsible for your sibling’s choices and have the right to set boundaries. Seek support in dealing with guilt.

Ways to Cope with Grief Over an Estranged Sibling Bond

If you must estrange an abusive or excessively troubled sibling, you will grieve the loss. Helpful coping strategies include:

1. Allow yourself to grieve

Let yourself fully process and express the painful emotions that surface. Don’t judge them.

2. Avoid isolation  

Don’t grieve alone. Seek out understanding friends, a support group for estranged siblings, or a counselor. 

3. Practice self-care

Make sure you get enough sleep, nutrition, exercise, leisure time, and soothing activities as you grieve.

4. Limit rumination 

Dwelling on regrets, the past, and what-ifs will increase sorrow. When meditating, refocus on the present.

5. Consider reconciliation carefully  

Take time to grieve and stabilize before considering reconciliation. Set firm boundaries if attempting.

6. Be patient with yourself

Understand that grief comes in waves, and the loss may hit you hard sometimes out of the blue. 

7. Write about it

Writing about your relationship, your sorrow, and your hopes for the future can help you process 

the grief. 

8. Look to the future

Make plans for the future and pursue new dreams and relationships when you are ready.

How to Support Someone Healing from a Sibling Trauma Bond

If someone you care about is struggling to overcome an unhealthy sibling trauma bond, here’s how you can support them:

1. Listen without judgment

Let them share feelings and stories without criticizing their sibling relationship or bond.

2. Validate their experience

Offer empathy and understanding about the impact of their early trauma and sibling attachment ruptures.

3. Don’t undermine their need for distance

Respect their decision to limit or end contact with their sibling if that is their choice. Don’t guilt them.

4. Help identify boundaries

Collaborate to identify healthy boundaries they can set with their sibling. Offer to help reinforce those boundaries. 

5. Offer perspectives

Gently offer alternative perspectives about their sibling’s behaviors or their responsibility related to the bond – but don’t push it.

6. Suggest professional help

Recommend a therapist trained in family trauma and attachment issues who may greatly help their healing process.

 7. Remind them that self-care comes first

Ensure they make self-care a priority and do not feel obligated to sacrifice their well-being for their sibling. The pain of unhealthy sibling trauma bonds runs deep. With time, care, and support, healing can occur.

Helping Siblings Overcome Trauma and Build a Healthier Bond

If your children endured early traumas that hurt their bond, don’t lose hope. You can still help them build a healthier relationship.

1. Get professional help

Therapy, especially family therapy, can allow them to express their hurts and learn to communicate better. 

2. Address the trauma 

Talk with each child individually first, then together. Don’t avoid the “elephant in the room.”

3. Teach coping strategies

Help them identify emotions and notice if they’re falling into trauma response mode, then use coping skills.

4. Allow space or time apart

If they get triggered being together, respect their need for physical or emotional distance until they stabilize.

5. Help them see their commonalities  

Draw attention to shared interests, goals, or strengths so they see themselves as teammates, not rivals.

6. Do activities to foster cooperation

Enroll them in a sport, hobby, or volunteer activity where they must work together.

7. Praise good behavior 

Notice times when they support each other or have each other’s backs and offer praise. 

8. Be the anchor

Provide unconditional stability, nurturing, and modeling of healthy behaviors so they have a safe foundation.

Supporting a Sibling Struggling with Mental Health Issues Stemming from Childhood Trauma

Seeing a sibling cope with long-term mental health fallout from childhood trauma can be scary and heartbreaking. Here is how you can support them:

1. Believe them

If they open up about past abuse or family dysfunction, put aside any denial and truly listen.

2. Don’t judge their coping mechanisms

Past substance abuse, eating disorders, overwork, etc., were attempts to manage unbearable pain. 

3. Educate yourself 

Read up on conditions like depression, complex PTSD, and addiction to better empathize.

4. Check in often

Frequently reach out to talk or text in an open way so they know you care.

5. Offer to accompany them

If they have an upcoming therapy session or support group meeting, offer to go along.  

6. Share helpful resources

If you hear of a helpful book, online community, retreat, etc., pass it along. Provide options.

7. Talk about the good times, too

Reminiscing about positive childhood memories reminds them of their strengths and resilience.

8. Set healthy boundaries

If they lash out due to their trauma, you can compassionately decline to engage.

9. Don’t try to “fix” them

Rather than offering unsolicited advice, listen with compassion.

How Role Differences Between Sisters and Brothers Impact Trauma Bond

The gender of trauma-bonded siblings also influences relationship patterns. Some examples:  

1. Sister as confidante

Sisters are more likely to over-share personal problems and seek emotional support from each 

other, even in unhealthy ways due to trauma.

2. Brother as protector

A big brother may feel compelled, even into adulthood, to function as a sister’s primary defender and supporter.

3. Same-sex alliances 

Trauma can cement close same-sex sibling alliances that exclude a sibling of the opposite sex.

4. Opposite-sex discomfort

Trauma bonding across genders can breed inappropriate enmeshment and blur normal healthy boundaries between brother and sister.

5. Competition between sisters

Without parental attention as a scarce resource, sisters may fiercely compete in ways that strain their bond. 

6. Emotional avoidance between brothers

Brothers often avoid expressing vulnerability and evaluating their relationship, which impedes healing trauma.

7. Rivalry over closeness with opposite-sex parent

Competition between opposite-sex siblings to be the preferred child of their same-gender parent can spark lifelong tensions.

When Sibling Trauma Bonds Form a Lifelong Burden

How to Know if You Should Let Go of an Unhealthy Sibling Trauma Bond

The decision to detach from a sibling you share an unhealthy trauma bond with is painful yet sometimes necessary. Consider letting go if:

1. Your sibling abuses you or others without remorse or change. 

2. Interactions leave you routinely distraught, retraumatized, or in crisis.

3. Your bond involves toxic behaviors like substance abuse, criminal activity, or violence.

4. One of you tries to dominate or exploit the other. 

5. Your sibling grossly violates your privacy, trust, or boundaries after being asked to stop.

6. Ultimatums, demands, or frequent crises characterized the relationship.

7. Your mental health and stability have deteriorated significantly due to the relationship.

8. You dread contact and feel trapped, powerless, or rageful after.

9. Your values, ethics, or directions in life fundamentally conflict.

10. All efforts at setting boundaries or healing the bond have failed over an extended period.

Remember that letting go can be an act of self-love when a sibling bond has become severely damaged and dysfunctional.

Ways to Cope When Your Sibling Cuts Off Contact

Having a sibling unexpectedly cut off contact can be intensely painful. Ways to cope include:

1. Seek emotional support 

Turn to empathetic friends, a counselor, or a support group about estrangement to ease loneliness.

2. Try to understand their reasons

Reflect on why your sibling may have reached this decision to process it and let go of self-blame.

3. Resist the urge to pressure them  

Give them space. Pushing for reconciliation or demanding answers often drives them further away.

4. Focus on your healing

Rather than obsessing over their motives, redirect energy into your personal growth and pursuits.

5. Consider writing a letter

Writing an unsent letter expressing your hurt and love helps you release emotions without pressuring them.

6. Embrace ritual 

Rituals like lighting a grief candle or scattering meaningful tokens offer symbolic closure.

7. Manage triggers

Develop strategies to calm yourself when reminders of the estrangement trigger painful feelings.

8. Look to the future 

Make plans with supportive people and explore new directions during this difficult transition.

Further Resources for Healing from the Effects of Sibling Trauma Bonds

If you are grappling with the lingering effects of an unhealthy sibling trauma bond, please know help is available through:

  • Books like “Adult Sibling Relationships” by Poole “Siblings in Therapy” by Bank and Kahn
  • Support groups like Sibling Loss, Adult Siblings of Alcoholics, and Sibling Estrangement Support Groups
  • Referral services like BetterHelp that connect people with trauma-informed therapists  
  • Retreats focused on healing childhood trauma through activities like equine therapy and mindfulness
  • Websites like Out of the Storm offer online classes, coaching, and forums for survivors  
  • Sibling conflict mediation services to facilitate reconciliation attempts in a productive way
  • Workbooks like “Sibling Survivors” by Danielle Gangle provide exercises to process trauma. 
  • Therapeutic modalities like EMDR and somatic therapy tailored to address past trauma
  • You and your sibling deserve healing. Whether together or apart, the kinship of spirit endures.

Wrapping it Up

Sibling trauma bonds are complicated, intense relationships formed by shared childhood pain. Their effects can last a lifetime, continually pulling siblings together and apart. With professional help, hard work, courage, and compassion, new patterns can emerge.

As siblings mindfully unravel enmeshment and build autonomy, they may gradually grow to relate in healthier ways or choose to release the bonds respectfully. Though painful, cutting ties with sincerity and self-care can allow both siblings to move forward. In time, wounds can soften into wisdom.

With therapy and concerted effort over time, siblings can learn to communicate better, establish boundaries, and relate in more stable, caring ways.

It takes significant work to overcome engrained relationship patterns. Some siblings manage to build strong bonds, while others may heal better by letting go.

If attempting reconciliation, proceed slowly, set clear boundaries, seek counseling together, start with low-stake interactions, and rebuild trust over time.

Siblings often feel they have to vie for limited parental affection and attention, especially in dysfunctional families. This can breed lifelong competition.

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