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Siblings cope with trauma differently. Here’s why.

Siblings raised with trauma can have very different responses as adults. Here's how and why, and also how this matters given the politics of today.

How are you this morning? I wonder how these last few weeks have been for you, particularly in light of what has emerged about the treatment of babies and children at the detainment camps on the border

I know that, as a new mother and as a trauma therapist, I was deeply impacted.

I posted publicly about this issue, my outrage, and my suggestions for how and where to donate and act out against this on my public Facebook page, and, while I received a lot of support and affirmation that my community likewise truly cares about what’s happening to these children, I also received a fair share of vitriol and pushback. 

Siblings raised with trauma can have very different responses as adults. Here's how and why, and also how this matters given the politics of today.

Siblings cope with trauma differently. Here’s why.

Comments PM’d and publicly shared included: “They shouldn’t be here, anyway.” and “It’s not your job as a therapist to be political!” or “The Trump administration is the best thing to ever happen to this country and those kids are being taken care of so stop posting about this.”

(Side note: Probably don’t follow a liberal, Berkeley-based trauma therapist’s social media channels or newsletter list if you’re affronted at her advocating for the humane treatment of innocent children. That’s like going to a butcher’s shop and being offended that they have meat for sale. Just saying…)

These comments, coupled with receiving a thought-provoking comment on my blog the other week in response to a recent post, had me thinking about how siblings who grow up in the same dysfunctional home environment can have wildly different responses to their upbringing as adults and how this can often greatly challenge their relationship as adult siblings. 

So, if you’ve ever wondered why you and your sibling(s) share a common history but not a common response, if you’ve felt unseen, unsupported, and diminished by them for having your experience of your childhood, and/or if you wonder why adults can look at the detainment and maltreatment of innocent children and have such startlingly polar opposite reactions, you may find today’s post thought-provoking.

With trauma, experience is subjective.

First, I want to share with you the comment I received on my recent blog post, “Full Body Papercuts And A Bathtub Full Of Lemon Juice: A Reframe On Borderline Personality Disorder.” A reader wrote:

“Hi Annie, I’m curious as to how it can be explained when 2 children grow up in the same environment and one is DX [diagnosed] with bpd [Borderline Personality Disorder] and one not. If bpd manifests due to trauma, both experienced and only one develops bpd, there must be a neurology and biology component to the illness as well. Feel it would be helpful for some to expand on the “why” of bpd. If trauma alone was the culprit, we’d be seeing much higher numbers of DX individuals.”

You can read my full response to her on the blog, but, to summarize my feedback, it’s important to understand that while there is little research and literature on the epigenetic contribution (gene predisposition combined with environmental factors that, effectively “switch on” certain genes) to the development of personality disorders in individuals, it’s certainly possible that genes have some role in the development of Borderline Personality Disorder (or any of the personality or mood disorders). 

So, while genetic predisposition may explain why only one of two siblings who grow in the same abusive house developed quite differently, and, I also think we have to consider something else important:

Experience is subjective. 

What do I mean by this? 

Subjective means that the way you view the world or the events that happen to you are filtered through your own lens of personal experience. 

Objective experience is what happens when a video camera captures something: At 3:22 pm on Monday, July 1st a mouse ran across the left foot of a woman sitting at her kitchen table. 

A subjective experience may be that yesterday you were completely disgusted and shocked when a big, horrible rodent climbed all over your foot in your kitchen and gave you the heebie-jeebies. 

Objective: Factual. Subjective: Personal. 

So what this means is that you may go through the same event as another person but you may experience it differently. 

Two siblings who grow up in the same home but who develop differently can have radically different experiences of their upbringing based on a wide variety of variables including, but not limited to:

  • Age;
  • Gender; 
  • Temperament;
  • External support systems;
  • Whether or not they were the focus of or witness to the abuse while the other was not or was not old enough to remember;
  • Their inherent resilience and adaptive coping mechanisms; 
  • And much more.

How siblings subjectively experience abuse, neglect, trauma, and chaos in their childhood can be informed by a complex medley of variables all contributing to the possibility of having wildly different experiences from one another.

And then there’s another important consideration: coping mechanisms.

Kids cope with their subjective experiences as best they can.

In an abusive, chaotic, neglectful or otherwise traumatic upbringing, kids, each having their own subjective experience of that time, will respond with coping mechanisms that, I find, can be categorized into three primary responses: Rebel, Join, Freeze.

The child who rebels is a child who, as the label implies, recognizes that something is wrong or off about the environment and the treatment they are experiencing so they rebel, speak up, challenge the adults, and effectively “fight back.” There are costs to being the one who rebels in a dysfunctional family system. This individual usually has more “battle scars” but also, often, a stronger sense of self.

Another way a child can rebel in a dysfunctional system is by “joining.” Effectively, this child will “buy into” what’s happening in the family system, going along with what the family system and family culture is promulgating. There is safety in this strategy for the child who joins typically is rewarded with more relational security and “belonging” to the family system, but the cost can be high in the form of a not-as-strong sense of self. 

Finally, the third primary way a child can cope in a dysfunctional family system is to freeze. This may look like “checking out,” having disorganized attachment responses to the parents and other siblings, “shutting down” and generally taking neither the position of the fighter nor the joiner. Like with the sympathetic nervous system response of freezing or “playing dead” there is wisdom and cost to this coping strategy as well.

Let me be clear: Rebelling, joining, and freezing are generalized coping mechanism responses.

The way children cope with dysfunction within a family system can be as behaviorally and psychologically nuanced as the child themselves. 

A child’s coping mechanism(s) can look like one of the above, a combination of the above, or it can look like something else entirely. 

The more important point that I’m trying to make is that children cope differently with their subjective experiences in the moment and, moreover, develop and adapt different psychological coping mechanisms after the fact to cope with what happened to them. 

After-the-fact coping mechanisms can look like having gaps in their memory, rewriting or revisioning the family history, conflating the abuses and abusers, diminishing the abuse and abusers, aligning with one parent and demonizing the other, denying the reality of anyone who thinks differently than them, and so much more. 

So, while genetics may play a role in why one of two siblings in an abusive family home develops some psychological symptomatology and the other does not, we also have to consider that the subjective experience of the individual living through the trauma combined with the way this child chooses to cope and adapt after the trauma can contribute to radically different sibling experiences of a shared childhood.

And this divergence of experiences can often feel challenging for the adults that these siblings become.

Differing subjective experiences of trauma may create relational pain.

If you’re an adult who grew up in an abusive, dysfunctional or chaotic family home, I probably don’t need to tell you that relationships with your adult siblings can sometimes or always be complex because of how you were raised.

In fact, you may have heard, said, or been at the receiving end of comments like:

“Dad never did that!”

You’re making such a big deal of things. You’re making up what mom said.”

“I don’t remember that! Are you sure we grew up in the same house?”

“Whatever. You have to get over things. I went through the same thing and I’m doing fine!”

Honestly, I’m not trying to shame you or your siblings if you’ve said or received comments like these. 

I really truly believe that children (and the adult children of abusive homes that we become) do the best we can with the resources, capacities, and awarenesses that we have.

AND, let’s face it, it can still suck to be part of a family dynamic where your experience is denied, diminished, or otherwise made unimportant or invisible.

And more than simply sucking, it can also lead to family conflict, emotional distancing, disownment, and estrangements.

And when you’re the sibling who remembers the abuse, who is hurting from the past and deeply wanting validation of your memories and experiences from your sibling but they can’t or won’t give that to you, it can be so, so painful. 

It can make you feel like The Black Sheep of your family

You can feel wrongly pressured to forget what happened and just forgive your abuser(s). 

You can feel warped and thwarted from thriving in the midst of such a system.

In an ideal world, siblings of a dysfunctional family background would seek out family therapy as adults (did you know that you can get family therapy online even if you live in different locations?).

And, I’ll be honest, this isn’t always possible. 

So what we can do by ourselves instead is the important personal work of confronting our own personal history, feeling all of our feelings about it, and making sense of it with a compassionate, validating witness so that we can heal any maladaptive coping mechanisms that are legacies of our past, and move forward in creating a more connected, enlivened, and fulfilling life for ourselves. 

Also, we can take a look at the kind of boundaries, if any, we want to hold with siblings or other family members who can’t or won’t share or honor our subjective experience of our painful past.

If you would like to learn how to set healthy boundaries and know how to feel good no matter how hard your family is and no matter how they behave, please be sure to explore my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries.

So what does this have to do with migrant children at the border?

Well, aside from the fact that these children are currently going through a major, and potentially generationally-impactful trauma themselves – no child should ever have to wonder when and if their parent(s) will ever be back to get them! – I think of our country right now as a dysfunctional family system with an abusive, chaotic, and unreliable patriarchal figure at the helm. 

And I think that within this dysfunctional “family system” we are having different subjective experiences of it and this is leading to tremendous differing of opinions about subjects great and small, including the subject of how migrant children are being treated at the border. 

It’s easy for me, being a mother, liberal trauma therapist, and a survivor of an abusive childhood myself to say, THIS IS WRONG. THIS IS INHUMAN. THESE CHILDREN SHOULD NOT BE TREATED THIS WAY.

But it’s not easy or even possible for certain others to think and experience this. 

When someone doesn’t care about these children, when someone doesn’t look at maltreatment of children and think it’s wrong, I try to push beyond my immediate reactivity of anger and outrage and try, as much as I can, to imagine into the worldview of that person and why they might see things the way they do.

Say this person was raised by abusers themselves. Say this person developed a tolerance for and expectation of maltreatment. With a subjective experience like this, of course, they wouldn’t necessarily see what’s happening to children at the border as “being so bad.”

Or, let’s imagine that if someone acknowledged what’s happening to these migrant children is wrong and inhumane, it would also force them to confront their own abusive, painful history and this – confronting their past – feels intolerable to them and that’s why they can’t and won’t pay attention to what’s happening.

It’s hard, I think, to have compassion for others when they either deny our subjective experience of an abusive childhood or when they fail to acknowledge or care about the abuses happening in the country right now. 

But if we can try to understand the subjective worldview of that person AND still own our story and acknowledge and advocate for fair, humane treatment of ourselves and others, this can – just maybe! – be a model for others who may not be where we are in our own healing journeys yet.

Wrapping this up.

In dysfunctional families and in dysfunctional societies, individuals will have wildly different responses and impacts to the dynamics at play.

It’s my personal opinion that the more we do our own personal work (by confronting our own abusive, neglectful, chaotic or traumatic backgrounds, by grieving and making sense of the past, by learning and living out more functional, healthy behavior and seeking out more supportive, healthy relationships), the more we are able to recognize and speak out against dysfunctional behavior in others and in larger social systems.

Doing your own personal work is, I truly believe, an act of social justice. 

And if you’re interested in taking action in creating a more just and functional world in addition to doing your own personal work, I’m going to include three ways you can support those precious children being detained and traumatized at the border at the bottom of this post.

Thank you for caring with me. 

Warmly, Annie


Three powerful actions to help the detained children at the border:

1) Call your representatives:

US Capital switchboard: 202-224-3121.

Sample script: “Hi, my name is X from Y, my zip code is Z. I am calling to request that Congress use its oversight powers to ensure the basic human needs of migrants. I want those children to see soap, toothbrushes, and beds right now.”

Plug this number into your phone. Save it. Dial it again the next day.

2) Donate to organizations who can touch the lives of these impacted children:

Families Belong Together: Includes nearly 250 organizations representing Americans from all backgrounds who have joined together to fight family separation and promote dignity, unity, and compassion for all children and families.

Kids in Need of Defense (KIND): According to its website, KIND “partners with major law firms, corporations, law schools, and bar associations to create a nationwide pro bono network to represent unaccompanied children through their immigration proceedings.”

And, my personal favorite – Together Rising, the powerful organization headed by our beloved Glennon Doyle, which raised $2,052,301 in two days for an emergency response to, and long-term legal accountability for, the child detention crisis. All donations Together Rising receives from us will go to emergency response and long-term strategy for detained children.

3) Donate air miles.

Lawyer Moms of America is one group that contributes airline miles and funds to people in border shelters. This enables those who have achieved asylum to leave and makes space for new arrivals.

Medical Disclaimer

Reader Interactions


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  1. Susan Pease Banitt says

    Annie, from one trauma therapist to another, and one Mom to another, thank you so very much for this wise and insightful post. It helped. Keep using your beautiful voice!

    • Annie says

      Susan, your comment touched me so much. Thank you! I’m grateful that you took the time to read the post and to respond. And as a fellow therapist and mom, thank YOU for all that you do. The more I do this work, the more I’m convinced the heroes of the world are the parents who are giving their children childhoods they won’t need to recover from.

  2. Killian says

    Just a thought. Would it be better for kids to be locked up in jail with their parents?
    Remember what they are coming from. There are over 3 million children being held from their parents in America now. No outcry about that. Because we know it’s the right thing most of the time. Every country has boarders, you have a lock on your door. The kids will be fine unless they come from some horrible country. Should we be responsible for the world?
    War is hell. And so is the outcome. Not to be taken lightly. If you really feel the need to reach out please invite a few kids to live in your house. Best K

    • Annie says

      Killian, you ask, “Should we be responsible for the world?” And I say, “Yes!” It is, in my opinion, our job to tend to the world, to tend to each other, and, especially!, to tend to the little children of the world who are so much more powerless than we adults are. I believe in social responsibility, in giving back, in being mindful of my impact on other people and on the planet. This is why I feel so strongly about lending my voice and platform to advocate for the humane treatment of children whenever I can. This may not be your perspective, but I invite you to consider when we stop caring for each other and stop caring for the planet when we deny any responsibility or culpability, *this* is what leads to war and to hell on earth.

  3. Martin F says

    thanks for this post. It addresses an issue that has surfaced in my dealings with my family—my mother would point out that my two younger siblings do not have the same issues as she and I do with my dad, thus invalidating her own experiences as well as mine…your post speaks to this directly.

    To add one reflection on this from my own situation to supplement your considerations: I am convinced my siblings actually grew up in a different family. I was the only son and then the oldest son, whereas, as one example, my youngest sibling had an eight years older brother (me) as, in some ways, a third parent.


    • Annie says

      You raise such a good additional point, Martin! When there’s a large age gap between siblings, it can completely feel like growing up in different households because, for example, if our parents had us really young but were more mature and settled when our little siblings came along, this can create such a different experience for the younger child. I appreciate you raising this additional point! And thank you for taking time to read the post. Warmly, Annie

  4. Toren says

    I wonder, whether the reason why siblings cope with trauma differently, can be explained by the same theory that explains why you can’t make an accurate weather forecast for a day three weeks down the road: chaos theory.

    From Wikipedia: “Small differences in initial conditions, such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation, yield widely diverging outcomes for such dynamical systems, rendering long-term prediction of their behavior impossible in general. This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved.”

    Or: “The present (and past) determines the future, but the approximate present (and past) does not approximately determine the future.”

    I think this applies to life too. What are your thoughts?

    • Annie says

      Hi Toren,

      I think chaos theory is an apropos and interesting frame for looking at this issue. And certainly, adult children who grow up in dysfunctional homes might get a bittersweet chuckle out of the term because chaos is most certainly something they’re all too familiar with.

      Warmly, Annie

  5. Dana says

    I think of our country right now as a dysfunctional family system with an abusive, chaotic, and unreliable patriarchal figure at the helm. My goodness. This is the best way to describe what is happening now. No wonder I am so triggered everyday. I am going to try hard to do the constructive things that can help these children. I can’t get my mind wrapped around the fact that other people can’t see the trauma that is being inflicted on these young innocent lives and not care. Thank you so much for speaking out on this subject. The children get lost in all adult conflicts and generations to come will pay the price. Blessings of peace to you

    • Annie says

      Dana, I agree with you completely! I’ve made the analogy in several pieces of my writing that we have a macrocosm of an abusive family system at play with a destructive patriarch at the helm. I appreciate you caring so much about those migrant children and for taking the time to read this post. Truly. Warmly, Annie

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