It’s not uncommon for adult siblings to hold very different opinions from one another about the personality of the parents they shared when they were growing up.
Even though a couple might have multiple children together, each of those children are unique, and each parent’s relationship with each of those children is unique. The unique personalities of each child shape how a parent responds to that child’s needs or the child’s reaction to not getting their needs met. These individual responses shape, in each of their children, a way of understanding that parent.
In relatively healthy families, there’s often not a lot of variance in how children experience their parents. An older sibling, youngest, and a middle child can all describe each parent with different but generally consistent descriptors. In dysfunctional families, it’s more common for these descriptions to vary widely.
One of the primary issues in dysfunctional families is triangulation– when a two-person relationship becomes so challenging that a third person is drawn into the relationship. This is the basic dynamic at play when a couple has a child to “save the marriage,” but it can take on countless other forms as well. Often triangulated are the “favorite” child, a high achieving daughter, a perfectionist son, or a child designated as “the good listener,” “mom’s best friend,” “dad’s buddy”, etc.
In dysfunctional families, children are often triangulated into parentified relationships in which they are pushed to align with one parent and against the other. As an example, after being made a confidant for her mother, a girl may begin to view her father as arrogant or insensitive. Meanwhile, another sibling who is not placed in this role may view the father as the hero of the family.
This illustration shows a family of five dinosaurs: two parent dinosaurs, and three young dinosaurs. As you can see from the emotions represented in each dinosaur’s speech bubble, each of the young dinosaur has a different opinion about each parent, ranging from adoration to frustration or even rage.
In a family where one parent is actively unsafe or abusive, and the other parent is unable to provide shelter from for their children from the unsafe partner, children almost inevitably choose to idolize, protect, or side with one parent. Typically, children align with the “victim” but occasionally with the unsafe parent.
When our Children Trigger Us:
Although the dynamic described above is most common in very dysfunctional families, another cause of children holding very different views of parents is the way in which a parent manages their own internal responses to a particular child.
It’s not uncommon for a parent who has experienced relational trauma (abuse, emotional violence, or sexual trauma) to have a child that bears personality traits that remind them of the person(s) who harmed them. When a child grows up with a parent who is triggered into their own past by the child’s personality, mannerisms, or behavior, this can result in that child being treated very differently than other children by the triggered parent- even if the parent tries intentionally not to repeat the pattern. The impact of this dynamic can lead to both intergenerational trauma adult children with a very different view of their parents than their siblings.
Making Space for Adult Siblings with Conflicting Experiences
If you spar with a sibling over the realities of your childhood, maybe neither of you “remember wrong.” It can help to enter conversations with siblings with an understanding that their experience may be very different from your own, but still just as true.
An important thing to note about this concept is that nobody’s view is wrong. Experience informs opinions and even if one sibling legitimately had a parent who provided mostly positive experiences, it doesn’t cancel out the fact that another child from the same family may have experienced the same family members in a very different way.