The Role of Sibling Dynamics in Dysfunctional Families

The Role of Sibling Dynamics in Dysfunctional Families

Sibling relationships are often regarded as some of the most enduring and influential connections individuals have throughout their lives. From childhood squabbles to adult alliances, siblings play a pivotal role in shaping each other's personalities, behaviours, and perspectives. However, within the context of dysfunctional families, these dynamics can take on a complex and sometimes detrimental nature.

This article delves into the intricacies of sibling dynamics within dysfunctional families, exploring their impact on individual development and familial relationships.

Defining dysfunctional families

Dysfunctional families are characterised by patterns of unhealthy interactions, communication breakdowns, and unresolved conflicts. These families may struggle with issues such as substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, or neglect. Within such environments, sibling relationships can either serve as a source of support and resilience or contribute to further dysfunction (Silva, 2023).

Competitive dynamics

In dysfunctional families, siblings may engage in intense competition for parental attention, approval, or limited resources. This competition can manifest in various ways, including academic achievements, athletic prowess, or adherence to parental expectations. Such rivalry can foster resentment, jealousy, and a sense of inadequacy among siblings, perpetuating a cycle of conflict and insecurity.

Role reversals and parentification

In some dysfunctional families, siblings may be forced into roles traditionally reserved for parents, a phenomenon known as parentification. This occurs when older siblings assume caregiving responsibilities for younger siblings or even for their own parents. While this may foster a sense of maturity and responsibility, it can also lead to feelings of resentment, pressure, and loss of childhood innocence (Stein, 2023).

Scapegoating and triangulation

Within dysfunctional families, one or more siblings may be scapegoated or singled out for blame, often serving as a distraction from underlying family issues. This dynamic can create divisions within the sibling group, with the scapegoated individual experiencing feelings of isolation and rejection. Additionally, parents may use triangulation, pitting siblings against each other to avoid addressing their own conflicts or shortcomings.

Enmeshment and boundary violations

Enmeshment refers to a lack of healthy boundaries between family members, wherein individual identities become blurred, and personal autonomy is compromised (Martin, 2023). In dysfunctional families, siblings may experience enmeshment, leading to a sense of entrapment and difficulty establishing healthy relationships outside the family unit. This can impede emotional growth and independence, perpetuating cycles of dysfunction across generations.

Role Modelling

Within dysfunctional families, siblings can also serve as positive role models for each other, particularly in demonstrating healthy coping strategies and communication skills. Older siblings, in particular, often take on mentorship roles, guiding younger siblings through the tumultuous family dynamics (Priebe, 2022). By exemplifying adaptive behaviours and attitudes, such as assertiveness, problem-solving, and emotional regulation, older siblings provide invaluable guidance to their younger counterparts. Through positive role modelling, siblings can cultivate a supportive environment wherein each member contributes to the other's personal growth and well-being, despite the challenges posed by familial dysfunction.

Developing resilience

Siblings in dysfunctional families often develop resilience through shared experiences and mutual understanding. Enduring similar challenges within the family unit, siblings forge empathetic connections and draw strength from their collective struggles and triumphs (Walsh, 1996). Through this shared resilience, siblings can support each other emotionally and psychologically, providing a buffer against the adverse effects of familial dysfunction. By navigating hardships together and developing coping mechanisms as a unit, siblings build resilience that helps them withstand adversity and navigate the complexities of their family environment with greater fortitude.

Impact on individual development

The influence of sibling dynamics within dysfunctional families extends beyond childhood, shaping individuals' psychological well-being and interpersonal skills into adulthood. Siblings may carry unresolved conflicts and trauma into their adult lives, impacting their ability to form healthy relationships, set boundaries, and manage conflict effectively. Moreover, the role of siblings as primary attachment figures can influence individuals' self-esteem, sense of identity, and overall life satisfaction.

Breaking the cycle

Breaking free from dysfunctional sibling dynamics requires conscious effort and often external support. Recognising unhealthy patterns and establishing clear boundaries are essential steps towards fostering healthier relationships within the sibling unit. Additionally, seeking therapy or counselling can provide individuals with the tools and insights needed to navigate the complexities of their familial dynamics and heal from past wounds.


Sibling dynamics within dysfunctional families can have profound and lasting effects on individual development and familial relationships. By understanding the underlying dynamics at play and seeking support when needed, individuals can break free from destructive patterns and cultivate healthier relationships with their siblings. For those in need of assistance, resources such as child psychologists in Singapore and adult counselling services in Singapore offer professional guidance and support tailored to address familial issues and promote emotional well-being. Through introspection, communication, and a commitment to change, individuals can transcend the constraints of their familial upbringing and forge meaningful connections built on mutual respect and understanding.


Martin, S. (2023). The Enmeshed Family System: What It Is and How to Break Free. Psych Central.

Priebe, H. (2022, January 4). An Introduction to Dysfunctional family roles - Heidi Priebe - medium. Medium.

Silva, T. (2023). Parenting in Modern Societies. IntechOpen.

Stein, M. (2023). Parentification: The impact of children taking on parental roles in their family. College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Walsh, F. (1996). The concept of family resilience: crisis and challenge. Family Process, 35(3), 261–281.