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Family Dynamics

3 Hidden Influences on Sibling Relationships

Personalization, core beliefs, and trauma bonding disturb sibling relationships.

Key points

  • Those who suffer with depression, anxiety, and traumatic histories are susceptible to personalization, negative thoughts, and trauma bonding.
  • Many people in a difficult sibling relationship personalize the situation by taking responsibility for things that have nothing to do with them.
  • Core beliefs—enduring and often unreasonable perceptions rooted in childhood—may be activated by a brother or sister's mistreatment.
Source: Mart Production/Pexels
Source: Mart Production/Pexels

Some siblings cut off toxic family members to protect themselves from being hurt repeatedly. Those who are shunned, however, often suffer endlessly, confused over why a brother or sister cut them off. That pain, and the relationship itself, often activate three deep psychological wounds.

Exclusion of any kind can cause pain that cuts deeper and lasts longer than a physical injury, according to Dr. Kipling D. Williams, a distinguished professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University who is noted for his unique studies of ostracism. Williams’s research demonstrates that when someone is shunned—even by a stranger, even only briefly—he or she experiences a powerful adverse reaction, registering in the same area of the brain where physical pain is perceived.

The difference is that social injuries linger. In studying more than 5,000 people, Williams used a computer game to reveal how just two or three minutes of ostracism can produce lasting negative feelings.

“Our studies indicate that the initial reaction to ostracism is pain,” he explains, “which is similarly felt by all individuals regardless of personality or social/situational factors.”

Siblings who struggle with depression, anxiety, or traumatic histories often are especially devastated by a cutoff in part because they may suffer with these psychological proclivities:


Those who personalize a situation take responsibility for something that has little to do with them. They often engage in negative thinking or negative self-talk. For example:

  • They blame themselves when someone doesn’t have a good time.
  • They feel responsible when someone else cuts them off or excludes them from a group.
  • They assume others are blaming or targeting them in situations for which they have no responsibility.

Sibling psychologist Dr. Karen Gail Lewis often reminds her clients to “QTIP.” “Quit taking it personally,” she explains. “It's often not personal that a sibling is behaving badly towards a brother or sister.”

How can a sibling stop personalizing? As these three questions:

  • What can you actually control in this situation?
  • Exactly what—if anything—did you do that resulted in the outcome?
  • Are you responsible for what someone else feels or thinks about you or anything or anyone?

In addition to challenging your thinking at the moment, other measures to help control self-blame include mindfulness, meditation, and counseling.

Core Beliefs

A person’s core beliefsthose perceptions fundamental to one’s interactions with the world or sense of selfdetermine his/her responses to relationships and stress, according to Dr. Aaron Temkin Beck, an American psychiatrist who is considered the father of cognitive behavior therapy.

Core beliefs, rooted in early life and developed over time, may not be reasonable or even based on evidence, but they are enduring and inflexible. Family, friends, teachers, and the media may contribute to these perceptions. Some examples of core beliefs include:

  • I am unlikable, or I am likable.
  • I don’t matter, or I can make a difference in the world.
  • Most people are terrible, or most people are good.
  • The world is a dangerous place.
  • I will never get ahead in life, or I will succeed if I try.
  • I deserve to be treated badly, or I don’t deserve abuse.

To identify your own core beliefs:

  • Notice consistent themes and patterns in thoughts. (Each of us has “automated” thoughtsthose that we hardly notice, yet they’re present and shaping our thinking.)
  • Journal and record thoughts and feelings to identify patterns of thinking, especially during times of intense emotion or stress, such as after an argument with a loved one.
  • Challenge core beliefs by asking yourself questions. If, for example, you believe you don’t matter, ask yourself where this belief comes from. Establish a contrast by identifying people to whom you do matter and places where you do make a difference. Then consider: What is the evidence supporting the negative or destructive core belief? What is the evidence contradicting it?

Core beliefs are often activated when a brother or sister mistreats a sibling.

Trauma Bonding

A trauma bond can develop when a sibling repeatedly experiences a confusing mix of abuse and positive reinforcement. A brother or sister may find it difficult to break away from such a relationship.

In a trauma bond, abuse often is mixed with kindness and affection. When the mistreatment resumes, it’s always a surprise to the abused. He or she yearns for the times when the connection was happier and more loving.

Trauma-bonded relationships, in which a sibling simply doesn’t know how to push back or break free, typically feature two specific characteristics:

  • Intermittent reinforcement. A relationship that’s altogether awful is easier to leave. In a trauma-bonded relationship, an abusive sibling also treats you just well enough to keep you invested: offering gifts or compliments, expressing love, or somehow making you feel special. When you call out the abuse or assert your own needs, the sibling may apologize and promise to do better, but he or she never changes.
  • A power imbalance. The abusive sibling exerts control over you; you may fear you would be lost without him or her in your life.

If you find yourself engaging in some of the following behaviors, you are likely trauma bonded to your sibling.

  • Future-faking: This occurs when a person lies or promises something about a possible future to get what he or she wants.
  • Repetition compulsion: You find yourself fighting the same fight over and over again.
  • Magical thinking: This is the idea that one can influence the outcome of specific events by doing something that has no bearing on the event.
  • Hiding feelings and needs: This behavior leads to self-devaluation.
  • Rationalizing relationship: Trauma-bonded siblings often make excuses for a brother or sister’s bad behavior or protect them by keeping the abuse a secret.

Many people are unaware of these hidden influences on a sibling relationship. Once a sibling can identify how personalization, core beliefs, and trauma bonding are affecting a troubled relationship, he or she is better able to assess whether the connection is salvageable or whether it’s necessary to go no contact.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Kip Williams, “Kip Williams Media Contact Overview,” last edited January 29, 2020, Social Psychology Network,

Flavio, Osmo; Duran, Victor; Wenzel, Amy, Reis de Oliveira, Irismar; Nepomuceno, Sara; Madeira, Maryana; Menezes, Igor; (2018) The Negative Core Beliefs Inventory: Development and Psychometric Properties, The Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, Vol 32, Issue 1.

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