Author: Niall Sweeney



With the holiday season approaching, there is that extra focus on family and togetherness. Turkey and crackers around the table, all that jazz. Bonding. We are encouraged to be in each other’s company for at least one or two days, as is the importance of family.  And rightly so, life is short. Whether it’s a day to remember or not is based on how long the family members involved can stand each other.

The advent of the dysfunctional family dinner, with racist uncles, gossiping aunts, alcoholic parents,  hyperactive cousins and fuck knows what else, is played for laughs in the form of memes, movies and gems like these…and this.


All humorous portrayals of family life that many of us can resonate with. Yet often, family ties are more fraught this time of year, where there’ll be no mid trifle banter to speak of at all. Empty seats at the table. This is where there the humour dries up, and questions must be asked. Why?


Perhaps people are busy, people grow apart. Money, politics, personal differences. But what are the main reasons? A more official term for the issue is family estrangement.

Family estrangement is the ”breakdown of a supportive relationship between family members”.  Well, if there was a supportive relationship, to begin with.

Because families are so broad, with so many variables, and thus, so many opportunities for conflict, I’ve narrowed it down to two particular relationships for study – adult siblings and parent/adult child. Childhood fighting can be more easily explained – you robbed your brother’s Action Man and fed it to the dog because you didn’t know any better and the bollox was asking for it. You get the idea. With adults, it’s more nuanced and personal. With so many years removed from childish innocence, you’re expected to know better. But the dog’s makeshift chew toy may become something else, a lot more complicated.

What can come between the adult sibling dynamic?

Personality Clashes

You don’t like how they put themselves first all the time. They don’t like how snobby you are, and how you think you know it all. This is not exclusive to family, but it’s still a game changer in deciding who’s going on that invitation list for whatever you’ve got coming up. If you’ve been ever around someone with a completely different set of values and beliefs than you, then you know it can be hard to find things in common. It’s that much harder when that someone is bound by blood.

Actress Dakota Fanning recently admitted she struggled to bond with sister Elle growing up, having ”nothing in common’‘. Though now they are much tighter.


Unresolved Childhood BS

Patterns emerging from childhood follow on through to your adult lives. You may feel your older siblings still treat you like a child, or the older sibling is still resentful of the attention the youngest received – that old notion of the baby getting away with murder. Research often points to less strict approaches to last born kids, with the firstborn being the ”tester” child.

Favoritism rears its ugly head. Say your parents might favour one grandchild over the others, or go to your brother’s graduation ceremony, but not yours.  The cycle continues. Nothing has changed, and you may still feel like those 5-year-olds wrestling for approval.

One Sided

You may not be expecting anything in return, but it’s nice to be thought of once in a while. You can go out of your way to meet up with them, offer a place to stay, or lend money. Whatever it is, you’re there. If they never return the favour, or make bullshit excuses, this can disappoint. You’re the one making all the effort.


Grievance Collectors

This is one I hadn’t thought of, and only discovered had a name. Grievance collectors gather up every little perceived slight or injustice committed against them and build a catalogue of these offences to be used against the unlucky soul/s who did them wrong. In a sibling context, if you forgot to buy a present for your sister’s child last Christmas, you will be on her shitlist and she will either bring it up in arguments or silently resent you for it. Either way, nothing is forgotten. So get little Gemma that Peppa Pig playset next time, or else.


Neither a lender nor a borrower be. If you have to ask for it back repeatedly, something is wrong. Is it a gift or a loan? Whether it’s confusion or just selective memory on their part, tis the root of all evil.

That’s not all there is to consider with money and family – there is also the notorious war of the will – a piece of paper drafted up by the dearly departed to decide who gets what -or more importantly in Ireland – the land.



Use And Abuse

Everything is transactional. You won’t hear from them unless they’re in need. You are but a walking ATM/babysitter/taxi in their eyes. They may play upon your kindness and make a habit of it. This is less harmful if you’re happy to do it, but when you’re not….

Why won’t you collect me at two in the morning when you have work the next day? Some sister you are!”

The one time you don’t jump to their call, you’re the worst. You never help them, you’re selfish. Right…. They’ve abused the aforementioned kindness to the point of parody, using family ties as leverage.

If you often feel exhausted, insulted or any way worse off from time spent with them, they’re likely toxic. It could also be a sign of narcissistic tendencies, which I’ll touch on later.


Tenerife…elevenerife.  Maybe status driven. Siblings race to see who can acquire the best career, house, the usual (this may link back to childhood). Who can give the parents their first grandchild? All documented through Facebook, of course. About that…


Social Media Shitstorms

Here’s to my real family, as for the rest, you know who you are”

Sound familiar? Then you have been witness to the passive-aggressive Facebook status.  Zuckerberg has a lot to answer for. What was said/done on Facebook, and social media alike is now a big talking point in the everyday conversation, and when family are involved in such scandal, it’s that much sadder. When it’s not public sparring, it’s nasty back and forth messaging in the name of ….what?

The Singapore prime minister had a barney with his family online, ironically over their late father’s home.


Gallagher Grief

Ah, Noel and Liam Gallagher, Oasis rockers, poster boys of brotherly hate. They fought frequently over the course of their career, and finally had enough following a concert in 2009, with flying plums and smashed guitars,  before going their separate ways. They can be seen frequently bad mouthing each other in the press, with no resolution in sight. Sort it out lads, before you’re Outta Time.



Birth of a Bond

Sibling relations are delicate by nature, growing up around each other, sharing so much under the eye of parents. Vying for affection from the very people who brought them to life. The parent-child dynamic is also huge, as even before siblings, they are their first point of contact with the world. Mam delivers and dad, as is often customary, cuts the cord.


Ideally, they are around to see you through 18 plus years of growth, and a lot can happen in that time. What does happen can shape the adult phase of life, in particular how the parent-child bond develops or breaks down.

Now onto at the causes of parent/child dysfunction. A lot can be linked back to siblings, and again under the umbrella term of family, so expect repetition and heavy subject matter.

No Love Lost

As an adult, you have the choice as to whether you want a relationship with your folks or not, and when there was no love or support there in the first place, the choice is pretty much made for you.

Childhood Trauma

Some things are hard to forgive, and even harder to forget. Childhood abuse, physical or sexual,  from those who are meant to protect you, cause emotional scars that are lifelong. Would you really want to reconnect with someone who’s done you such harm?

Neglect, favouring siblings, it all leaves a mark.

Spare a thought for poor aul Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones imp who faced a lifetime of disapproval from father Tywin. His mother died to have him, and this, combined with his size, caused a rift between father and son. Here’s a crucial scene highlighting the tension.


The Narcissistic Parent

This one is tough. A narcissist is someone is who is obsessively caught up in their interests and their ego. It is classified as a personality disorder. A narcissistic parent will live out their wishes through their offspring, as a form of self-gratification. That means manipulating several aspects of their lives, from their relationships to their self-esteem. Possessive and controlling, you will marry who they say you can marry, and if it goes wrong, it’ll be your fault. They will resort to criticisms and emotional blackmail to keep their adult child around because nobody will love them as much as they will. This is narcissistic abuse. They thrive on guilt and gaslighting – creating a false reality inside the minds of their children.

Think Meryl Streep in August Osage County, or Monique in Precious.


Mammy Dearest?

Narcissistic parenting is often attributed specifically to mothers – a Google search will quickly reveal an option for ”narcissistic mothers” but not fathers. I put this down to the archetype of the domineering mother-in-law, to whom nobody is good enough for their son.(Also if you Google ”domineering”,  ”domineering mother” is a search option)  This would have a disastrous effect on a son’s well being, creating a ”mammy’s boy” setup that emasculates him and leaves his partner competing with the ”other woman’ in his life.

Interestingly, there is a special Reddit dedicated to children raised by narcissistic parents. Check out raisedbynarcissists.

Boundary Issues

Boundaries. They are important. And when overstepped, cause tension. Parents excessively dropping in uninvited, giving unwanted advice/criticism on everything from your appearance to your lifestyle, personal stuff, money, career, to how their grandchildren are being raised. Adults want to be treated like adults. It’s well-meaning but undermining. Living at home as an adult can make a mess of this.

If they’re touching your mail, move out.

The Toxic Child

Nobody’s saying it’s always the parent’s fault for any rifts that occur – sometimes it’s the child. Spoilt, ungrateful, abusive, maybe a narcissist themselves. Parents may do so much only to act as an enabler for further shitty behaviour, blaming themselves. It goes both ways. Drink and drugs are a complication here.

Stress concept - angry man with exploding head

Grandkids As Weapons

In the wake of a fall out with a parent, an adult child may limit, or cut off entirely, access to the grandchildren. Throw in social media, and it spells a lonely picture for grandparents.

Mary told the New York Times ”“You’re watching other people enjoying your daughter and the grandchild you’re supposed to have, and you’re left out in the cold,” I have to watch pictures of my grandson — that I didn’t get — on my daughter’s sister-in-law’s page.”

A View To Intolerance

We all have our value systems, our differences, socially, politically, and they frequently come into conflict. LGBT children are twice as likely to suffer estrangement from intolerant parents, another barrier to family unity. They make up a worrying amount of homeless rates in the US.

Following Trump’s election, families such as the Ewells found themselves at odds. In an StarTribune piece, Clinton voter Rachel Ewell didn’t speak to her Trump voting parents for weeks after the vote because she ”didn’t feel like I could talk to them and be rational — I was too emotional”.

Therapists reported a rise in treatment for political polarization in families.

image-20160720-31159-16b6rjv (1)

Moving Forward

In a 2017 study from the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge (UK), it was established that it is the adult child that is more likely to walk away from a relationship with a parent, at over 50%. This is compared to 5-6% of parents. The study focused on adult child/parent estrangement.

When faced with the statement ” We could never have a functional relationship again”. 79%of adult children agreed or strongly agreed, referring to relationships with their mothers. 71%agreed in relation to their fathers.

Parents had a much lower response with 14%/13% in relation to sons and daughter respectively.

Participants wished their mothers were less critical and judgmental, admitting when they’re wrong, and that their fathers took more of an active interest in their lives and be less passive.

Should you cut ties with problematic siblings, parents, cousins? It’s hard to answer, everyone suffers from varying degrees of dysfunction, with little nuances in between. Anecdotally, I’ve come across a lot.

My own take on it?  Notice patterns. If they have brought nothing but grief, stress and negativity to your life, far outweighing any good, then perhaps it is time to look at distancing yourself from them. You can love from a distance. Live your own life. We’re all responsible for ourselves.

Should you want to rebuild a relationship with family, there could be a solution – mediation. I’ve no personal experience of this, but I have been to counselling, which is a somewhat similar format. Mediation involves two or more parties in conflict with each other, meeting in a room with a mediator. They discuss what has gone wrong, and the mediator is there to keep things in check. Everyone is heard, and the goal is to come away with a better understanding of the other person’s point of view, and thus being able to move forward.

Like counselling, it won’t be for everyone. It all boils down to whether you and whoever else will be willing to sit down and talk. MII approved organisations like O’Sullivan Solutions offer family mediation services.

With family, you can’t choose them. You can only do your best by them. That’s all anyone can ask.

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