Same family – such different experiences

I have always been astounded that out of a family of six children only myself as the youngest was sexually abused as part of a pedophile ring organised by my parents. There was a nine year age gap between me and my next sister. My other brothers and sisters were in Boarding School or University by the time I was born. By the time the abuse started my nearest sister had gone away to school so was none the wiser. They were unscathed and treated beautifully by my parents whereas I was beaten and locked without food for days on end in my room for non compliance with men through fear. How could two parents bring up five children so well and treat the last so horribly and with such vindictiveness. It lasted fourteen long years before they kicked me to live on the streets of Dublin at barely eighteen years old. The abuse stopped when my siblings came home to visit and I was groomed to say nothing being told I was to blame for all that happened and that no one would believe me anyway. When they would return to their lives the abuse would recommence. Being told this repeatedly from such a young age I believed it, so never dared to say a word  to anyone. No one suspected a thing or if they did nothing was said. No teacher, neighbour or relative spoke up. Many studies have been conducted into how the siblings in the same family are treated so differently and grow up to achieve such extraordinarily separate lives.

Behavioural scientists studying personality differences between siblings have discovered what they describe as the overriding influence of a unique ”micro-environment” in the family for each child.

The research suggests that, in a sense, there is not a single family, but rather as many disparate families as there are children to experience them.

”We used to assume that a family offered the same environment to all its children,” said Gene Brody, a psychologist at the University of Georgia. ”Now we are searching for what creates different environments for children in the same household.” Robert Plomin, a behavioural geneticist at Pennsylvania State University, and Denise Daniels, a psychologist at Stanford University’s school of medicine, report that environmental influences affecting ”psychological development operate in a manner quite different from the way most psychologists thought they worked.” In an article in the current issue of Behavioural and Brain Sciences, they review their own recent work, as well as 10 years of careful studies that used twins, adopted children and other siblings to separate the influences of genetics and environment on how children develop.

”All the psychological theories point to the family as the basic unit of socialisation,” Dr. Daniels said. ”If so, you would expect children from the same family to be largely similar. But it is really quite the opposite. The assumption that the family environment operates the same for all children in it does not hold up.’’ If you build into this argument child abuse for one child and not another the so called “micro-environment” is enlarged and the significant trauma caused shapes the outcome for that child and its personality and life chances.

In a commentary on the article, Sandra Scarr, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, wrote, ”Upper-middle-class brothers who attend the same school and whose parents take them to the same plays, sporting events, music lessons and therapists, and use similar child-rearing practices on them, are little more similar in personality measures than they are to working-class or farm boys, whose lives are totally different.”

Siblings have been found to display a small degree of similarity in personality, but the limited similarity appears to result entirely from shared genes, rather than from shared experience, the researchers report. Therefore it can be assumed that if only one child in the family is abused their gene similarity will remain the same but their shared experience will be vastly different.

Thus, of far greater concern are the larger differences they found among siblings. And the unique aspects of each child’s experience while growing up appear to be more powerful in shaping personality than what the siblings experience in common. The finding has spurred new, intensive research to pinpoint the often subtle disparities in how children are treated within a family, disparities that now loom larger than ever. Therefore abuse plays a significant role in the outcome of a child’s personality than what they shared in common i.e. their parents. Birth Order’s Minimal Role

Factors previously thought to be significant in shaping personality, particularly the order of birth, are being found to matter little. ”There is a tiny effect for birth order,” Dr. Daniels said. ”You know almost nothing about a kid from knowing if he is the oldest or the youngest.”

Instead, factors ranging from a child’s perceptions about parental affection and discipline, to the friends a child chooses, are coming to the forefront of a range of studies.

”We are searching for the life events that make the major difference in how children turn out,” Dr. Daniels said. She has developed a scale on which siblings compare themselves to one another on such factors as parental love, control, attention and favouritism; sibling jealousy, and one’s popularity with peers.

Several patterns have emerged already, according to results published by Dr. Daniels in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. For example, the sibling who experiences more closeness to the father also tends to be the one who expects to achieve more in an occupation therefore a child sexually or physically abused by a father would be expected to have a lower occupation outcome.  And the shyer siblings experience less antagonism from brothers and sisters, while more sociable ones feel closest to other siblings. A Source of Friction. Again abuse within the family would have significant impact on the interaction between the siblings as it is recorded that siblings are noted to try and protect the abused child shown high levels of protectiveness.

This finding gives new import to complaints often voiced by patients in psychotherapy that a sibling was treated better or worse than the others. In some cases the abused child is “offered” up for abuse as a way of “protecting” the child themselves from abuse thereby changing the relationships between the children and hierarchy within the household. Moreover, the key differences in the family environment may be more obvious to children themselves than to their parents, according to research published by Dr. Daniels and others in Child Development.

Those differences – and the different perceptions of them – may be a source of friction in the family. ”We’ve found that to the extent that a parent treats children differently, the children will be more hostile later, when they are alone,” Dr. Brody said.

The differences Dr. Brody has found are often very subtle – in the number of compliments, smiles and affectionate touches, or scolding remarks, frowns and dirty looks, for instance.

The child himself has a large influence on these differences, according to Stella Chess, a psychiatrist at New York University Medical Center. To a child who is difficult – slow to adapt to change, with intense moods – parents may react with confusion, guilt and frustration, Dr. Chess says. To one who is easygoing, parents are more likely to give respond with pleasure and a sense of approval. To the abused child who is downtrodden they are likely to be ignored and other children favoured. In the case of a difficult recalcitrant abuse child punishment would be frequently used and the child characterised as “problematic behaviourally”

Research also may illuminate why only one child in a family may become mentally ill in adulthood. In schizophrenia and depression, as in personality, apart from genetic factors, ”the most important influences on psychopathology lie in the category of nonshared environment,” according to Dr. Plomin and Dr. Daniels. We now also know the co-relation between child sexual abuse and adult mental illness. This can account for only one member (abused member) of a family having mental illness and other members none.

”Most psychological studies have included only one child from a given family, not siblings,” Dr. Daniels said. ”It was only when behaviour genetics started to study children within the same familly that the finding emerged that the family itself had a trivial effect on how children turn out. The sometimes subtle differences experienced or perceived by children in the same family are the environmental factors that drive development – not the similarities.”

So far, family ”micro-environments” remain little understood, although family therapists and researchers in behaviour genetics are familiar with their emerging importance. ”The notion of each child having his own micro-environment in the family is a new idea, just six or seven years old, and spreading slowly,” Dr. Brody said.

Concluding, sexual abuse of one member of a family member does not necessarily adversely affect other members depending on how they are treated and their awareness of the abuse and cognition .

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