Mental health issues may be caused by a myriad of things linked to everyday affairs like business, school, work, and even family life.
On one hand, a person’s ancestry could make them genetically predisposed to mental health issues such as autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder amongst others. On the other hand, their family’s involvement in their mental health struggles may take a different [inadvertent] form — a byproduct of sibling or parental actions that may or may not have been piling up over the years.
This is why the conversation on family feuds, sibling rivalry and other familial conflicts need to be had.
A number of studies have found that family relationships have a way of affecting individuals’ mental health, both in the short term and in the long run. And although the prevalent idea all over the world is that family is everything, that could sometimes include some negativity.
Consider the family ideals we’ve all imbibed: one where everyone is at peace with, at least, members of their immediate family. In several parts of Africa, and particularly in Nigeria, this expectation of unity is even more pronounced as the culture and the prevalent religions of the people always hammer on that.
But family dynamics in reality are a bit more layered and nuanced than that, considering that families are usually large. Statista found that just between 2009-2019, Nigerian women of childbearing age had over 5 kids. What you have with this stat is a snapshot of a society where nearly everyone has anything from one to four siblings [that’s not even taking into account people from polygamous homes].
Owing to this, it is safe to say that Nigerian society, comprised of big families with different temperaments and multiple the different temperaments and personalities, is a rife place for potential sibling rivalries, and other family conflicts. Although this plays out differently in different families, the result is almost always the same – stress, anxiety and even depressive episodes for individuals who find themselves in the heat of these situations.
Take, for example, Faith [not her real name]; the 35+ Nigerian woman narrates to me a severe discord between herself and her only sister, one which has been in existence for as long as she can remember. “My childhood was okay. I grew up with three siblings – two boys and one girl. I and my sister were not really close back then and I didn’t think it was a big deal. Do you know how sisters are each other’s besties? I never thought that with my sister. There was just that distance, that vibe… and as the years have gone by, the distance between us has only increased more and more.”
After my tweet asking people to share their experiences with sibling rivalry, Zahir [not his real name] also reached with a similar story: he and his brother are rarely at peace with each other, and that’s been the case for decades. The same situation exists between his two sisters, who don’t see eyeball to eyeball. The animosity in his family has also taken some very intriguing, violent forms over the years. His brother once bloodied his eye because he drove his car, his sister once stabbed the other with a knife, and then there is this staggering one:
“My elder brother… was always at war with my dad because dad would always try to belittle him by comparing him with his age mates and that always resulted in physical fights. Exchange of blows always occurred.”
That hardly ever happens in Nigerian families; and not only is it considered an aberration in every cultural and religious sense, but it also suggests the severity of dysfunction in any given family.
What are the causes of family feuds?
Faith and Zahir, answering this question in relation to the peculiarity of their situations, said they couldn’t be sure what the problem was exactly. “People always ask why I and my sister are not close and I just can’t explain why we aren’t,” was Faith’s response.
But both unrelated interviewees narrate a similar pattern of highhanded parenting. They used the word “strict” multiple times during our conversations, with Zahir narrating those frightful cases of physical abuse.
And this is instructive as studies have shown that exposure to parental violence causes people to exhibit aggression and other problematic social behaviours – towards their own siblings no less. “Children who grow up observing parental violence are at a much higher risk for emotional, behavioural, physiological, cognitive and social problems… children of every age are affected in some way by exposure to parent violence,” researcher, Masoumeh Ghasemi, noted in 2007.
Other known causes of family feuds and sibling rivalry are money, parents preferring some kid[s] to others, divorce, family business, differing ideas on how family events should be run, inheritance etc.
Do you really have to be close with your family members though?
In Nigeria, there is a very clear societal expectation for family members to be friendly with each other, especially in nuclear families – and by and large, this usually is the case. So, logically, people are usually shocked to find siblings that have no love lost between them.
That burden of expectation makes it difficult for people to move away from unhealthy sibling or familial relationships, especially when all attempts to be close-knit have proven abortive.
In Faith’s words; “you cannot force somebody to want to talk to you, like you or be cool with you, especially when you are at a certain stage. It’s not like before I breathe now, I have to beg her to give me oxygen.”
In reality, animosity is not an easy pill to swallow and it would be more convenient for everyone to just get along than for them to not. However, knowing when to take a step back is key. For your sanity, physical and mental health, there comes a time when being away from these difficult situations is far better than attempting to broker any peace.
Sometimes, you may just need to let it go for good.
“Each time it seems like we are coming back together, beginning to understand each other as a family, issues will just spring out from nowhere, mostly irrelevant things, and that will now create disunity again,” Zahir told me.
“For peace and love to reign amongst us, everybody minds his business. We have a family WhatsApp group but we hardly communicate. At least everyone is doing well for himself or herself…”
How toxic family dynamics affect mental health
Anxiety, [chronic] stress, and depression are the most common mental health issues that can result from toxic family dynamics. Faith doesn’t hold back when she addressed how the long-standing feud with her sister is affecting her mental health.
“I’m a very sensitive person. I’m sensitive to body language, and all those things and that’s why I pick on all these things a lot. That’s why for the longest time, my mental health has been… whatever… because when they say someone is depressed, you think it’s just money but it’s all these little things.
“So you feel there is no bond in your family, you people are not close. On your mother’s side, you are not close, your father’s side, you people are not close. And right before your own eyes, it’s almost becoming a pattern and no one is saying anything about it.
“So it affects me that sometimes I just think about it and I’m just like, why is everything like this?”
Family dysfunction and sibling rivalry don’t just cause people to develop mental health issues, they could trigger and even worsen it for people who already have these conditions, notes mentalhealthcentre.org.
In Zahir’s case, his family issues took a negative toll on his mental health, causing him to return to some of his harmful ways. “Aside from what was going on amongst us as siblings, I was facing my own individual battles,” he said.
“I took back smoking, hard drugs and stuff. But things are gradually falling back into place now… I have quit smoking and I feel much better now compared to how I felt 8 months back.”
Interestingly, while negative family relationships can affect mental health adversely; patients can better deal with their mental health conditions if their family is one where positive dynamics are reinforced.