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Sibling Abuse

Sibling abuse is any form of verbal emotional, physical, or sexual abuse of one child by a sibling.

Most instances of sibling abuse are disregarded by adults or go unnoticed. It is typically only the most extreme cases requiring medical attention or police intervention that are reported. Many cases of sibling abuse occur "under the radar" on without parental or adult intervention.

Even when sibling abuse is observed by a a parent or another adult, it is often disregarded or written off as a normal part of growing up. This tends to lead to chronic abuse problems where the victim has no recourse or refuge.

However, sibling abuse is just as serious as parental child abuse and causes a great deal of harm to a victim. The damaging effects often extend long into adulthood.

Personality disorders are typically not diagnosed in young people, because they are not fully developed in terms of their social skills and behavior traits. However, sometimes destructive traits of personality disorders can be exhibited by young people who are still too young to be diagnosed. These traits will often be evident in relationships with siblings.

Sibling Child Abuse Statistics:

Statistically, child abuse at the hands of a sibling is more common than child abuse at the hands of a parent or adult (which occurs to an estimated 1.2% of children per year).

A 2005 study estimated that about 1 in 3 children (35%) are abused by a sibling each year and that about 1 in 33 (3%) children suffer "dangerous" violence at the hands of another sibling.

It is also believed that sexual abuse of minors occurs more often at the hands of a sibling or other minor than at the hands of a parent or other adult.

Identifying Sibling Child Abuse:

Many responsible adults struggle to differentiate between sibling abuse and normal childhood behavior and sibling rivalry.

Most children need to be taught by a parent or adult authority figure not to behave abusively towards one another when they have conflicts. Good boundary setting in the home and establishing fair fight rules and how to negotiate conflicts is key to teaching children not to engage in abusive behaviors such as hitting, threats, name calling, intimidation and bullying. Children are also likely to engage in inappropriate behaviors towards their peers when they become sexually curious and good parental intervention without shaming can help protect the weaker siblings and help the children learn appropriate social behaviors for life. Incidents like this which do not become chronic are a normal part of child development and early parental intervention is the best approach.

Sibling relationships become abusive when they become chronic.

Signs of Possible Sibling Abuse:

  • One child avoids or fears being left alone with another.
  • During play, one child always assumes the role of the aggressor during play and another the victim.
  • A pattern of increasing roughness during play.
  • A child becomes violent towards toys, household objects or pets
  • A child develops a chronically depressed mood.
  • A child begins to struggle in school
  • Unexplained loss of appetite, inability to sleep, nightmares and panic attacks.
  • A child begins to seek inappropriate sexual contact or demonstrates an unusual heightened sexual awareness and curiosity.

Increased Parental Risk Factors for Sibling Abuse:

  • Parents who do not intervene when incidents occur or who deny there is a problem.
  • Parents who do not model positive conflict resolution skills in their own lives.
  • Uninvolved or neglectful parents
  • Absentee parents
  • Emotionally withdrawn parents
  • Parents who demonstrate favoritism
  • Parents who abuse children themselves.

Reduced Parental Risk Factors for Sibling Abuse:

  • Parents who minimize rivalries between children.
  • Parents who demonstrate and insist on appropriate boundaries for acceptable behavior
  • Parents who are present and actively involved in their children's activities.
  • Parents who demonstrate constructive conflict resolution skills with their children.
  • Parents who openly discuss what is appropriate and inappropriate physical and sexual behavior with their children.

What it Feels Like:

The following is contributed by Out of the FOG Member & Moderator Klarity Belle:

My half-brother was an alcoholic, a gambler and in regular trouble with the police.

He liked to tease me and humiliate me in front of family and friends. He would often tell lies to get me into trouble. Sometimes he would wake me up and say horrible things to me when he was drunk. He told me he hated me and wished I hadn't been born.

Once at a swimming pool he asked me to show him how well I could swim. I was eager to show off my basic strokes to him. He waited till I was in the middle of the pool and then dive-bombed on top of me, I choked in the water and he laughed hard.

Whenever I would cry he would sneer and laugh, I remember the satisfied look on his face.

It felt lonely because I so desperately wanted him to protect me and love me. I wanted him to be proud of me.

As a child I didn't understand. As an adult I still tried hard to win his love. Sadly, his self-absorbed character has not changed, even after he became sober.

It has taken me a long time to let go of my expectations of what the relationship should be like and accept what it really is. I think there will always be a space in my life where a warm and reciprocal sibling bond should have been.

Long Term Effects of Sibling Abuse on Victims:

Adult children who have been abused by siblings are at increased risk of:

  • Depression
  • Low Self Esteem
  • Substance Abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Involvement in abusive relationships
  • Learned Helplessness

Coping with sibling abuse as a child or teenager:

If you are a child or teenager who is subjected to acts of aggression, bullying, violence or intimidation by a sibling or other minor:

What NOT To Do:

  • Don't ignore the problem or assume it will just go away.
  • Don't isolate yourself or go it alone or try to absorb it all on your own.
  • Don't tell yourself "I can handle this" or :"it's not that bad".
  • Try not to be left alone in the company of the person who is threatening you or hurting you.
  • Don't keep secrets.
  • Don't try to fight fire with fire and behave aggressively toward the perpetrator or seek revenge.
  • Don't threaten to tell somebody in the hope that the behavior will change. That usually turns into a form of intermittent reinforcement, Just tell them right away the first time.
  • Don't blame yourself for what somebody else does or says to you. They are to blame for their own behavior and you are responsible for yours.
  • Don't be easily sucked back in or hoovered by sudden positive changes in the attitude of an abusive person.

What TO Do:

  • Move yourself away from the company of a person who hurts or threatens you as much as possible.
  • Tell a supportive friend.
  • Tell a responsible, caring adult who you trust like a teacher, counselor, doctor, etc.
  • Call a crisis hotline (see our Emergency Page for some numbers)
  • Take a friend along the next time you have to face the person. Clearly and calmly state your boundaries, that certain behaviors are not acceptable or appropriate. Then end the conversation.
  • Remain calm to demonstrate to yourself that you are still in control.

Coping with sibling abuse as a parent or responsible adult:

What NOT To Do:

If you as a parent observe an act of aggression, violence or intimidation between siblings:

  • Don't ignore the incident
  • Don't immediately assume you understand what happened. Ask questions before reacting.
  • Don't humiliate or blame the victim
  • Don't behave aggressively toward the perpetrator.
  • Don't punish children by inflicting hardship, fear or pain.
  • Don't show favorites.
  • Don't threaten consequences that you are not 100% committed you will follow through on.

What TO Do:

  • Remain calm to demonstrate that you are in control.
  • Temporarily separate involved children.
  • Involve one other adult if possible. Talk to at least one other adult within 24 hours about what happened. This will help you to think more objectively and keep you accountable for your own reactions
  • Use a time out technique to allow feelings to calm down before discussing.
  • Talk to the children separately at first. Make sure you listen to their concerns before you assume you understand what happened.
  • Bring the children back together and try to establish a consensus towards a common goal.
  • State your boundaries very clearly.
  • Make sure there are consequences for any poor behavior. Use time-outs and remove privileges like TV, phone, computer, time with friends etc.
  • Write down any promises or commitments made
  • Follow up several days later to make sure commitments are acted on.
  • Contact a professional children's therapist to discuss repeated behaviors.

Links and Resources:

Sibling Abuse: Hidden Physical, Emotional, and Sexual Trauma by Vernon R. Wiehe


For More Information & Support...

If you suspect you may have a family member or loved-one who suffers from a personality disorder, we encourage you to learn all you can and surround yourself with support as you learn how to cope.

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