“Every night I sleep with a baseball bat under my covers, just in case.”~A seven year old.
The sibling relationship is complex. Seldom is it one that is all good or all bad. It is a blended relationship that involves loving, caring, anger, and often abuse. The only child may suffer from having to bear the brunt of mother and father on their own. Siblings provide a buffer. Siblings also act out on one another.I have seldom met a child who had an ideal relationship with their sibling. There is frequently jealousy, animosity, anger, and plenty of annoyance. I remember growing up with three brothers. I was the only girl. It was challenging, but I had very different relationships with my three brothers and they with me.
My oldest brother was the first born and I came second. If my memory serves me correctly I remember us being close until the arrival of the last two brothers who followed me. He seemed distant and was often my most significant tormenter, especially verbally. He never abused me, but I still remember things he said which I found offensive.
My brother who is two years younger than I was often a lost little soul. I remember caring deeply about him, but found him difficult when it came to relating.
It was my youngest brother with whom I was the closest. I enjoyed playing with him and going off together just to sit or be. He was cute, funny, and very engaging.
All of my brothers enriched my life and taught me about patience, differences, caring, and compassion.
We don’t know exactly what it is that will determine the qualitative aspects of our sibling relationships.
Often there is abuse. The abuse may take the form of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse.
Sibling abuse is different than abuse by parents or abuse that takes place from strangers or those that do not live in our house. If parents know of the abuse they don’t know what to do, as there are combined loyalties within the family. Children who are abusing another child in the family typically need help and they may or may not get the help due to family secrets. If the family goes to therapy a therapist does need to report sibling abuse that exists outside of the typical torment and arm punching. Many times parents are unaware sibling abuse is taking place due to the “normal fighting” that is expected to take place between or among siblings.
What is sibling abuse?
Sibling abuse is physical, sexual, or emotional abuse by one child in a family to another child. Siblings may be biological, step siblings, half-siblings, foster siblings, or adopted siblings. Siblings are the children in the household who relate as brother and sister.
Often the abuse occurs from an older child toward a younger one or an older male child toward a younger female child. Sibling abuse can include some of the following:
Violence of any kind
Sexual behavior or Sex Play
Requesting to be touched by a sibling sexually
Hitting, choking, strangulating, slapping, punching in areas of soft tissue such as the stomach, pushing the child down stairs, and creating opportunities for accidents to take place. These are examples of violence.
The use of weapons such as threats with a knife, gun, or other things that would injure and instill fear.
Cruel name calling that is not brought under control by parents.
Things that become secrets. Such one child having pornography and sharing it with a sibling.
There are many examples of what constitutes abuse.
Warning Signs of Abuse
For the victim of abuse warning signs include a change in behavior, change in mood, verbalizations or efforts to avoid being around the abusive sibling, regressive behavior such as a return to bed wetting (eneuresis) or soiling pants (encopresis), inability to concentrate, problems in school, and other warning signs of depression in childhood including anxiety, fear, and agitation.
For the sibling acting out the violence the warning signs would include a history of violence, history of violence with animals or cruelty to animals, history of being bullied, history of too much responsibility, a history of sexual abuse, neglect, no supervision, poor socialization skills, family overwhelm, and parent denial. In addition, the abusive sibling may have signs of depression and anxiety as well. School performance and behavior may also occur.
The Consequences of Sibling Abuse
Research has shown a relationship between sibling abuse and a number of mental health problems including eating disorders, substance abuse and dependence, depression, anxiety, self esteem issues, posttraumatic stress disorder, future relationship issues, trust issues, and overall mental health concerns.
Sibling abuse, whether extreme or more minor, creates disturbances in the self image of the child receiving the abuse. A child with a poor image of self is more susceptible to being victimized by others and to difficulties in discerning safe from unsafe in the world and in relationships with others. This makes for a potential of future victimization.
Risk Factors for Sibling Abuse
Children who spend a great deal of time alone without parent supervision may be at risk for sibling abuse. Children and parents need a relationship where emotional time is spent in relation to one another. Children who are isolated emotionally are more at risk.
When parents accept sibling rivalry as a part of childhood this may increase the risk for abuse. Parents do best to diffuse sibling rivalry and competition. Children are more at risk in families where there are few resources or skills for conflict resolution and conflict management. Parents who do not intervene definitively with violent behavior between children place the children at risk for abuse.
Children who are given too much responsibility and adult roles regarding care of younger siblings are at risk for abusing their siblings.
Children exposed to violence, pornography, or those who have been abused physically or sexually or more at risk for abusing. Over exposure to media violence, video game violence, and interpersonal violence in the family places a child more at risk for abuse of siblings.
For more information on this pervasive concern please see the following resources:
Vernon Wiehe. What Parents Need to Know About Sibling Abuse:Breaking the Cycle of Violence.
Vernon Wiehe. Sibling Abuse:Hidden Physical, Emotional, and Sexual Trauma.
Take Care and Be Well,
Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, PhD
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Last reviewed: 28 Feb 2013