Sibling abuse typically takes place between blood relatives, or step-siblings close to each other in age. Usually, the victim and the abuser live under the same roof, making it even more difficult to recognize, report or manage. Like other forms of abuse, it is not limited to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
What Is Sibling Abuse?
Sibling abuse, also referred to as sibling bullying, or ‘forgotten abuse’ is the physical, emotional/psychological, and/or sexual abuse of one sibling by another.1,2 It is the most common form of family violence, even more so than parent-child abuse.3 It is important to understand the difference between typical, healthy sibling conflict and rivalry versus abuse, in which there is intention to cause harm or control the victim.
Sibling abuse falls into the following categories: 1,4,5
- Physical Abuse: May be brushed off as sibling rivalry as it is often fighting that is deemed “normal” childhood behavior. Sibling physical abuse include behaviors such as hitting, biting, shoving, choking, punching, slapping, etc.
- Emotional Abuse: May also be referred to as psychological abuse or emotional maltreatment. The abuser has the intention of making the victim feel lesser than, creating a sense of low self-esteem or social withdrawal. Examples of sibling emotional abuse include name-calling, belittling, teasing, insulting, threatening, destroying property, relational aggression, intimidation and asserting power or control.
- Sexual Abuse: Using power to bribe or threaten a sibling into sexual activity. The abuser is typically an older or stronger sibling who wins the trust of their younger, ‘weaker’ sibling. Examples of sibling sexual abuse include touching, penetration, coercion, using force, watching sexually explicit content or watching their victim get dressed or shower.
Bullying & Abuse vs. Normal Sibling Rivalries
Understanding the difference between sibling rivalry or conflict and sibling abuse or bullying is important. The main difference is the severity, frequency and nature of the conflict.6 Sibling rivalry often occurs over “tangible or intangible resources” and through the guidance of parents, can effectively be resolved. Sibling abuse differs as these conflicts often arise without reason, and often become more aggressive.
15 Signs of Sibling Abuse
If a parent or caregiver notices changes in behavior and suspects sibling abuse, they can look for the following warning signs. While some of these signs may be present for other reasons, it’s important to rule out sibling abuse as the main factor.
Physical, psychological or emotional and sexual signs of sibling abuse include:1,4
- Fear of being around siblings
- Withdrawal or isolation
- Loss of interest
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Changes in school attendance or focus
- Unexplained bruises and/or injuries
- Decrease in confidence
- Low self-esteem
- Overly sexualized behavior
- Acting sexually explicit
- Frequently “playing doctor” or other provocative play
- Using explicit sexual language
- Rebellious of defiant behavior
- Attempts at running away from the home
- Suicidal ideation or attempts
Risk Factors for Sibling Abuse
Risk factors for sibling abuse can affect both the offender and the victim. Parents can reduce significant risk factors by helping to resolve and address sibling-to-sibling conflict, avoid blaming the victim or discouraging sibling rivalry and keep from targeting one particular child.4
The following risk factors make sibling violence more likely to occur:7
- Dysfunctional family
- Parents with anger issues
- Witness to intimate partner violence or abusive relationship in parents
- Lack of parental supervision
- Poor conflict resolution
- Ongoing family stressors such as separation, divorce, or incarceration of a parent
- Substance use
- Unclear roles
- Poor boundaries or rules established
- Favoring one sibling over another
- Encouraging sibling competition
Effects of Sibling Abuse in Childhood & Adulthood
There are short-term and long-term effects of sibling abuse that develop throughout childhood and well into adulthood. It can be helpful to identify and address these effects with the help of a mental health professional.
Effects of child and adolescent victims of sibling abuse may include: 3
- Social isolation
- Conduct disorder
Long-term effects of sibling abuse may include:3,6
- Substance use
- Sexual promiscuity or sexual avoidance
- Low self-esteem
- Poor boundaries
- Avoidance of marriage
- More likely to experience and withstand abuse in other relationships
How Parents Can Respond in the Moment
As a parent, the last thing you want to hear is that one of your children is being abused or harmed in any way. Your response in the moment is crucial to the trust your child will have in sharing their experience with you again in the future.
The following are ways to respond to sibling abuse:
- Offer support/reassurance to the child/victim
- Validate the victim’s experience
- Don’t overlook or minimize cruel behavior
- Set clear ground rules
- Teach problem-solving skills
- Make a safety plan by separating the victim and the abuser
- Contact local mental health centers for professional support for the family
What Can Parents Do to Prevent Sibling Abuse?
Parents can, and should, have an active role in preventing sibling abuse. By staying attentive to your children’s needs, keeping open communication and validating their experience, you can begin to foster a healthier environment.
The following are ways to prevent sibling abuse: 1,5,8
- Model good conflict-solving skills/respect
- Talk to your children together and individually on a regular basis
- Don’t dismiss a child who says they’re victimized
- Provide good adult supervision
- Encourage the child to share with you what happened
- Remind the child they are not responsible for the abuse
- Provide comfort
- Help the child remain safe
- Report the abuse by contacting your local child protective agency and/or the police department
When to Seek Professional Help
Seeking professional help can help create a safe space to share vulnerabilities and process thoughts and feelings surrounding sibling abuse. Use a therapist directory to find a therapist that can help you cope with the trauma and effects of sibling abuse. Several therapy modalities that may be helpful include Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) or Narrative Therapy. Traditional talk therapy can also be beneficial in processing sibling abuse trauma.
Therapy can help parents cope with the mixed feelings of having both the perpetrator and the victim as children or step-children. While individual therapy is recommended, group therapy can also be helpful as there is community in sharing stories, strategies and validation of feelings.Family therapy or parent-child therapy can also help to rebuild and strengthen the parent-child relationship.
For the Abused Child
For younger children, play therapy can help express feelings and memories without the use of words. Depending on the verbal skills of the child, this type of therapy can be more communicative without the use of language. As an adult, EMDR can be helpful to process emotions related to trauma. Group therapy may also be helpful as there is strength and empowerment in sharing one’s story of surviving sibling abuse.
For the Abusive Child
Finding a therapist that specializes in child-on-child sexual abuse (COCSA) can help to identify the abuser’s risk factors and develop a personalized plan for preventing future abuse. Treatment comes in many approaches, from individual psychotherapy to group therapy.
Abuse in any form is hard to cope with, but by reaching out to your support network and seeking professional help, you can begin to heal. Know that you are not alone and that there are resources available to guide you through the healing process.
For Further Reading
- EndCAN – The National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect
- ChildHelp –National Hotline for Child Abuse
- The Younique Foundation – Support groups for survivors of sexual abuse
- Protect the Children, Inc. – Resources, protection and support for families and children
- Defend Innocence – Risk reduction and prevention
- Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) Childwelfare Resources
- Stop Abuse For Everyone (SAFE)