Sibling abuse is one of the least reported forms of family violence. In past years, sibling abuse was considered a private family matter, not to be discussed outside the home. Today, it is recognized as one of the most common forms of family violence. We know that children who have suffered abuse by a sibling are more likely to experience adjustment problems, have low self-esteem, bully others, and engage self-harming behaviors. The first step in prevention is to know the difference between normal sibling interaction and abusive behaviors.
Rivalry or Abuse?
If you’re a parent with combative children, you may be used to a certain degree of rough-housing and battling in your home. This type of interaction may start to feel normal over time, which makes it difficult to know when it crosses the line. The challenge for parents is to determine when an action is normal developmental behavior between siblings versus when it crosses the line into being abusive.
Sibling rivalry differs from sibling abuse in that it typically consists of isolated incidents that are age appropriate. Both children are mutually aggressive versus there being one dominant aggressor. With sibling rivalry, conflicts are related to specific incidents such as fighting over household privileges. These types of interactions are usually based on an underlying need for attention and significance.
An effective way to determine if an interaction is abusive is by identifying the intent and impact of the act. Unlike sibling rivalry, the goal or intent of sibling abuse is for the aggressor to establish dominance over a sibling or inflict harm to a sibling. To achieve this goal, the aggressor may use physical force in the form of hitting, kicking, pushing, slapping, biting, pinching, choking and hair pulling.
An aggressor may also be emotionally abusive to a sibling through use of intimidation, belittling, threats, torture, or destruction of sibling’s property. In some cases, the aggressor’s need to exert power and control over a sibling can be acted out in the form of sexual abuse. The severity and motivation for sibling abuse vary based on a child’s age and is strongly influenced by family relationship dynamics and cultural trends.
Examining Your Parenting Beliefs
Some parents feel that aggression between siblings is expected and teaches children how to manage conflict. You may be unknowingly holding beliefs or engaging in behaviors that encourage or re-enforce sibling rivalry and abuse. Studies show parents are often unaware they are promoting sibling abuse by minimizing or ignoring the abuse, blaming the victim, or responding inappropriately by using physical discipline with the abusive sibling.
What we know for sure is that children learn the rules of relationship conduct from their parents. This learning process is called role modeling and it’s the standard way in which children learn how to engage and interact others; and more specifically, with their siblings. Children are at a significant risk of being an abuser or a victim of sibling abuse if they have witnessed their parents engage in domestic violence or abuse of a child. Children are also at risk of sibling abuse when parents are unwilling or unable to help them resolve conflict or parents promote sibling rivalry by playing favorites.
What Empowered Parents Do
Sibling abuse and conflict are less likely to occur in households where there is regular and consistent parental supervision. As the parent, it is important to role model effective communication skills and conflict resolution skills for your children. Aggressive behaviors among children need to be stopped before children graduate to more extreme acts of violence towards one another.
If you feel that you are unable to address the issue on your own, you should seek the assistance of a qualified counselor or family therapist for support and guidance.