Ten-year-old Matthew and his brother Patrick, age 12 like to rough-house. They wrestle and body slam one another and at least once a week, one of the boys is getting put in a choke-hold. Some parents consider this normal aggressive play between siblings. But how can you tell when behaviors cross the line from aggressive to abusive?


    Sibling abuse is real and one of the least reported forms of family violence. Until recent years, law enforcement did not recognize sibling abuse as a criminal act. Juvenile and criminal courts viewed it as more of a private family matter for parents to deal with.


    Yet many parents feel ill-equipped and powerless to stop or manage the behavior. We’ve got protocols, campaigns, and resources to stop bullying in our schools and online, but there’s limited support for the parent who has a bully living in their home.


    How to Differentiate Between Aggression and Abuse


    If you’re a parent of a combative or aggressive kid, it can be difficult to decide when an action is normal developmental behavior between siblings versus when it crosses the line into being abusive.


    Sibling rivalry or aggression differs from sibling abuse in that it typically consists of isolated incidents that are age-appropriate, mutual and not one dominant aggressor, and consists to specific incidents such as fighting over household privileges.


    Sibling rivalry or aggression is usually based on an underlying need for attention and significance or a lack of impulse control.


    A good way to decide if an interaction is abusive is the intent and impact of the act. Unlike sibling rivalry, the goal or intent of sibling abuse is for the aggressor to show dominance over a sibling or inflict harm to a sibling. In order to do this, the aggressor may use physical force in the form of hitting, kicking, pushing, slapping, biting, pinching, choking and hair pulling.


    An abusive sibling will engage in many of the same behaviors that we attribute to bullies in school or online. This includes being emotionally abusive to a sibling through the use of intimidation, belittling, threats, torture, or destruction of sibling’s property.


    In some cases, this 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.


    What we now know is that a child who has suffered abuse by a sibling is more likely to experience adjustment problems, have low self-esteem, bully others, and engage in self-injurious behaviors like cutting.


    Being an Empowered Parent


    As a parent, your first goal is to decide if your child’s behavior is developmentally appropriate or abusive. You should also take into account any parenting beliefs or familial patterns that influence aggressive behaviors in your home. Only then can the abusive behavior be stopped.


    Some parents feel that aggression between siblings is typical and teaches children how to manage conflict. While some parents may unknowingly engage in behaviors of their own that encourage or re-enforce sibling rivalry and abuse.


    It’s quite common for parents to be unaware they’re promoting sibling abuse by minimizing or ignoring the abuse, blaming the victim, or responding inappropriately by using physical discipline with the abusive sibling.


    Children learn the rules of conduct for relationships from their parents. This learning process, also known as role modeling, is 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 seen 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 and aggression by playing favorites.

    To help you change unhealthy or harmful behaviors in your home, consider the following factors:


    • Parental separation, divorce, or the long-term absence of a parent can increase the likelihood of conflict between siblings.
    • Sibling abuse and conflict are less likely to occur in households where there is regular and consistent parental supervision.
    • As the parent, you must role model effective communication skills and conflict resolution skills for your children.
    • Aggressive behaviors between children should be stopped before children graduate to more extreme acts of violence towards one another.


    If you feel that you are unable manage the problem on your own, you should seek the help from a qualified counselor or family therapist for support and guidance.


    For more parenting tips and useful information to help you make important decisions read my book Empowered Parenting.


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    Seals, N. (2012) Quick Lesson About Sibling Abuse. CINAHL Accession Number 500015646, A division of EBSCO Publishing.

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