Like parental abuse of children, abuse of one sibling by another can fall into three main categories.
These are :
- emotional abuse (for example, name-calling and teasing that has a negative psychological effect upon the victim).
- physical abuse (this can range from aggressive pushing and punching to the use of weapons such as knives at the extreme end of the spectrum.
- sexual abuse (research suggests that sexual contact and incest is more common between siblings than between the parent and child).
Effects of culture :
In our culture, hostility between siblings tends to be taken for granted. This attitude, however, can lead to the effects of significant and damaging sibling abuse being minimised or even dismissed entirely.
Statistical findings in this area of research suggest that approximately 3% of siblings are dangerously violent towards another sibling (i.e. putting them at risk of serious injury) and about one-third of children each year are assaulted by another sibling.
This finding means that physical abuse of one sibling by another is more common than parental physical abuse of the child.
What are the signs that sibling abuse may be occurring within the family?
Such signs include:
- one child always being the aggressor and one always being the victim. These roles are rigid and tend not to fluctuate.
- one child seems to be often wary of a sibling, perhaps frequently, actively avoiding him and/or displaying signs of fear in his presence a child ‘acts out’ abuse in play and/or paintings, pictures and drawings. However, this may also be a sign that parental abuse of the child is occurring, of course.
What factors put a child at risk of becoming a victim of sibling abuse?
Such factors include:
- there is existing domestic violence and/or emotional abuse occurring within the household between the parents: this is because abusive behaviour is very often learned behaviour (ie a child may model his behaviour on that of an abusive father or step-father whether consciously or unconsciously).
- neglect of children by parents including a marked lack of supervision/ guidance and a general lack of interest by the parents in their children’s lives (for example, because they are excessively self-involved/ focused on their own lives, careers etc.).
- parents are cold and emotionally distant from children.
- a child is bullied at school and displaces (takes out) his anger about this on a vulnerable sibling.
- a child is put under excessive strain within the family, including having to take on a caring role that he is not emotionally mature enough to cope with psychologically (such as being ‘parentified’)
- a child is the victim of parental physical, emotional or sexual abuse and displaces his anger about this on a vulnerable sibling.
- one child is the ‘favourite’ of the parent and another sibling resents this.
- one child is cast in the role of family-scapegoat
What are the possible long-term consequences of being the victim of sustained and significant sibling abuse?
Such long-term consequences, which can last well into adulthood or, indeed, a lifetime if appropriate therapy is not sought include:
- low self-esteem
- eating disorders
- learned – helplessness
As would clearly be expected, the more extreme the nature of the sibling abuse, as well as the length of time it goes on for, are important factors involved in determining how deleterious the adverse psychological effects of the sibling abuse are.
Also, emotional harm done to the victim will depend, in part, on his/her psychological resilience and the level of emotional support he receives from significant others.
It is important to note that even the less extreme forms of sibling abuse can lead to long-lasting self-image problems (for example, feelings of inadequacy) for the victim.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc, PGDE(FAHE).
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.