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 behavior is very often learned behavior (ie a child may model his behavior 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 ‘favorite’ of the parent and another sibling resents this.
- cultural norms that glamorize power and control
- siblings that are close in age
- age of sibling: the first-born is most likely to be a perpetrator of abuse
- gender: younger sisters of older brothers are most at risk
- parents who use coercion to manipulate their children
- parental favoritism of a particular child
- parental substance abuse
- one child is cast in the role of family-scapegoat
- parents may disbelieve, ignore or be indifferent to sibling abuse within their household. This can cause great emotional turmoil in the mind of the child as s/he may come to question in his/her own mind if his/her emotional reactions to the abuse are valid and whether his/her perception of reality is accurate, increasing his/her risk of developing psychosis in later life.
- families in which one sibling has assumed the role of a caregiver due to neglect by the parents or because of parental absence. This, in turn, can lead to confusion over boundaries and abuse of power (Haskins, 2003).
- an abusive parent may deliberately manipulate his/her children’s relationship using a ‘divide and rule’ strategy that maintains animosity between the siblings Indeed, as was the case with my own mother and as I have written elsewhere on this site, the parent may actually join in with the bullying sibling and actively encourage the bullying, for example, joining in with the ‘name-calling and laughing along with him/her in response to the victim’s distress.
- children who have low empathy are more likely to be perpetrators
- children with ADHD are more likely to be perpetrators
- children with mood disorders and/or anxiety are more likely to be perpetrators (see research below)
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:
- anxiety and depression (these were found to be the most common symptoms of bullying (Yen 2003; Arroll, 2010)
- 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, 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.
STUDY INVESTIGATING LINK BETWEEN BULLYING AND ANXIETY//DEPRESSION:
A study conducted by Xiaoqun Liu, et al., 2020) involving 5,926 children and adolescents found that:
20.8 % reported being the VICTIM of at least one sub-type (verbal, physical, or sexual) of sibling bullying in the last month.
In relation to the 3 sub-types:
- 13.8% had been the victim of verbal bullying
- 7.6 % had been the victim of physical bullying
- 4 % had been the victim of sexual bullying
It was also found that 20.8% had been the PERPETRATORS of at least one sub-type of bullying against a sibling in the previous six months.
In relation to the 3 sub-types
- 14.5 % had been the perpetrators of verbal bullying against a sibling
- 6.5 % had been the perpetrator of physical bullying against a sibling
- 2.8% had been the perpetrator of sexual bullying against a sibling
Some children and adolescents may be both victims and perpetrators of sibling bullying. In this study, it was found that :
- 7.3% were pure victims
- 7.5% were pure bullies
- 13.3% were BOTH BULLIES AND VICTIMS
BULLYING, DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY: THE FINDINGS OF THE STUDY:
It was found that those children/adolescents who had been the VICTIM of at least one sub-type of sibling bullying were at increased risk of suffering from major depression and anxiety and, as might be expected, the more sub-types of abuse they had been the victim of, the greater the risk of developing these disorders (i.e. there exists what psychologists and researchers sometimes refer to as a ‘dose-response relationship‘).
Furthermore, the study found that children/adolescents who PERPETRATED one or more of the sub-types of bullying were SIGNIFICANTLY MORE LIKELY TO REPORT MAJOR DEPRESSION and were AT GREATER RISK OF ANXIETY than those children/adolescents who never perpetrated any acts of bullying against their siblings.
In conclusion, the authors of the study pointed out that it was important that clinicians should be mindful of the sub-types of bullying due to the cumulative effect they may have on children’s/adolescents’ mental health.
WHY SIBLING ABUSE IS UNDERREPORTED AND GOES UNDER THE RADAR
Sibling abuse is, in fact, the most common type of abuse that occurs within the family but often goes under the radar as parents tend to underestimate its seriousness, unaware that the impact of sibling abuse (usually perpetrated by an older sibling against a younger sibling) can be as psychologically damaging to the child as parental abuse. This ‘turning of a blind eye’ by parents further exacerbates the psychological damage done to the child by his/her sibling as it gives rise to a sense of betrayal and of not being protected and kept safe. Such inaction by parents can amount to negligence.
Unfortunately, parents’ lack of insight into the seriousness of sibling abuse is a reflection of general attitudes in society (sometimes even including therapists) towards sibling abuse which can be dismissive and minimizing. In short, society as a whole could be described as being in denial about the problem. This is why sibling abuse is sometimes described as ‘forgotten abuse’ or a ‘hidden epidemic.’
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc, PGDE(FAHE).
Liu X, Peng C, Yu Y, et al. Association Between Sub-types of Sibling Bullying and Mental Health Distress Among Chinese Children and Adolescents. Front Psychiatry. 2020;11:368. Published 2020 May 14. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00368