Sibling abuse is often overlooked as normative sibling rivalry. However, siblings can pose danger to each other either physically, emotionally, or both. The ramifications on the victim of an enduring aggressive and assaultive sibling relationship have both short-term and long-term repercussions. There are environmental factors outside of the family that may increase the likelihood of sibling on sibling aggression such as substance abuse, peer bullying, and low self-esteem. However, sibling abuse tends to develop from certain family conditions that create resentment and hostility between children. Most parents are upset to learn that sibling abuse occurs under their roof; they may be unable to manage the behavior; or they may feel helpless to address it. Additionally, parents may report that their child is also abusing them. There are steps that parents can take to minimize the development and perpetuation of sibling abuse.
1. Do not subject your child to your abusive partner.
It is your responsibility to protect your children from all types of abuse within the household. Do not passively accept your partner’s maltreatment of your child. My study found that parent-child abuse occurred in 50% of homes where sibling abuse was present.
2. Model appropriate communication.
Children learn how to manage conflict by observing disagreements and conflict between parents and through the interactions parents have with each child. Remember that acceptable behavior starts with you. Do not bring children into adult conflicts.
3. Pay attention to your child’s peer relationships.
Children who have challenging peer relationships are apt to bring this behavior into the home. If your child is the target of peer bullying he may be prone to victimization in the home; likewise, your child may displace his anger at being victimized onto a sibling. If your child is demonstrating aggressive behavior at school, he/she may also be aggressive to a sibling.
4. Take your child’s complaints seriously.
If your child is complaining about a sibling’s behavior towards him/her, monitor the relationship. If your child is scared of being alone with his/her sibling or finds reasons to stall coming home from school, ask if he/she feels safe at home. Often, children who are abused by a sibling will seek refuge at a friend’s house or get involved in after-school activities as a way to avoid being home until parents arrive from work.
5. Give children child responsibilities.
Children should not be in the position of caregiver. Sometimes parents are overwhelmed and need help with tasks. That is ok! However, children should not serve as a substitute spouse. Children, especially from single-parent homes, tend to be burdened with the care giving of younger siblings. This breeds resentment. While children may seek positive reinforcement – and are praised – for being a “mother’s helper”, they have the ability to grow up resentful of taking on that role.
6. Treat each child equally.
Granted, each child cannot be treated the same all the time. However, it is important to recognize the strengths of each child. Favoritism can create hostile sibling relationships. As children, we learn that we are subordinate to parents: messages are conveyed that expressing anger at a parent is unacceptable. This anger is likely to be displaced onto a more subordinate figure (the sibling) who bears the brunt of the rage. When a child perceives that he/she is not being treated fairly by a parent, or is liked less than a sibling, he/she may react by mistreating the sibling.
7. Get help.
If you feel unable to manage your child’s behavior, seek professional help. Parenting is not easy! There is nothing shameful in needing guidance or intervention.
The best intervention is prevention! But parenting is the hardest job there is. If sibling relationships turn aggressive, obtain all the support you need. All parents struggle with parenting responsibilities. We pay so much attention to the influence of parents on children – and parents are powerful beings in the home environment. Siblings are too.