Sibling abuse has been identified as the most common form of family violence in the United States (Button, Parker, & Gealt, 2008; Reid & Donovan, 1990), occurring more frequently than parent-child abuse or spousal abuse (Graham-Bermann, Cutler, Litzenberger, & Schwartz, 1994). However, without current and national statistics to support this, sibling abuse continues to be under-recognized. No consistent national law exists regarding sibling abuse since many states do not have statutes that distinguish it as separate from incest. Parents who are not knowledgeable of the traumatic effects of abuse by a sibling may unintentionally perpetrate neglect, by failing to address the behavior.
Longstanding societal oversight of sibling abuse contributes to survivors’ uncertainty in terming their relationship with their siblings as abusive. A common response to someone claiming to have been abused by a sibling is that it must be a dramatization of normative sibling rivalry. After all, doesn’t everyone have fights with their siblings growing up? The cultural lack of validation of the sibling abuse experience leads many victims to not report its occurrence. Parental emotional unavailability and unresponsiveness to their child leaves the victim feeling alone and isolated. Often, because of shame and embarrassment, victims keep outsiders at a distance. This poses challenges for community members or peers to recognize the need for intervention. Furthermore, literature on sibling aggression often uses the terms “conflict”, “aggression”, “violence”, “rivalry” and “abuse” interchangeably which tends to minimize the significance of sibling abuse.
Sibling abuse is NOT sibling rivalry! There are distinct differences between normative sibling rivalry and sibling abuse. With sibling rivalry, children have an equal opportunity for advantage or disadvantage. Sometimes, one sibling is hurtful to another; and another time the other sibling is hurtful. However, sibling abuse indicates pervasive, ongoing damaging behavior from one sibling to another in which there is intent to harm by the abusive sibling and an induced sense of fear, shame, and hopelessness in the victim. While sibling rivalry fosters skills of communication, negotiation, and competition, sibling abuse does not warrant any positive outcomes. Although a single act of violence may be deemed abusive, sibling abuse generally differs from sibling rivalry because the harmful acts are perpetual, consistent, and severe.
Sexual abuse is the form of abuse most often assumed when sibling abuse is discussed. However, like with parent-child abuse, acts of violence between siblings can be of physical and/or emotional nature. Researchers have qualified physical sibling abuse as that which results in injuries such as bruises, welts, abrasions, lacerations, wounds, cuts, bone fractures, and other evidence of physical harm or injury (Wiehe, 1997; Hart, Germain, & Brassard, 1987). However, physical evidence of injury is not the only indicator of physical abuse, which could also include behavior that is physically intrusive, physically painful, and experienced as physically overwhelming. Emotional abuse involves active expressions of rejection and actions that deprecate the sibling, including verbal denigration and ridicule, actions or threats that cause a sibling extreme fear and anxiety. Another form of emotional abuse occurs when a sibling uses another for advantage or profit (Schneider, Ross, Graham, & Zielinski, 2005).
Victims of sibling abuse feel terrified and powerless to stop the onslaught. Despite its consistency, the acts are often unpredictable. There is no warning as to when it will occur, what will incite such anger in the perpetrator, and how the victim may prevent or avoid the next blow.
It is interesting that as a society we have rallied to the cause of bullying: through media, anti-bullying legislation, and outraged parents. I would posit that bullying could be termed peer abuse. In much the same way that we distinguish teasing from bullying, we need to distinguish sibling rivalry or sibling aggression from sibling abuse. There are parallels between peer teasing and sibling rivalry: variability in roles; equality in power; playfulness; testing of boundaries; and, the aggressor can be remorseful and take responsibility when the target becomes upset. There are also similarities between bullying and sibling abuse: always the same target; intent to harm; the aggressor seeks control or power; and, there is no remorse. Rightfully, serious measures have been taken to protect children from peers in the realm of bullying - as a society we have acknowledged the destructive physical impact or emotional influence a peer can have on another child. We also need to pay attention to the devastating implications of siblings who abuse siblings.
Learn more on this subject: Tune in to my podcast "What Would Dr. Meyers Do": Episode 11 "Sibling Abuse: It Hurts and It's Serious" (release date: 1/3/23)