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Sibling Abuse Part I: What Is It and How Can I Recognize It?

Meg Mulroy, LPC 

Not getting along with your sibling is very common. If you live with that sibling, they will of course get under your skin- how could they not? Conflict, competition, and arguments are normal and can be healthy, but sibling relationships can also be abusive. According to Darlene Lancer, LMFT, and author of Sibling Bullying and Abuse: The Hidden Epidemic, sibling abuse is the most common but least reported abuse in the family. Instances of sibling abuse are higher than spousal or child abuse and the effects of sibling abuse are lasting and serious. This type of abuse is often overlooked by doctors, therapists, and teachers due to the normalcy of sibling rivalry and society’s dismissal and lack of knowledge of it being a problem. Oftentimes, the offender is older and takes advantage of a younger sibling. Girls are at greater risk of abuse, generally by an older brother, and can involve physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Same-sex abuse occurs, and girls can engage in abusive behaviors as well.

What Is Sibling Abuse? 

You might be wondering why you haven’t heard about sibling abuse if it is so common. One of the main problems is a lack of reporting. There are no laws governing sibling abuse and resources for families are far and few between, leading parents to be uninformed and without help. Oftentimes, parents and siblings alike will chalk up sibling abuse to sibling rivalry because they don’t know the difference. Sibling rivalry is reciprocal and is usually motivated by getting your parents’ attention. This might look like disagreements, jealousy, competition, an unwillingness to share. On the other hand, sibling abuse is rooted in inflicting harm, inciting fear, and wielding control over another person and is not reciprocal. Oftentimes, an older child will take advantage of a younger or smaller sibling who is trying to appease them or feel accepted, loved, or included by their sibling. 

Types of Sibling Abuse 

The types of abuse that we see in sibling dynamics also occur in child abuse and spousal abuse; commonly emotional, physical, or sexual. Emotional abuse can include gaslighting, belittling, name-calling, threatening, shaming, or destroying your things. There is often an element of manipulation employed to further exploit their victim. Physical abuse includes behavior that is intended to cause bodily harm. This can include hitting, kicking, being pinned down or restrained, choking, and slapping; amongst other violent behaviors. Sometimes weapons may be involved as well. Sexual abuse is different than being appropriately curious about sexuality and victims are usually manipulated into keeping it a secret from others. Behaviors can include inappropriate touching or forcing a sibling to perform sexual acts on them, watching them perform sexual acts on themselves, or viewing porn.

What are the Risk Factors of Sibling Abuse?  

Sibling abuse occurs mostly in a dysfunctional family system. There are several risk factors that may increase the chances of sibling abuse to occur including: 

  • Parents that never learned to regulate their own emotions or process their own trauma 
  • A lack of resources and education
  • Parents, siblings, or other family members with substance abuse issues 
  • Marital conflict and/or spousal violence that is modeled on children 
  • Spousal dynamics where one partner controls the other 
  • Siblings born close in age 
  • A neglectful or absent parent causing gaps in supervision 
  • A parent with anger issues
  • When the offender has also experienced abuse 
  • Parents who favor one child over another 

This forgotten type of abuse is very serious and can have a lasting impact on its survivors years after the abuse takes place.  In part II of this series, I will discuss the effects of surviving sibling abuse and ways you can heal from it.

If you would like to talk to someone about sibling abuse, our skilled therapists are here to help. Reach out to Symmetry Counseling today to learn more about our counseling services, and get support today. 

Works Cited: 

Lancer, Darlene. “Sibling Bullying and Abuse: The Hidden Epidemic.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 3 Feb. 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/toxic-relationships/202002/sibling-bullying-and-abuse-the-hidden-epidemic.

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