Sibling Abuse Part II: What Are Its Long-Term Effects?
Survivors of sibling abuse face significant long-term effects due to what is often years of being abused by their sibling. Because it is hard for parents and other adults to notice when sibling abuse is happening, survivors often find themselves believing they deserved what happened to them and live with a lot of internalized shame. The effects of sibling abuse mimic parent-child abuse and can impact their sense of safety, well-being, and interpersonal relationships.
The Physical Effects of Sibling Abuse
Some of the effects that survivors report later in life are physical in nature — GI issues, headaches, or chronic pain. In addition to physical effects, many people who experience abuse will report feeling unlovable, invisible, too much, and also not enough. Siblings who are abused by other siblings are often abused for years because of how hard it is for advocates, parents, and other mandated reporters to notice. Years of abuse can cause survivors to believe that they deserve their abuse and unconsciously gravitate toward abusive partners in other relationships in their life. Navigating what is a healthy boundary with friends and romantic partners is incredibly challenging when their own boundaries were consistently and repeatedly disrespected and unacknowledged. It is common for survivors of abuse to fear asking for their needs to be met or a boundary to be respected because in their past they might have been met with cruel words, physical blows, or any other form of abuse after asking others to honor their boundaries. In fact, setting and respecting healthy boundaries can often feel unhealthy and scary for survivors of abuse.
How Sibling Abuse Can Effect Your Relationships
Because trauma is stored in our bodies, survivors may react in ways that are more informed by their history of abuse, rather than what is happening at the moment. This can occur even when they meet a partner they trust to keep them safe and make them feel loved. This can lead to patterns of codependency in relationships and pleasing behaviors where you abandon yourself in order to feel some sense of control in your life. When you are a survivor of abuse, you are used to feeling completely out of control in one way or another — you may have felt helpless to a sibling holding you down or hitting you, or unable to control your sibling’s anger, resulting in an outburst directed at you. Abandoning yourself may look like performing as a version you think your partner or friends will prefer rather than being yourself, denying your needs to meet someone else’s, or being dishonest with yourself and others.
How Sibling Abuse Can Effect Your Ability to Trust
You may also find yourself struggling to trust yourself and others. When you are betrayed by a sibling and a parent (through lack of protection), it makes sense that you are unsure of who to trust and to what degree. For example, being able to trust that someone means what they say may be near impossible if your sibling used manipulation to wield power over you. Also, it can be hard to trust yourself when you have been abused by another, especially if a sibling or family used gaslighting against you. Trusting that you know what is best for you, trusting that your feelings are valid and real and that you can handle what comes your way is very difficult after years of abuse. This can lead to difficulty making decisions, hypervigilance, and loneliness.
How to Move Forward
Processing your trauma and abuse is extremely hard work, and can bring up a lot of complicated feelings. Whether or not your sibling is still a prominent part of your life, you may grapple with mixed feelings and feel guilty, scared, or even undeserving of getting the help you need. Survivors of sibling abuse often feel like they don’t deserve to process this trauma, especially if it did go unnoticed. It is often common for people to respond to your trauma with disbelief or wanting to minimize what happened to you as “sibling rivalry,” or “normal sibling squabbles.” It’s important to remember that what happened to you was important and you deserve to get help.
Starting work with a therapist is key to getting started in healing your childhood wounds. Try and find a therapist with a history of treating trauma, and you may want to find a therapist that is EMDR certified to work with you. Contact Symmetry Counseling today to meet with one of our counselors who can help you!
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.
Written by Kara Thompson-Miller, Licensed Clinical Social Worker: January 2023 “Why is it so hard to like my body?”: A unassumingly complex question that has been asked by many clients in many different variations, but one that, nonetheless, tends…Read More
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