Sibling violence is the physical, emotional or sexual abuse of one sibling by another. The physical violence can range from more mild forms of aggression between siblings (e.g., pushing and shoving) to very violent behavior (e.g., using weapons).
Often times, moms and dads don’t see the abuse for what it is. As a rule, parents and society expect fights and aggression between brothers and sisters. Because of this, parents often don’t see sibling violence as a problem until serious harm occurs.
Besides the direct dangers of sibling violence, the abuse can cause all kinds of long-term problems on into adulthood. Research shows that violence between siblings is quite common. In fact, it is probably even more common than child abuse (by parents) or spouse abuse. Unfortunately, the most violent members of American families are the kids.
Experts estimate that 3 kids in 100 are dangerously violent toward a brother or sister. One recent study puts the number of assaults each year to kids by a sibling at about 35 per 100 children. The same study found the rate to be similar across income levels and racial and ethnic groups. Likewise, many researchers have estimated sibling incest to be much more common than parent-child incest.
It seems that when violent acts occur between siblings, family members often don’t see it as abuse. How do you identify abuse? What is the difference between sibling violence and sibling rivalry?
At times, all siblings squabble and call each other mean names, and some young siblings may "play doctor." But here is the difference between typical sibling behavior and abuse: If one youngster is always the victim and the other youngster is always the aggressor, it is an abusive situation.
Some possible signs of sibling violence are:
- A youngster acts out abuse in play
- A youngster acts out sexually in inappropriate ways
- A youngster has changes in behavior, sleep patterns, eating habits, or has nightmares
- One youngster always avoids their sibling
- The kid’s roles are rigid: one youngster is always the aggressor, the other, the victim
- The roughness or violence between siblings is increasing over time
How can you identify sibling abuse? Here are some useful guidelines:
- How does the victim respond? Victims often respond to abuse from a brother or sister by protecting themselves, screaming and crying, separating themselves from the abuser, abusing a younger sibling in turn, telling their moms and dads, internalizing the abusive message, fighting back, or submitting.
- How often does it happen and how long does it go on? Acceptable behavior that is long and drawn out may become abusive over time.
- Is the behavior age-appropriate? Remember that generally you should confront fighting and jealousy even if you tend to think it is "normal."
- Is there a victim in the situation? A victim may not want to participate, but may be unable to stop the activity.
- What is the purpose of the behavior? If it tears down another person, it is abusive.
How can I prevent abuse from taking place between my kids?
- Create a family atmosphere where everyone feels at ease talking about sexual issues and problems.
- Don't give your older kids too much responsibility for your younger children (e.g., use after-school care programs, rather than leaving older kids in charge of younger ones after school).
- Keep an eye on your children’ media choices (e.g., TV, video games, and Internet surfing), and either join in and then discuss the media messages or ban the poor choices.
- Know when to intervene in your kids' conflicts, to prevent an escalation to abuse.
- Learn to mediate conflicts.
- Model good conflict-solving skills for your kids.
- Model non-violence for your kids.
- Set aside time regularly to talk with your kids one-on-one, especially after they've been alone together.
- Set ground rules to prevent emotional abuse, and stick to them (e.g., make it clear you will not put up with name-calling, teasing, belittling, intimidating, or provoking).
- Teach them to say “no” to unwanted physical contact.
- Teach your kids to "own" their own bodies.
What should I do if there's abuse going on between my children?
When one sibling hits, bites, or physically tortures a brother or sister, the normal rivalry has become abuse. You can't let this dangerous behavior continue. Here's what to do:
- After a cooling off period, bring all the children involved into a family meeting.
- Brainstorm many possible solutions to the problem, and ways to reach the goal.
- Continue to watch closely your kids' contacts in the future.
- Gather information on facts and feelings.
- Help the children work together to set a positive goal (e.g., they will separate themselves and take time to cool off when they start arguing).
- Help your children learn how to manage their anger.
- Make sure you don't ignore, blame, or punish the victim—while at the same time, not playing favorites.
- Make your expectations and the family rules very clear.
- State the problem as you understand it.
- Talk together about the list of solutions and pick the ones that are best for everyone.
- Whenever violence occurs between kids, separate them.
- Write up a contract together that states the rights and responsibilities of each youngster. Include a list of expected behavior, and consequences for breaking the code of conduct.
Can sibling relationships have lasting effects into adulthood?
In the last few years, more researchers have looked at the lasting effects of early experiences with sisters and brothers. Siblings can have strong, long-lasting effects on one another's emotional development as adults.
Research indicates that the long-term effects of surviving sibling violence can include:
o Alcohol and drug addiction
o Depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem
o Eating disorders
o Inability to trust; relationship difficulties
o Learned helplessness
Even less extreme sibling rivalry during childhood can create insecurity and poor self-image in adulthood. Sibling conflict does not have to be physically violent to take a long-lasting emotional toll. Emotional abuse (e.g., teasing, name-calling, isolation, etc.) can also do long-term damage. The abuser is also at risk—for future violent or abusive relationships (e.g., dating violence and domestic violence).
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