Sibling Abuse or Sibling Rivalry?

Did you know that approximately 80% of children may experience some form of sibling maltreatment in their lifetime? Of these children, 3 to 6% of them experience severe physical abuse by a sibling, which may include the use of weapons. Today, researchers have found that sibling abuse may occur more frequently than other types of family violence and is also the least reported form of family violence.

What is the difference between sibling abuse and healthy sibling conflict?

It is normal for siblings to argue and a healthy part of growing up, but there is a difference between typical sibling behaviour and abuse. Sibling abuse is the psychological, physical, or sexual abuse of one sibling by another. Psychological abuse is considered any act that is done to diminish a sibling’s sense of identity, self-worth, and dignity. Some examples of this are when one sibling may ridicule, degrade, and belittle the other sibling. Physical abuse by a sibling occurs when the sibling’s goal is to intentionally inflict physical harm and pain onto the other sibling. The physical abuse can range from mild forms of aggression, like pushing or shoving between siblings, to extremely violent behaviour that can include the use of weapons. Lastly, sexual abuse is the behaviour between siblings that is not transitory, age-appropriate, and not motivated by developmental curiosity. This may involve sexual touching or rape. Sibling violence becomes an abusive situation when one child is always the victim and the other child is always the aggressor. The abuse is often motivated with the intent to inflict harm on the other sibling to gain a sense of power and control.

What are the possible signs of sibling abuse?

  • The child avoids interactions with the sibling(s)

  • The child fears being left alone with sibling(s)

  • The child does not want to go home or be at home

  • The child acts out abuse in play

  • The child has unexplained injuries after hanging out with sibling(s)

  • The child is overly compliant or withdrawn when interacting with sibling(s)

Often parents are blind to sibling abuse as parents and society expect fights and aggression to occur between siblings. As such, parents don’t see the abuse as a problem until they see that it is causing serious harm to their child. Unfortunately, when many children reveal that they are being abused by a sibling they often aren’t believed by their parents as it can be hard for parents to believe that the perpetrator of abuse is their own child. This is one of the main reasons why sibling abuse often goes underreported.

What are the long-term effects?

Children and youth who suffer from sibling abuse may experience a multitude of negative side effects that are harmful to the mental health and wellbeing of children, adolescences, and adults. Survivors of sibling abuse have been found to have problems with drugs and alcohol, low self-esteem, eating disorders, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They are also susceptible to an increased risk of this cycle of violence continuing into their teenage years and adult life.

How can we positively respond to sibling abuse?

  • By offering the harmed child support and reassurance

  • By getting a better understanding of the violence that is taking place between the siblings

  • By strengthening coping skills

  • By making a safety plan

  • By getting outside help if needed

Written By: Dayna