Sibling abuse is normally defined as: ‘The physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse of one sibling by another.’
The real extent of sibling abuse is not known, due to the fact that like many abuses it is often hidden away for reasons of fear, embarrassment, ignorance or lack of understanding.However, experts agree that sibling abuse can be as serious and dangerous as any other abuse as it can, at its worst, involve extreme violence, rape and always causes emotional/psychological disturbance to the victims.
Siblings are, strictly speaking, brothers and sisters. However, the term also covers all children who grow up alongside each other in a family. They may or may not be full brothers and sisters. Due to the breakdown of marriages in our society, many families now include children from different parents. These may be half siblings (having one parent in common) or step siblings (no genetic relationship but brought into the family though the marriage or intimate partnership of their parents). It is widely believed that sibling abuse is more common between siblings who are not full brothers and sisters. Sexual sibling abuse in particular is more likely to occur between step siblings.
Types of sibling abuse
The three types of sibling abuse can be classified as:
- Physical sibling abuse: Physical sibling abuse is often mistaken for sibling rivalry, or for normal childhood/teenage behaviour. It is not gender specific. A female child may behave in a physically abusive manner to a sibling as may a male child. However, most commonly, physical sibling abuse is perpetrated on a weaker child by a stronger one. Physical sibling abuse may have low level beginnings which are easily missed by the parents as red flag signs of abuse. Childhood arguments may descend into physical fighting, with slapping, pinching or hair pulling. These relationships can become abusive if they become long term, with one child habitually attacking the other. The abuse and extent of the violence involved can also escalate. In come cases, severe violence may ensue with serious physical injury caused. If weapons are involved, sibling abuse can even be fatal.
- Emotional/psychological sibling abuse: Emotional/psychological sibling abuse can be even harder to detect. Arguments between siblings are part of growing up in a family, making it difficult to judge if abuse is creeping in. Emotional sibling abuse often echoes adult domestic abuse or schoolyard bullying. It can take the form of teasing, name calling, belittling, demeaning, humiliating or frightening and threatening. A child who is emotionally abused by a sibling may become withdrawn, do less well at school or become aggressive in other areas of her life. It is, in many ways, worse than bullying outside the home as a child is unable to escape the abusive behaviour and has no safe haven to which to retreat.
- Sexual sibling abuse: Sexual sibling abuse becomes far more common when half siblings or step siblings are brought into a family setting although it can occur between full brothers and sisters. Although the most common scenario is that sexual sibling abuse is perpetrated on a female child by a male child, this is not always the case. Boys can abuse boys, girls can abuse other girls and girls may also become sexually abusive to a male child in the family. Sexual sibling abuse may involve such behaviour as speaking in a sexual manner, looking at another child’s genitals or exposing their own genitals. More serious sexual sibling abuse may involve inappropriate touching, coercing into sexual acts, voyeurism, exposure to pornography or physical sexual assaults and rape.
Facts about sibling abuse
The exact prevalence of sibling sexual abuse is impossible to report. However, research undertaken into the subject gives the following insights:
- According to Vernon Wiehe of the University of Kentucky, some 53% of children have behaved at least once in an aggressive manner to a sibling. This is significant, if counted as sibling abuse, as it would suggest that sibling abuse is more common even than adult domestic violence. However, most experts believe that an isolated act of aggression does not constitute recordable abuse.
- Most studies have shown that male children are more likely to abuse siblings than females, although all have found that abuse can take place between sisters, or be perpetrated by a female on a male. However, the figures are complicated by the fact that violent or even sexual behaviour by a male sibling to a female is more likely to be perceived as abuse than the other way around.
- A study by Bank and Kahn found that most sibling incest or sibling sexual abuse could be classified in one of two categories: “nurturance-oriented incest” and “power-oriented incest”. The first is characterized by expressions of affection and love, while the second is characterized by force and domination.
- The 2006 work of Bass, Taylor, Kunutson-Martin and Huenergardt, which explored the subject of sibling sexual abuse and incest, concluded that “sibling incest occurs at a frequency that rivals and may even exceed other forms of incest,” yet only 11% of studies into child sex abuse examined sibling perpetrators.
- In 2005, G Ryan’s work, ‘Preventing Violence and Trauma in the Next Generation’ stated: ‘ Child protection has focused on adult-child (sexual) relationships, yet we know that more than 40% of all juvenile-perpetrated child sexual abuse is perpetrated in sibling relationships.’
- David Finkelhorn interviewed 800 college students and found the following disturbing statistic: ‘15% of females and 10% of males had been sexually abused by a sibling.‘
Reasons why sibling abuse may occur
There are many reasons and thories put forward as to why sibling abuse occurs. The three types of sibling abuse (physical, emotional and sexual abuse) may also have different roots. However, in common with adult abusive relationships, a common thread seems to be that the abuser wants to obtain power and control over his victim.
Among the most common reasons suggested and discovered as causes for sibling abuse are the following:
- Sibling abuse can occur when an older child is forced to stay home to take care of a younger child and becomes resentful. He or she transfers their anger and futration at what they see as ‘unfair’ treatment onto the younger sibling.
- Sibling abuse may occur when new children are brought into the family through remarriage of parents. This resulting resentment can be for a number of reasons. The children may dislike the fact that their Mum or Dad has a new partner and feel that they are thus being disloyal to the genetic or former parent. They may also have nothing in common with their new ‘siblings’. Just because an adult couple meet and fall in love, it doesn’t necessarily follow that their existing children will like each other.
- Sibling sexual abuse can also occur when a teenaged boy who has had little interaction with girls and is naturally sexually developing an interst in the opposite sex is brought into a family where there is a teenaged girl.
- Sibling abuse can also arise through feelings of insecurity and jealousy. Children often perceive a sibling to be a favoured child and become abusive in an effort to redress the balance, as they perceive it.
- Sexual abuse of a sibling can arise if an older child crosses the line between normal sexual curiosity and development and carries out his fantasties on a younger sibling. This can happen due to insecurity about his own sexual development.
- Sibling sexual abuse may also occur if the abusive child has been subjected to sexual abuse himself, either in his former home or in another setting.
Recognising sibling abuse
Making the vital distinction between what constitutes sibling abuse and what is normal sibling rivalry is a difficult job for parents or anyone concerned about what is happening within a family.
It can be all too easy for parents, who usually want to believe the best of their children, to confuse sibling rivalry with sibling abuse. As a rule of thumb, sibling abuse may be suspected if one child is habitually the aggressor and the other the victim. A child who is being abused may try to avoid situations where she will be alone with the abusive sibling, or display actual fear or anxiety when in his presence.
A child who is being abused by a sibling may also display sleep disturbances, eating disorders, regression to babyish behaviour such as bed wetting or fear of the dark, or begin to suffer from nightmares. If a child acts out aggression or sexual activity in play, perhaps with another child or with a doll, it can also be a sign that the child is being abused.
Gender issues can also complicate the picture and make it harder for parents to distinguish between sibling abuse and normal sibling behaviour. Boys are more likely to be seen as seen as physically abusive if they slap or hit a sibling while girls may not. Thus, abusive behaviour by a female child can become unrecognised.
Sexual abuse : At a low level, it can be hard to tell what is normal childhood curiosity and what may become abusive behaviour. Children do have a natural curiosity about their bodies, and it is not abnormal for young children to look at each other’s genitals or to ask questions about their bodies and even about sex, to a dgree. However, if an older child is behaving in this manner to a much younger child it is a cause for concern.
Preventing sibling abuse
There are some measures that parents can take to help prevent sibling abuse from occurring.
- Be around the home as much as possible.
- Avoid leaving siblings alone togetherwhere possible
- Don’t give an older child too much responsibility for caring for/babysitting another.
- Learn to effectively mediate in disputes between siblings.
- Listen to your children and address their concerns seriously.
- Actively discuss what constitutes abusive sex in an age appropriate fashion, and teach children that they have the right to say ‘No.’
- Set and stick to clear ground rules regarding behaviour. Make it clear that violence and aggression are not to be tolerated.
- Adhere to the rules in your own relationships with family members too. Parents who argue aggressively between themselves are setting a bad example to their children. Equally, calm and reasonable handling of disputes between parents and children will set a good example.
- Watch out for signs that an unhealthy interest in sex or violence is developing through a child’s use of the internet, video games or television choices.
- Stay as actively involved in your children’s lives as possible.
How to deal with sibling abuse
If you suspect that a relationship between siblings in your family is becoming or has become abusive you need to assess the situation carefully. Initially, if the abuse is not severe or hasn’t been going on for a long time, you may be able to resolve the problem within the family without resorting to outside help. However, you will need to remain vigilant and be prepared to make the very tough decision to ask for professional help if you are unable to resolve the problem or if it shows signs of becoming severe. Here are some of the things you can do:
- When fights occur, separate the children.
- When things have calmed down, have a family meeting where everyone can calmly put their point of view.
- Give your understanding of the facts and feelings that the children have related. Check that this tallies with what the children think.
- Set rules for behaviour when a dispute arises. Tell the children that when they feel angry with each other they must go to separate rooms until the situation has settled, whether or not you are present. This allows them to handle their own feelings and take some responsibility and is more likely to succeed than simply being ordered to separate by a parent.
- Collectively brainstorm possible solutions to sibling anger or differences. Allowing the children to get involved in this process can be very helpful.
- Make up a family agreement about what is acceptable and what is not in your family.
- Be careful to listen to all parties equally. When two stories differ, it isn’t always easy to see who is telling the truth. Avoid instantly accepting the ‘victim’s story as gospel and labelling the other child as the bully or abuser as this may not be the case.
- Be very careful not to display any favouritism. This can be particularly difficult when one child is your own biological child and the other the child of your new partner.
If the abuse has become severe and is established you may have to face up to the fact that your family needs professional help. Both the abusive child and the abused child need help at this point. Your first port of call may be your family doctor or social worker, but you can also obtain advice and support from organisations who specialise in the problem or even from more generalised domestic violence or children’s help organisations. Solutions for sibling abuse may include counselling therapies.
Help for parents who may be being abusive without intending to be so can include parenting classes and financial support where appropriate. Parents who are exhausted by the demands of raising a disabled child, for example, may neglect their other children as a consequence. Cases like this can be sympathetically dealt with, so don’t be afraid to ask for help if this is what’s happening in your family. Respite care may be offered and can make all the difference.
The following contacts can be useful for obtaining advice, support and solutions for sibling abuse: Children can call the organisations themselves, or they will also speak to concerned parents/adults who have a connection to the children.
- http://www.befrienders.org/helplines/helplines.asp?c2=USA The Befrienders network provides emergency help and advice to anyone in crisis.
- http://www.nationalchildrensalliance.org/index.php?s=100 National Children’s Alliance
- http://www.nationalparenthelpline.org/ Help for parents who are in difficulty and may be at risk of abusive behaviour.
- http://www.d2l.org/site/c.4dICIJOkGcISE/b.6035035/k.8258/Prevent_Child_Sexual_Abuse.htm Information and support to prevent sexual abuse of children
- http://www.hopeshining.org/ Help for abused children and those wanting to assist them.
- http://www.acf.hhs.gov/index.html US Administration for Children and Families
- http://www.preventchildabuse.org/index.shtml Prevent Child Abuse America
- The Samaritans helpline will answer calls and provide support to anyone in crisis or who is considering committing suicide.
- Voice UK: Helpline 0808 802 8686
Telephone support and information for adults and children with learning disabilities who have been abused, and for their families and carers.
- Mind (National Association for Mental Health): 0845 766 0163
- SupportLine: 01708 765200, email [email protected]– Telephone Helpline providing confidential emotional support to children, young adults and adults on any issue. Aimed at those who are isolated, vulnerable, at risk groups and victims of any form of abuse
- Childline: 0800 1111, www.childline.org.uk – Free national helpline for children and young people in danger and distress. Also booklets on bullying
- Kidscape Campaign for Children’s Safety: Admin 020 7730 3300, Helpline 08451 205 204, www.kidscape.org.uk – Telephone helpline providing support for parents and produce free parents guides on issues relating to bullying. Also run one day courses for children who have been severely bullied.http://www.samaritans.org/talk_to_someone.aspx
You may also find the following reading material of use:
- What Parents Need to Know About Sibling Abuse: Breaking the Cycle of Violence, by Vernon R. Wiehe
A guide for parents.
- Sibling Abuse: Hidden Physical, Emotional, and Sexual Trauma, by Vernon R. Wiehe
A study by a social worker specialising in sibling abuse.
- Sibling Abuse Trauma: Assessment and Intervention Strategies for Children, Families, and Adults, by John Caffaro and Allison Conn-Caffaro
- Not Child’s Play: An Anthology on Brother-Sister Incest, by Risa Shaw
Anthology of short stories, poetry, prose and art by women who have experienced and survived brother-sister sexual abuse.
- Sarah’s Waterfall, by Ellery Akers
A fictional story, aimed at girls ages 7-12 (but may appeal to older girls and women, too), detailing the healing process of a sexual abuse survivor