Although sibling rivalry and sibling abuse are terms often used interchangeably, they are distinct experiences. Sibling abuse is characterized by behavior that poses danger—both explicit and implicit—to one child: physically, emotionally, or both. The ramifications on the victim of an enduring aggressive and assaultive sibling relationship have both short-term and long-term repercussions.
There are environmental factors outside of the family that may increase the likelihood of sibling on sibling aggression such as substance abuse, peer bullying, and low self-esteem. However, sibling abuse tends to develop from certain family conditions that create resentment and hostility between children. Most parents are upset to learn that sibling abuse occurs under their roof; they may be unable to manage the behavior; or they may feel helpless to address it. Additionally, parents may report that their child is also abusing them.
Assessment of the presence of sibling abuse can begin with the following:
1. Is there abusive behavior between the parent(s) and child(ren)?
Sibling abuse is more likely to occur when parent-child abuse is present. However, sibling abuse exists in all types of homes, even where there is no evidence of child abuse or domestic violence. It occurs irrespective of race, culture, religion, geographic location, and socioeconomic status.
2. Do the parents argue with each other and their children in a “healthy” manner?
Children learn how to manage conflict by observing disagreements and conflict between parents and through the interactions parents have with each child. Learn how discipline and conflict are handled in the family system. Is a range of emotions from the children acceptable? Are the parents able to manage and tolerate challenging behavior and intensity of emotion?
3. Pay attention to the child’s peer relationships.
Children who have challenging peer relationships are apt to bring this behavior into the home as either a perpetrator or victim of sibling abuse. A child bullied at school may displace his/her anger onto a sibling. If the child is the target of peer bullying he may be prone to victimization in the home.
4. Take a child’s complaints and expressions of distress seriously.
If a child is complaining about a sibling’s behavior towards him/her, monitor the relationship. If the child is scared of being alone with his/her sibling or finds reasons to stall coming home from school, ask if he/she feels safe at home. Often, children abused by a sibling will seek refuge at a friend’s house or get involved in after-school activities as a way to avoid being home until parents arrive from work.
5. Do children have adult responsibilities in the home?
Children should not be in the position of caregiver. Sometimes parents are overwhelmed and need help with tasks. That is ok! However, children should not serve as a substitute spouse. Children, especially from single-parent homes, tend to be burdened with the care giving of younger siblings. This breeds resentment. While children may seek positive reinforcement—and are praised—for being a “mother’s helper," they have the ability to grow up resentful of taking on that role. Again, displaced anger onto a sibling is apt to occur.
6. Is favoritism evident in the household?
Granted, each child cannot be treated the same all the time. However, it is important for caregivers to recognize the strengths of each child. Favoritism can create hostile sibling relationships. Whether the perpetrator of abuse or the victimized child is favored, both dynamics warrant potential sibling aggression. When a child experiences his/her sibling as favored, he/she may react by mistreating the sibling. When a child is favored, the sense of entitlement may create a dynamic in which roles are blurred and boundaries are crossed; often time this is represented through the child who takes it upon him or herself to “discipline” the sibling (in favor of a parent’s praise or modeling the parent’s behavior).
Children who are victims of sibling abuse may present with anxiety, depression, or academic difficulties. Interventions must target not only the presenting problem, but also the source of the problem; consideration of family dynamics is critical.
It is also important to understand the history of sibling relationships when treating adult clients. Adults with a history of sibling abuse often present to treatment with challenges in interpersonal relationships, feeling of “stuckness”, and trust and dependency issues all of which compromise the capacity for intimacy. These individuals may not have considered their sibling relationship as abusive, or as a potential source of current challenges due to the lack of societal recognition of sibling abuse as a legitimate experience.
Amy Meyers, PhD, LCSW is Assistant Professor of Social Work at Molloy College. She has consulted for the Administration of Children’s Services and has provided trainings on sibling abuse assessment and intervention to various Departments of Social Services and mental health agencies. She maintains a private practice in NYC.