Sibling Abuse


While there have been significant advancements in detecting, treating, and preventing different kinds of family abuse, sibling abuse remains to be the kind that goes largely undetected. Sibling abuse is the physical, emotional, or sexual abuse of one sibling by another and typically takes place between family members that are closer in age and living under the same roof. Sibling abuse is the most common family abuse, but it still goes undetected because of the lack of understanding between healthy conflict and abuse. The parents often excuse the abusive sibling behaviors as normal behavior. Mental health professionals have also been guilty of dismissing sibling abuse as a normal growing-up process.

Sibling abuse

All siblings slap and punch each other and are likely to call each other names. In all cases of sibling abuse, skepticism and uncertainty are prevalent over whether or not an act is abusive. Fighting and jealousy are expected sibling behaviors; however, non-abusive behaviors could quickly escalate into abusive behaviors without proper intervention. This is why it is essential to distinguish between normal sibling behaviors and abuse. Here are some points to keep in mind to differentiate between abuse and normal sibling behaviors:

Age-Appropriate Behaviors:

Think whether a certain behavior of your child is age appropriate. If you are unsure of whether a behavior is age appropriate or not, ask around with other parents or professionals. It is not appropriate for a 12-year-old boy to destroy his younger sister’s toys, as, by the age of 12, the child should know to respect the personal belongings of others. Also, it is not appropriate for a 16-year-old girl to fondle her 5-year-old younger brother’s genitals because, as a 16-year-old, she has good knowledge about the physical difference between boys and girls. A 16-year-old also clearly knows the difference between normal and sexual touch. It is also important for the parents to take a close note of the space the incident is occurring. If the incident occurs in a closed or private space, it means the perpetrator has a sound cognizance that the behavior is inappropriate.

Duration of Abusive Behaviors:

Another factor to take into consideration for properly differentiating abuse from normal behavior is the recurrence and duration of such incidents. If fighting and teasing have been happening for an extended period of time, and the perpetrator refuses to stop even after strict warnings, then the behavior should be considered abusive. This isn’t to say that isolated incidents are not to be taken seriously. These single-time incidents can do some significant harm, and their effects can last a lifetime. It is also important to note that younger children often cannot stand up for themselves or show assertiveness in front of their bigger or older siblings. Such children might blame themselves for what is happening to them, therefore, are unable to speak up or protect themselves.

younger children

Reasons for Abusive Behavior:

By answering what is motivating the abusive behavior of your child, parents can recognize and distinguish between normal child behavior and sibling abuse. In almost all instances of emotional abuse, the reason for the behavior is to feel powerful by belittling the sibling. In cases of sexual abuse, the reason almost always is sexual gratification. The purpose of this analysis is to simply understand whether a child is engaging in abusive behaviors impulsively or not.

Sibling abuse is the physical, emotional, or sexual abuse of one sibling by another and typically takes place between family members that are closer in age and living under the same roof. Sibling abuse typically goes undetected as the parents, and mental health professionals dismiss abusive behaviors of children as a normal part of growing up. However, it is important to understand the various kinds of sibling abuse and its signs to properly detect and prevent them.

Types of Sibling Abuse:

Physical Abuse: Any willful act that results in physical injuries, such as slapping, kicking, hitting, choking, etc., can be counted as physical abuse. In its violent forms, an abuser could use objects or instruments to cause physical injury. As it happens inside a family, this kind of physical injury, which otherwise will be considered physical assault, is typically brushed off as normal sibling rivalry that simply got out of control.

Emotional Abuse: The most destructive among all kinds of abuse, emotional abuse is the one that is often neglected and brushed off because of the lack of physical evidence. Emotional abuse between siblings may manifest as name-calling, ridiculing and belittling, threatening or destroying the personal possessions of a sibling. The damages of emotional abuse are psychological and could impact a victim’s life well into adulthood.

Sexual Abuse: Sibling abuse is any kind of inappropriate sexual contact; this could be unwanted touching or fondling, or attempted intercourse. Sexual abuse is often followed by emotional abuse as the perpetrator tries to threaten and intimidate the victim into preventing them from talking. All parents like to believe that sexual abuse would never happen in their own home, which is precisely why sibling incest goes undetected.

Signs to Detect Sibling Abuse:

Listening to and observing your children is one of the ways to detect sibling abuse early. If your child complains to you about an older sibling, pay attention to the situation closely and not be quick to dismiss it. You can look out for signs such as withdrawal or self-isolation, the reluctance of one sibling to go near the other, changes in sleep patterns, a lack of focus and concentration, unexplained physical injuries, unbelievable stories around bruises or marks, low confidence and self-esteem and lack of interest in activities that were enjoyable before. Victims may also exhibit a lack of assertiveness, develop eating disorders or become overly aggressive or submissive. Some other signs that might require immediate medical attention are suicidal tendencies and frequent attempts to run away from home.

sibling abuse

Methods of Prevention:

You have detected sibling abuse in your home. Now how do you respond? And what are some immediate measures to take to prevent abuse in the future? You can start with not dismissing the victims’ complaints or overlooking abusive behaviors. Offering support and reassurance will help them to open up and speak more. Talk to your kid about healthy boundaries and encourage them to keep them with their siblings. Talking to your children separately will help you get things into perspective. As there are limits to what a parent can understand about an event that occurred when they were absent, keeping close supervision of your children at all times is a good idea. One method is to employ secret cameras throughout your home to ensure good behavior while you are absent. If the situation at home is getting out of hand, you can consult a professional and take adequate measures to separate the siblings in question- preferably to two different rooms.