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.