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When Sibling Rivalry Crosses the Line into Abuse


Sibling rivalry is so common and universal that most parents learn to tune it out, or at least live with it. Normal sibling rivalry is one way kids learn to negotiate relationships in the world. It teaches them how to act appropriately, what’s effective, what’s harmful, what will turn others away from them.

But sometimes, the rivalry becomes dangerous to a child. When this happens, parents may not want to admit to themselves that something more serious than common rivalry is occurring. They may overlook or ignore the sense that something’s wrong. Or perhaps parents are so overwhelmed with things going on in their own lives—demanding work schedules, divorce, financial difficulties or other problems—that they’re not tuned in to the fact that a child is in danger and needs protection.

Children who are the victims of abusive siblings are helpless. They need parents to step in and control the situation. Otherwise, the abuse can create lifelong scars that may be difficult to heal. Parents need to be aware of the signs of sibling abuse and then take steps to address it.

The signs of sibling abuse

Most kids will argue and bicker. They may push and shove occasionally, or even slap each other now and then. When these things happened occasionally, it’s normal. When you begin to notice a pattern of constant tormenting, that’s when it’s time to put a stop to it. The following signs indicate that rivalry has crossed the line into abuse:

  • Physical abuse—repeated hitting, biting, slapping, shoving, tickling excessively; life-threatening behavior, such as choking, shooting with a BB gun, etc.
  • Emotional abuse— repeated teasing, ridiculing, name-calling, destroying personal possessions, abusing pets.
  • Sexual abuse—repeated touching that isn’t wanted, indecent exposure, an attempt to penetrate, intercourse, rape or sodomy.

Children who are victimized by a sister or brother often exhibit the following behavior:

  • Screaming and crying
  • Keeping themselves separate from the abusive sibling
  • Changes in behavior, sleep patterns or eating habits
  • Nightmares
  • Turning around and abusing a sibling who’s younger than they are
  • Telling their parents
  • Fighting back
  • Taking the abusive messages to heart; that is, beginning to believe they deserve the abuse. When a sibling repeatedly says, “You’re fat, dumb and ugly,” that message begins to sound like the truth to the victim.

Many adult survivors of sibling abuse go on to suffer from low self-esteem. They may have difficulty in relationships. They may continue to harbor anger towards the abusive sibling years after the abuse has stopped. That’s why parents need to step in and take control of any abuse that’s occurring.

Steps to take when sibling abuse is present

It’s important not to sit back and take a passive role when you know that abuse is occurring in your household. Parents need to make sure kids feel a sense of fairness in the family. Children place great importance on justice. As a parent, one of your roles is to do your best to make things fair and just in the family. Some of the ways you can do that include:

        Don’t ignore constant, obvious victimization. In other words, if one child is always the victim of the other child, you need to correct that imbalance as soon as possible. Listen to a child who’s feeling abused. The worst thing to do is ignore a child who’s asking for your protection. When you do that, you’re sending a message that the child’s needs aren’t important or worth attending to.

        Create rules and boundaries about privacy and possessions. In order to protect a child suffering from abuse by a sibling, you may need to put locks on the child’s bedroom door. If a sibling is continuously breaking the other’s possessions, enforce rules about respecting others’ property.

        Create consequences for abusive behavior, and be consistent about enforcing them. Include the abusive child in discussions about what the consequences should be and what the appropriate behaviors should be. A child who has that kind of input will be more likely to comply.

        Model appropriate behavior yourself. How do you act with your spouse? With your children? If parents behave respectfully towards other family members, their children are more likely to behave that way as well.

        Monitor what your children watch on television and DVDs. If children are exposed to a lot of violence, they may be more inclined to act violent themselves.

        Praise your children when their behavior is appropriate. This is almost as important as correcting inappropriate behavior. Children crave your praise and approval. When they do something right, it’s important that you let them know how much you appreciate it and that you expect more of that from them.

        Consider talking with a family therapist if things remain out of control. A therapist can look at your situation objectively and suggest practical steps you can take to stop the abuse. Additionally, the therapist has the training to understand why a sibling is being abusive and is likely to be able to get to the root of the problem.

Listen to your instincts. If you’re paying attention and you’re in tune with your family’s activities, you’ll know when the actions of one of your children are inappropriate and dangerous. And remember, when you protect the child who’s being victimized, you’re not only helping that one child. You’re helping the abusive child as well. An abusive child who receives no correction is more likely to become an abusive adult.

Iowa State University Extension; The New York Times, “Beyond Rivalry, a Hidden World of Sibling Violence, 28 February 2006; Sibling Abuse Survivors Information and Advocacy Network; Wiehe, V. What Parents Need to Know About Sibling Abuse. Bonneville Books, 2002.
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