Sibling Rivalry or Sibling Abuse?
According to Dr. Vernon Wiehe, professor of social work at the University of Kentucky and author of “Perilous Rivalry: When Siblings Become Abusive“, as many as 53 out of every 100 children abuse a brother or sister, higher than the percentage of adults who abuse their children or their spouse. What some kids do to their brother or sister inside the family would be called assault outside the family.
As parents, we may be tempted to ignore fighting and quarrelling between children. We may view these activities as a normal part of growing up. We say, “Kids will be kids” or “They’ll grow out of it.”
However, thousands of adult survivors of sibling abuse tell of the far-reaching negative effects that such unchecked behavior has had on them as children and adults.
For instance, one person, reflecting back on her childhood, wrote: “I believed EVERYTHING my sister told me. I was dumb, homely, stupid, fat. No one would ever love me.”
Sibling abuse, as all forms of human abuse, may be physical, emotional or sexual.
Emotional abuse is present in all forms of sibling abuse. It may include teasing, name calling, belittling, ridiculing, intimidating, annoying, and provoking.
Physical abuse ranges from hitting, biting, and slapping to more life-threatening acts such as choking or shooting with a BB gun.
Sexual abuse includes unwanted touching, indecent exposure, intercourse, rape or sodomy between siblings.
Children often abuse a brother or sister, usually younger than themselves, to gain power and control. One explanation for this is that the abusive child feels powerless, neglected and insecure. He or she may feel strong only in relation to a sibling being powerless. The feeling of power children experience when they mistreat a brother or sister often reinforces their decision to repeat the abuse.
How can you identify sibling abuse? Here are some useful guidelines from Dr. Wiehe:
- Identify the behavior. Isolate it from the emotions associated with it and evaluate it.
- Is the behavior age-appropriate? Remember that generally you should confront fighting and jealousy even if you tend to think it is “normal.”
- How often does it happen and how long does it go on? Acceptable behavior that is long and drawn out may become abusive over time.
- Is there a victim in the situation? A victim may not want to participate, but may be unable to stop the activity.
- How does the victim respond? Victims often respond to abuse from a brother or sister by protecting themselves, screaming and crying, separating themselves from the abuser, abusing a younger sibling in turn, telling their parents, internalizing the abusive message, fighting back, or submitting.
- What is the purpose of the behavior? If it tears down another person, it is abusive.
If you suspect abuse, it’s important to act quickly to stop it. An effective parental response involves the following steps:
- First, bring all children involved into a problem-solving process. Get enough fact and feeling information to assess the problem accurately.
- Restate the problem to make sure you understand it clearly.
- Help children to arrive at a child-set goal. (Goals set by parents often become rules that children will not follow.)
- Figure out alternative solutions to the problem.
- Work together to set up a contract which states the rights and responsibilities of each child. Specify appropriate ways of acting and consequences should abusive behavior occur in the future.
- You can take steps to prevent sibling abuse. minimize the violence they see (and might emulate by monitoring what your children watch on TV. Reward sensitive, positive behavior among brothers and sisters. Most importantly, make it a point to be a model of positive and esteem-building behavior.