How to Recognize Sibling Abuse

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There are several types of abuse. Some are more common and obvious than others. No matter what, sibling abuse is not your fault, and you can get out.

There are several types of abuse, and throughout the month of March 2019 you’ll be able to find articles on the following types of abuse:

But first, let’s define what “abuse” actually means.

The word comes from Latin and Old French words that mean “misused” and “to use wrongly.” Basically, something’s happening that shouldn’t be happening! It’s wrong.

If nothing else, the one thing you should always remember is that abuse is NOT your fault.


Sibling Abuse

It’s normal for siblings to beat each other up, right? Boys will be boys. Sisters fight like cats and dogs. The line between sibling rivalry and abuse sounds pretty solid, doesn’t it?

What siblings don’t fight, tease each other, race each other to the bathroom, or deny blame for causing trouble? That’s all normal. Or, rather, all interactions between siblings have been normalized as “good old fashioned rivalry.”

There is a problem with this normalization.

Parents—especially parents of the Boomer generation—can’t see that line very clearly.

Sibling rivalry becomes abuse when things go too far without some sort of behavioral correction or punishment for crossing the line.

What Is It?

Sibling abuse is when one (or multiple) sibling(s) bully and abuse another. Oftentimes it’s just one against one and the power dynamic is tipped exclusively towards the abusive sibling.

Sibling abuse involves emotional, verbal, mental, physical, and sometimes sexual abuse. It’s all of the other types of abuse, just between siblings—which is the last place any parent thinks to look.

Parents often see this power dynamic and don’t think much of it. They think it’s normal for siblings to push each other around, call each other names, and fight, but they miss the point where it crosses the line and becomes abuse.

When a sibling says hateful, hurtful things in anger with the intent to cut deep, that is abuse.

I can still remember hateful, hurtful words spoken to me over a decade ago. They’ve shaped my thoughts, my responses, and my demeanor. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—the “sticks and stones” saying is full of crap.

We’re raised from birth to understand that our family loves us, so when siblings abuse each other it sends a message that something is wrong. Sometimes, we may think that something’s wrong with us to have been the subject of such abuse.

Like the effects of mental abuse, this can lead to anxiety and depression, among other disorders, and the results can last a lifetime.

How to Recognize It

Sibling abuse goes above and beyond simple rivalry. Rivalry usually ends with siblings saying something along the lines of “I still love you, you idiot.” Abuse doesn’t end with a reaffirmation of familial love—it ends with words like “You should never have been born.”

For the clueless parents out there, what does sibling abuse actually look like?

  • Physical violence—pushing, hitting, shoving, biting, and scratching.
  • Spitting on the victim sibling.
  • Introduction of a weapon to a fight.
  • Verbal abuse, such as cursing and threatening.
  • Emotional abuse, resulting in anxiety, depression, and nervous tics—these can last for years following the abuse and may require therapy to treat.
  • Destruction and damage of belongings.
  • Stealing belongings and refusing to return them.
  • Snooping through journals (and writing hateful comments in the margins).
  • One child always avoids the other or expresses discomfort and anxiety when around their abusive sibling.
  • One child’s behavior changes in ways you don’t understand. Nightmares may occur and eating habits may be affected.
  • The roles never change—it’s always one sibling abusing the other. This one may take some time to recognize because parents might tell themselves they’ve just never been around when the roles switch.
  • The level of violence and abuse escalates over time. While it may have started out as harmless rivalry, over time it becomes full-blown abuse that requires intervention.

Is Your Family at Risk?

Some families are more at-risk of experiencing sibling abuse than others. However, there’s no guarantee that these risk factors mean your family will, in fact, experience sibling abuse. Interestingly, most of these center on parental responsibilities… Or lack thereof.

Sibling abuse can occur when parents…

  • Are gone a lot, leaving siblings together by themselves
  • Don’t take any emotional interest in their children’s lives
  • Don’t think there’s anything wrong with sibling rivalry or fighting
  • Haven’t taught their children to resolve conflict in a healthy, nonviolent way
  • Neglect to interfere with a fight
  • Play favorites with their children
  • Give more attention to one child over another (regardless of how valid the reason is)
  • Deny that there’s anything wrong with their family dynamic
  • Avoid the “birds and the bees” talk long enough for children to learn about it on their own and possibly stumble upon pornography
  • Don’t teach their children about personal safety and personal space boundaries

It appears, then, that parents are the ones who must shoulder responsibility for their abusive children, and that’s a hard thing to accept. Yet, accept it they must.

There are several types of abuse. Some are more common and obvious than others. No matter what, sibling abuse is not your fault, and you can get out.

What to Do About It

Parents, be aware and watchful for abusive behaviors between your children. Know, understand, and realize that the mental effects of abuse exist and require validation.

Just because it never happened to you doesn’t mean your children aren’t experiencing it.

One of the biggest hang-ups I have with adults older than me is the tendency to brush off things like this.

Bullying is not a “rite of passage,” it’s a serious problem that’s causing children to live in fear and confusion long enough that they believe suicide is the only way out.

As a parent, take a moment to think about this: if one of your children abused the other and that child killed himself, how would that make you feel?

How to Reduce Abuse:

  • Institute boundaries… And stick to them. If your abusive child crosses any boundary you set, you MUST enforce the consequence or they will never respect your authority again.
  • Don’t give the abusive child responsibility for your other children.
  • Teach that it’s okay to say “no” to unwanted physical contact. This can help establish personal bubble rules that also reduce the likelihood of sexual victimhood in the future.
  • Teach and model non-violent conflict resolution.
  • Enroll your children in a martial art like jiu jitsu. It takes the longest to learn but is the most versatile for self-protection and building confidence.
  • Enforce parental controls over the internet. Make sure you know what your children are viewing on the internet, as that’s where some abusive children get ideas for new forms of abuse.
  • Spend time with your children equally and let them open up about issues without talking over them or immediately judging.

Get Therapy!

If this is happening to your family, immediately separate your children. Put them both into therapy. Take the time and care to research therapists and psychiatrists to ensure that your children are getting the level of care and support that they will need to get through this.

I highly recommend avoiding a “group therapy” session with both children in the same room, as this will not be conducive to productive communication. The abused child will not want to speak up, and the abusive child will deny everything.

I know, because this happened to me. And as a result, I avoided therapists for about a decade when a therapist is what I should have been going to for that entire stretch of time.

What’s Going On?

Try to understand why the abusive child is acting this way. Are they reacting to something that’s happened in the nuclear family dynamic, such as a divorce or a cross-country move? Did one of your children receive a diagnosis that caused you (as parents) to emotionally neglect the abusive child while you catered to the sick one?

Trace back the patterns of abuse that have occurred. What triggers can you remember?

Knowing the history behind the behavior will help you develop a plan with a therapist or psychiatrist to course-correct.

Speaking of which, you will probably need therapy as well. It’s never easy to accept that you have an abusive child—you may want to remain in denial about it.

But then nobody wins.

Parents are ultimately responsible for their children and their children’s behaviors until they reach adulthood. Certainly, teach them the concept of extreme ownership, but parents themselves must also embrace extreme ownership and take responsibility for their children’s actions. After all, you’re raising them.

Resources & Helplines

Sibling abuse is possibly more common than parents who abuse their children or even domestic abuse. As the University of Michigan says, “The most violent members of American families are the children.”

In fact, the University of Michigan Medicine website is a great resource for the subject of sibling abuse and is the source of some of my research on sibling abuse. There, you can find more information on sibling abuse and a veritable rabbit-hole of information that can help your family if your children are exhibiting abusive behaviors.

Call to Action

If you have children, set aside some time to discuss with them the concept of personal boundaries, nonviolent conflict resolution, and possible enrollment in a martial art like jujitsu. Do your kids get along? If not, could it be that one of your children is abusing the other? Join the discussion below.

Want a PDF version of all installments of this Abuse Series packaged together for easy reference?

Download your copy now!

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