The Real Truth about Sibling Abuse

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Bullying is a problem that spans more than just the playground. An ever growing problem is sibling bullying; that is, one child bullying and putting down their sister or brother, to the point where it is mentally or physically harmful. It can be difficult as a parent to find out something like this is happening with your children and even more so to accept it. What is Sibling Abuse?

Sibling abuse is something hard to catch and even harder to come to terms with. The reasons behind it vary and the results can be terrifying. It’s important to understand what sibling abuse is and how to prevent it. If you feel that it may already be occurring in your home, then the following step would be to stop it.

Statistics on Sibling Abuse

The prevalence of sibling bullying and abuse cannot be ignored. In fact, it is one of the most common forms of bullying.

  • Studies say 53% of children have committed at least one act of severe aggression towards their siblings. This makes sibling abuse more common than child abuse by parents or spousal abuse, combined.
  • Several studies show that sisters are more likely to be picked on my brothers than vice versa.
  • It is estimated that 3 in 100 children are dangerously violent to their siblings.
  • Research indicated that sibling bullying can have the same amount of harmful, negative mental effects as peer bullying.
  • Sexual abuse of a child occurs more often at the hands of another child than an adult

Any kind of abuse and bullying can be emotionally damaging to a child and cause problems later on in life with relationships, work, and even their own day to day routine. It can be even harder on children because of the trust they have with a sibling as a family member, and that trust is often broken in this situations.

Types of Sibling Abuse and Factors

There are three main types of sibling abuse that can occur; physical, mental, and sexual.

Physical abuse is defined as a sever act of aggression that causes physical harm of any kind. Punching, kicking, hair pulling and other violent attacks would be physical. Unfortunately this type of abuse is rarely reported due to it being chalked up to sibling rivalry.

Mental abuse can be in the form of verbal abuse. The abuser may put down their sister or brother verbally, calling them harsh names, teasing, putting down or scaring continually. This can be mentally scarring for the bullied child and it has been shown that many of these issues carry with them into their adult lives.

Sexual abuse can make a sibling feel trapped, ashamed or powerless. Any kind of wrongful and unwanted touching in a sexual manner counts as sexual abuse. This can affect a child’s sexual activity as they get older and leave traumatic memories.

All three are very serious and should be handled immediately if there is evidence it is occurring.

Some risk factors for possible sibling abuse:

  • Parents being emotionally distant or not involved in their kids’ lives
  • Parents are not home often
  • Parents increase or encourage competition
  • Parents do not step in and teach kids how to deal with conflict early on
  • Children have witnessed sexual abuse
  • Children are exposed to violence
  • Parents who do not intervene
  • Parents who deny there is a problem

While all of these are not a definite cause and effect behind sibling bullying and abuse, many times one or more of these plays some part in the development of an abusive sibling relationship.

Preventing Sibling Abuse

Prevention truly is key with scenarios like this. With the right approach, sibling bullying in the home can be avoided outright.

  • Reduce rivalry in the home. Set rules from the get go that there will be no tolerating hitting, name calling, provoking or belittling. Follow up with this rules with punishment. It’s important that kids understand what abusive behavior is early and that it’s not OK to do.
  • Do not let the older child have too much power over the younger child. This often can create turmoil and abusive relationships.
  • Know when to intervene in your child’s arguments. It is one thing to let them work out who is going to get the crayons, and another to let them physically hit or verbally threaten. Know when to step in.
  • Spend time with your children as much as you can. Get involved with their day to day and be a presence for them.
  • Always keep an eye on them. Often abuse happens behind a parent’s back quite easily, so always be aware of how they are behaving towards each other.
  • Openly discuss with your children what is and what isn’t proper sexual. Being open and honest can nip potential problems in the bud.

Recognizing Sibling Abuse

Now that there is a better understanding of what sibling abuse is, what are the signs to look out for, should you believe your children might be involved in an abusive relationship with each other?

  • One child’s behavior changes drastically; eating less, sleeping less (or in some cases, more), nightmares, etc.
  • One sibling seems to avoid the other at all costs
  • A child acts out any form of abuse in their playtime
  • Each child seems to have static roles; one always being the aggressor, the other always being the victim.
  • One child seems to be more emotionally stressed or sensitive than usual
  • The abused child may cry, scream, and throw tantrums more often than normal

Sibling Rivalry or Abuse?

The biggest problem that occurs in properly recognizing and addressing the abuse is chalking it all up to sibling rivalry. Yes, siblings do fight on occasion and even might resort to shoving or pushing when in an altercation. While normal, even at this it is important to step in.

The fine line between rivalry and abuse can be hard to see. Often, the changes in behavior mentioned prior in the signs to look out for are the key indicators. A few fights won’t change eating and sleeping habits, but something deeper and more consistent will.

Trust your instincts at a parent. You know your children better than anyone else and you know when behavior seems different or out of line. If pushing and shoving turns into smacking, punching, biting, or any other extremely violent act, it may be time to admit there is a problem.

What to do if there is Sibling Abuse in Your Household

What can you do if you feel that sibling abuse is already occurring? The first time you notice an incident, stop it. Separate the two children immediately and wait until they cool down from their altercation.

At this point, it may be smart to have a family meeting. Sit them down and talk about what is going on between the two of them, how they are feeling, why they reacted as they did.

It is a good idea to help your kids work together to a positive goal. Come up with a plan for how they can learn to separate and spend time away from each other when things get heated.

It’s important to lay down rules and what you expect from both children going forward. Do not blame or punish the victim, but do not play favorites either. It is important to be understanding and neutral, so both children feel they are heard and can come to you if there are future incidents.

Come up with several ideas for how to resolve the problem and let the children have a say on which resolution fits best. Make them feel like you are all working together to a solution. Having them sign a contract to be on their best behavior and to deal with each other in a more positive way is also a good idea and can easily be brought up in the future if issues persist.

Keep an eye on their interactions from this point on. Remind them of their promise to you and each other to keep the peace. Be there for them to help them learn how to manage their anger.

If it should come to it and you need more help, there is the National Child Abuse hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD. They deal with all varieties of child abuse and bullying, including sibling issues. Also consider talking with a family counselor. Seeing someone as a family unit, and not just sending the kids themselves, shows a commitment to the children to change and your support as their parent.

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