Understanding What Sibling Abuse Is
The Centre for Abuse & Trauma Therapy
www.centrefortherapy.ca



Recommend


Bullying in the home can be worse than in the schoolyard because the victim must live with this every day. In any household where children live together and grow up together, there can be sibling abuse.

This form of abuse may have been sexual, physical, or emotional. Abuse can happen between step-children, foster children, adopted children, or birth children. Usually the more powerful, older sibling will use their position in the home to abuse another sibling, leaving them feeling powerless, trapped and ashamed of the abuse. Children may not know if certain behaviour is acceptable or not: children have to be taught the difference. Sibling abuse may lead to emotional and physical trauma.

The abuse won’t stop if parents ignore it, turn the other way, blame the victim, excuse it as sibling rivalry, or fail to believe their children when they are told about the abuse. Sibling abuse, and parent’s negative responses to this abuse, can cause a lot of damage when children grow into adult hood.

Sexual Sibling Abuse:
Sibling sexual abuse can be very harmful. The victim can feel trapped, ashamed, helpless, responsible, and powerless to stop the abuse. The abuser may use physical abuse and threats to ensure that the victim will not talk about it to others in the family. In any sexual abuse situation the victim may also feel betrayed by the abuser. Siblings trust each other, and they may not expect the other sibling to hurt them. They may also believe that the parent(s) accept this behaviour because the parent(s) left the victim in the care of the abuser.

When looking at the age differences in children, two to four years age gap means they are worlds apart developmentally. To adults, a few years doesn’t really mean much difference. But because of the growth of the brain, body changes, and understanding/comprehension, it is very easy for an older sibling to trick a younger one into sexual acts.

If both the children are very young and close in age, curiosity between the different sexes is common. For example, a three year old boy wonders why his little sister doesn’t have a penis. Sometimes children of the same age play “show and tell” with their genitals, they can pull down their pants and show what they have. This is normal behaviour.

But if a teenage boy is watching his little five year old sister while she is changing, wondering what it would feel like to touch her, then this is abusive behaviour. Sometimes parents can also be involved, or instigate the sexual abuse; in these cases, victim’s feel there is nowhere to turn.

You may remember being very sexually active as a teenager, could this behaviour have come from some form of sibling sexual abuse? Did you ever think about the attention your older sibling gave you made you feel a little weird? Did your parents condone sexually abusive behaviour? For example, by thinking it was cute when your older sibling seemed to always be fascinated with your penis, wanting to touch it all the time?

The consequences of sibling sexual abuse are many when the child grows into adulthood. Some issues include problems in romantic and family relationships, and sexual problems. Although you may be having these problems, you may also experience, suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and alcoholism. As a teenager maybe you ran away at a young age, or you were pregnant at a young age due to high sexual activity. If you experienced physical abuse as well as sexual abuse, then you are most likely to need therapy help.

Physical Sibling Abuse:
This type of abuse is rarely reported, it is often seen as sibling rivalry. Physical abuse by a partner/husband/wife is seen as serious but physical abuse between siblings can be minimized and ignored. This type of abuse can also involve sexual abuse.

Tension and problems within the family can isolate children and leave victims of sibling abuse feeling scared, alone, and helpless. The older and bigger sibling can start off with small things such as hitting, kicking, and pushing, but this can escalate to serious violence, and physical injury. Witnessing family violence is also traumatic to children.

Sometimes the seriousness of physical violence has been treated differently according to gender. A female child who slaps/hits their younger sibling, may be seen as just having a bad day, whereas an older brother slapping or hitting a younger sibling may be seen as having an anger problem, or this offence may be laughed off as “boys will be boys.”

Here is what one survivor said about their abuse:

“My older sister was always left in charge of me when I was younger. I grew up in a single parent home. My mother worked until 5, but we were finished school at 3, so my sister had to take care of me until my mother got home. We had chores to do, one of us would clean the livingroom, and the other would do the dishes and clean the kitchen. Most of the time my teenager sister did not want to clean at all. She would yell at me and tell me I had better do the dishes and vacuum the livingroom, or else! I challenged her one day stating that this was unfair, we had to take turns. She then got up, and went to attack me. I ran up the stairs to get away from her, and ran into the bedroom. She pushed through the door, pulled me by my hair down the stairs, threw me to the ground, and kicked me. She was yelling that Mom put her in charge so I better listen, or she will leave the mess, and tell Mom that I didn’t do anything, so then I would be in trouble.”

This is a significant example of abuse when parents leave the older sibling to take care of the younger one. The older sibling may be angry at having to be in this position. Then when the younger sibling doesn’t do what the older one wants, there may be threats, and physical violence. The younger sibling then must live with this every day, being scared in their own home.

Emotional Sibling Abuse:
Continued teasing, putting down, criticizing, scaring (as in telling the child there are monsters that are going to get them) is sibling verbal and emotional abuse. The younger child tends to look up to their older sibling for acceptance; so if they are telling the younger ones that they are fat, ugly, stupid, or that no one really loves them, the younger child will believe it. In turn this causes low self-esteem, and possibly leads the victim to end up in an abusive relationship later in life. There are many people who have been traumatized by what their older sibling told them, and have psychological scars.

Many times when the child comes to tell the parent that the other sibling is name calling, the parent tells that child to go tell the other one to stop it, or just tells them to deal with it themselves, also parents tend to blame the victim by saying “don’t be a tattle tale!”

A survivor gives an example of emotional abuse:

“As a young boy, I was overweight, and I enjoyed school very much. My older brother was on the football team in highschool, and always had pretty girls over with his friends. One time when he was babysitting me, I went into the basement where they all would hang out together, I wanted to know when Mom would be home from her date. As I walked down the stairs, they all stared at me. My older brother rolled his eyes at me and said “What do you want fatty? Some MORE FOOD! Ha Ha. Didn’t you have enough at dinner?” Then they all laughed at me, I ran upstairs to my room and cried. I had been hoping they would let me hang out with them until Mom got home. After that I stayed away from my brother and his friends in the basement. My Mother would ask me, “Why don’t you go see what your brother is doing? Maybe he will play with you.” That would get my hopes up, maybe Mom had talked to him, told him to be nicer. But every time I would be rejected, told I was fat and nerdy, that I would never get married because no one would want me. It caused me to be very depressed, and therefore I ate more and more.”

What Can Parents Do To Prevent Sibling Abuse?
1. Reduce the rivalry in your home between your children by setting rules and boundaries that are clear for everyone. Explain that you will not tolerate abusive behaviour such as name-calling, hitting, belittling, provoking, or “bad touching” between them. By having boundaries in the home the children become well aware of what abuse is, and be more confident in telling a parent if the abuse has already happened.

2. Do not give the older children too much responsibility for, or power over, a younger child. This can cause resentment in the older child and can lead to abuse. Try to have a babysitter, or after school care, or a trusted adult to watch your children.

3. Set aside some time every day to talk with your children about their day. It is a good idea to talk to each child alone at least a few times a week to ask them how they are doing, if they have problems or concerns.

4. Know when to intervene in your children’s arguments before they become abusive. Children cannot possibly be expected to work out every conflict on their own. When you notice an argument is starting to get worse, possibly leading to violence, or name calling, step right in and separate them so that you can listen to each side. This way your children feel that they are being heard, and you can come to a resolution.

5. Make sure you are keeping an eye on what your children are watching on television, reading, and what they are doing on the internet. Find out more about your children and what they are doing, in turn this can help prevent abuse from happening in the first place. When a child learns that sex can feel pleasurable, ensure that you are talking to them about what their responsibilities are, and teach their right to say “no” to unwanted physical touch, sexual or otherwise.

Remember:
Keep the lines of communication open between all of the children in your home, make sure to let them know that their bodies are to be respected, be willing to talk about sexuality and educate your children about sex, providing information that is appropriate for the child’s age. Most importantly, believe your children when they come to talk to you about concerns that they may have; children almost never make up sexual abuse stories just to get someone into trouble.