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What is sibling abuse?
Sibling abuse is the physical, emotional or sexual abuse of one sibling by another . The physical abuse can range from more mild forms of aggression between siblings, such as pushing and shoving, to very violent behavior such as using weapons.
Often parents don’t see the abuse for what it is. As a rule, parents and society expect fights and aggression among siblings. Because of this, parents often don’t see sibling abuse as a problem until serious harm occurs.
Besides the direct dangers of sibling abuse, the abuse can cause all kinds of long-term problems on into adulthood.
Listen: YourChild podcast interview on sibling abuse with UM expert Brenda Volling, Ph.D.
How common is sibling abuse?
Research shows that violence between siblings is quite common. In fact, it is probably even more common than child abuse (by parents) or spouse abuse . The most violent members of American families are the children.
Experts estimate that three children in 100 are dangerously violent toward a brother or sister [2, 3]. A 2005 study puts the number of assaults each year to children by a sibling at about 35 per 100 kids. The same study found the rate to be similar across income levels and racial and ethnic groups.
Likewise, many researchers have estimated sibling incest to be much more common than parent-child incest.
It seems that when abusive acts occur between siblings, family members often don’t see it as abuse .
How do I identify abuse? What is the difference between sibling abuse and sibling rivalry?
At times, all siblings squabble and call each other mean names, and some young siblings may "play doctor". But here is the difference between typical sibling behavior and abuse: If one child is always the victim and the other child is always the aggressor, it is an abusive situation.
Some possible signs of sibling abuse are:
- One child always avoids their sibling
- A child has changes in behavior, sleep patterns, eating habits, or has nightmares
- A child acts out abuse in play
- A child acts out sexually in inappropriate ways
- The children’s roles are rigid: one child is always the aggressor, the other, the victim
- The roughness or violence between siblings is increasing over time
For more information:
What are some of the risk factors for sibling abuse?
We need more research to find out exactly how and why sibling abuse happens. Experts think there are a number of possible risk factors:
- Parents are not around much at home
- Parents are not very involved in their children's lives, or are emotionally distant
- Parents accept sibling rivalry and fights as part of family life, rather than working to minimize them
- Parents have not taught kids how to handle conflicts in a healthy way from early on
- Parents do not stop children when they are violent (they may assume it was an accident, part of a two-way fight, or normal horseplay)
- Parents increase competition among children by:
- playing favorites
- comparing children
- labeling or type-casting children (even casting kids in positive roles is harmful)
- Parents and children are in denial that there is a problem
- Children have inappropriate family roles, for example, they are burdened with too much care-taking for a younger sibling
- Children are exposed to violence:
- Parents have not taught children about sexuality and about personal safety
- Children have been sexually abused or witnessed sexual abuse
- Children have access to pornography
How can I prevent abuse from taking place between my children?
- Reduce the rivalries between your children.
- Set ground rules to prevent emotional abuse, and stick to them. For example, make it clear you will not put up with name-calling, teasing, belittling, intimidating, or provoking.
- Don't give your older children too much responsibility for your younger kids. For example, use after-school care programs, rather than leaving older children in charge of younger ones after school. (See On their own and OK, page 9, for tips on siblings home alone, and how to detect signs of abuse.)
- Set aside time regularly to talk with your children one-on-one, especially after they've been alone together.
- Know when to intervene in your kids’ conflicts, to prevent an escalation to abuse.
- Learn to mediate conflicts.
- Model good conflict-solving skills for your children.
- Model non-violence for your children.
- Teach your children to "own" their own bodies.
- Teach them to say “no” to unwanted physical contact.
- Create a family atmosphere where everyone feels at ease talking about sexual issues and problems.
- Keep an eye on your kids’ media choices (TV, video games, and Internet surfing), and either join in and then discuss the media messages or ban the poor choices.
- In short, stay actively involved in your kids’ lives.
Find out more about:
What should I do if there's abuse going on between my kids?
When one sibling hits, bites, or physically tortures a brother or sister, the normal rivalry has become abuse. You can't let this dangerous behavior continue. Here's what to do:
- Whenever violence occurs between children, separate them.
- After a cooling off period, bring all the kids involved into a family meeting (See Sibling Rivalry for more on family meetings.)
- Gather information on facts and feelings.
- State the problem as you understand it.
- Help the kids work together to set a positive goal. For example, they will separate themselves and take time to cool off when they start arguing.
- Brainstorm many possible solutions to the problem, and ways to reach the goal.
- Talk together about the list of solutions and pick the ones that are best for everyone.
- Write up a contract together that states the rights and responsibilities of each child. Include a list of expected behavior, and consequences for breaking the code of conduct.
- Make sure you don't ignore, blame, or punish the victim—while at the same time, not playing favorites.
- Make your expectations and the family rules very clear.
- Continue to watch closely your kids' contacts in the future.
- Help your kids learn how to manage their anger.
If problems continue or violent behavior is extreme, your family should get professional help.
Can sibling relationships have lasting effects into adulthood?
In the last few years, more researchers have looked at the lasting effects of early experiences with sisters and brothers. Siblings can have strong, long-lasting effects on one another's emotional development as adults.
Research indicates that the long-term effects of surviving sibling abuse can include:
- Depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem
- Inability to trust; relationship difficulties
- Alcohol and drug addiction
- Learned helplessness
- Eating disorders
Even less extreme sibling rivalry during childhood can create insecurity and poor self-image in adulthood. Sibling conflict does not have to be physically violent to take a long-lasting emotional toll. Emotional abuse, which includes teasing, name-calling, and isolation can also do long-term damage.
The abuser is also at risk—for future violent or abusive relationships, like dating violence and domestic violence.
What are some sources of additional information and support?
- The National Child Abuse Hotline—Call 1-800-422-4453 or 1-800-4-A-CHILD . This number provides crisis counseling, child abuse reporting information, and information and referrals for every county in the United States. Referrals include national, state, and local agencies. Mental health professionals staff the hotline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can also call your local Department of Social Services. Find those telephone numbers in the phone book in the County Government section.
- A parents' guide to sibling sexual abuse—this informative guide includes links at the end to age-appropriate booklets to help kids and teens that have gone through abuse.
- Sibling Abuse Survivors Information and Advocacy Network (SASIAN)
Related YourChild resources:
What are some good books about sibling abuse?
- What Parents Need to Know About Sibling Abuse: Breaking the Cycle of Violence, by Vernon R. Wiehe
A guide just for parents to preventing and addressing verbal and physical sibling abuse.
- Sibling Abuse: Hidden Physical, Emotional, and Sexual Trauma, by Vernon R. Wiehe
Written for parents and therapists, a social worker addresses the social problem of the abuse of one sibling by another. He presents testimony from victims, identifies criteria for evaluating sibling interactions, and provides guidelines for prevention and treatment.
- Sibling Abuse Trauma: Assessment and Intervention Strategies for Children, Families, and Adults, by John Caffaro and Allison Conn-Caffaro
Written for professionals. Integrating theory, research, and their clinical experiences, the authors address sibling relationship development, and sibling physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. Includes risk factors, case studies, and interviews.
- Not Child's Play: An Anthology on Brother-Sister Incest, by Risa Shaw
This anthology of short stories, poetry, prose and art by women survivors of brother-sister sexual abuse brings the issue out in the open in an empowering way. The collection may be useful for survivors (teens and up) and their families, and for counselors/therapists.
- Sarah's Waterfall, by Ellery Akers
A fictional story, aimed at girls ages 7-12 (but may appeal to older girls and women, too), about the healing process of a sexual abuse survivor. The story is told in the form of the girl's journal, and includes many useful strategies for coping with abuse. An exceptionally gentle, sensitive tool to aid in the healing process, with lovely illustrations.
What books can help kids with anger management?
Speaks directly to children and teens in a language they can easily understand to help them manage their anger rather than be controlled by it. Try reading and discussing it with your children.
Written and compiled by Kyla Boyse, RN. Reviewed by Brenda Volling, PhD.
Updated November 2012
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