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Sibling Bullying and Abuse: A Hidden Epidemic
Sibling abuse is the most common but least reported form of abuse in the family. Prevalence is higher than spousal or child abuse combined with consequences well into adulthood similar to parent-child abuse. Up to 80 percent of youth experience some form of sibling abuse; however, it is called the “forgotten abuse. Therapists also often overlook it. Usually, the perpetrator is an older child (often the eldest) taking advantage of the emotional dependency and weakness of a younger sibling. Girls are at greater risk of abuse, generally through an older brother. When a brother abuses a sister, it often involves physical or sexual abuse. Sisters also abuse each other.
Lack of Reporting
Underreporting is mainly due to societal denial of the seriousness of the problem. There is no definition of sibling abuse or laws governing it (except for some sexual abuse laws.) Resources for families are also lacking. Parents have no support and are misinformed. Many expect sibling conflict and fighting. Therefore, they typically overlook abuse and mistake it for sibling rivalry. When they do not protect the victim, it constitutes a second injury-first caused by the sibling, then by the parent.
Sibling rivalry and abuse are different. Quarrels, jealousy, reluctance to share and competition are normal sibling behaviors. Fighting between equals can also be. Rivalry is mutual and the motive for is for parental attention verses harm and control. Rather than an occasional incident, abuse is a repeated pattern where one sibling takes the role of aggressor towards another who constantly feels disempowered. Typically, an older child dominates a younger or weaker sibling who naturally wants to please his or her sibling. It is often characterized by bullying. Unlike rivalry, the motive is to establish superiority or to incite fear or distress. Intent and the degree of severity, power imbalance and victim element are all factors to be considered. Inappropriate parental discipline or ineffective attempts to respond to rivalry or abuse can compound the problem through the lack of consequences or targeting one child. If a parent is too strict or violent, the perpetrator often takes out his rage on the younger sibling.
Types of Abuse
Abuse can be physical, psychological or sexual, and can be expressed through seemingly benign behaviors, such as ordering, handling, poking or tickling. It is harmful when there is constant teasing, slander or physical harm from one sibling to another.
Emotional abuse between siblings is common, but is difficult to investigate. However, its impact should not be underestimated.
Emotional abuse includes name-calling, belittling, teasing, shaming, threats, intimidation, false accusations, provocation and destroying a sibling’s belongings. The abuser can use manipulative tactics such as playing the victim, trickery, threats, restraint, bribes, stonewalling or deception to exploit and gain an advantage over a younger child.
Physical abuse is the deliberate intent to cause physical harm or injury. It includes rough and violent behavior, pinching, choking, biting, slapping, tickling, hair pulling, physical restraint (such as pinning), pushing), and may include weapons.
Sexual abuse. More than one-third of sexual offenses against children are committed by other minors—93% are brothers abusing younger sisters. Sexual abuse is separate from age-appropriate curiosity. It can involve feeding without the use of force. Behaviors include caressing, lewd acts intended to cause sexual arousal (which should not be on bare skin) masturbation, unwanted sexual advances, or forcing a sibling to watch porn. Victims are usually sworn to silence and have no one to turn to. As they mature, they resist ongoing sexual violations, offenders use threats of exposure or retaliation to ensure secrecy. When parents are told, victims are not believed or are met with hysteria rather than empathy. Often, parents are in no and doubt the victim’s story to protect himself and the perpetrator.
Sibling abuse is a symptom of a dysfunctional family in an environment of family stressors, such as marital conflict, financial stress, family disorganization and chaos, and lack of resources. Parents are unable to manage their own emotions and model appropriate communication and behavior. They cannot be present for their children’s needs and feelings. These are factors that make sibling abuse more likely:
- Spouse/intimate partner abuse or child abuse (physical or emotional, including criticism and shaming)
- Cultural norms that condone abuse of power
- A hierarchical family structure, where one spouse controls the other, and older siblings imitate that authoritarian behavior and attitude toward younger siblings.
- Gender and birth order matter. First-born children are more likely to be offenders, and younger female victims. Siblings close in age or an older brother-younger sister pair are risk factors.
- The father has anger issues.
- An older child controlling a younger sibling breeds resentment, boundary confusion, and abuse of power.
- Parental neglect or lack of supervision
- Parental normalization of abuse by ignoring or minimizing it. Silence is considered consent.
- Parental inability to resolve sibling conflict or respond appropriately
- Parental favoring one child or comparing siblings
- Coercive parenting
- A parent taking sides, blaming the victim, or shifting responsibility to the victim, eg, “Don’t play with him, then.”
- Substance abuse by a parent or the abuser
- Children with conduct or mood disorders or ADHD are more predisposed to violence.
- The offender has experienced abuse, has an aggressive temperament, lacks empathy for victims, has lower or higher self-esteem than peers, or has unsatisfied needs for physical contact.
The effects of sibling abuse mirror parent-child abuse and have a long-term negative impact on survivors’ sense of safety, well-being and interpersonal relationships. Victims of all ages experience internalized shame, which increases anger, fear, anxiety and guilt. Both victims and perpetrators often have low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. Children may complain of headaches, stomach and bowel pains, eating and sleeping disorders. Some have developmental delays or social and academic difficulties in school. They may run away or stay for periods at friends’ homes. Victims may engage in substance abuse, self-harm or delinquent behaviour. Abuse causes fear of the perpetrator which can lead to PTSD and produce nightmares or phobias.
Survivors continue to struggle into adulthood with shame, depression,limits, low self esteem,PTSD loneliness, hopelessness and drug addiction. They may have somatic complaints, fear of the dark, and sleeping and eating disorders. Survivor trauma accumulates Adverse Childhood Experiences, which are linked to codependency and negative health as adults.
Survivors’ low self-esteem, lack of assertiveness, and inability to protect themselves lead to difficulties resolving conflict at work and in intimate relationships. They are confused about boundaries and what constitutes a healthy relationship. They may become aggressive or develop codependent, indulgent behaviors and repeat their accommodating, submissive, victim role in adult relationships. Betrayed by sibling and parent (due to lack of protection), they are mistrustful and fear dependency and vulnerability. They may be hyperactive and emotionally unavailable or attracted to someone who is. Therefore, they seek self-sufficiency and independence because they perceive depending on someone as dangerous. This leads to intimacy problems, loneliness and isolation.
Long-term effects of sexual abuse include excessive self-loathing, guilt, anxiety, confusion, difficulty with sustaining long-term intimate relationships, vulnerability to sexual re-victimization, suicide, delinquency or criminality, and promiscuity or fear of sex. Therapy recommends working through trauma. Customers must present the issuebecause most healthcare providers underestimate the impact of sibling abuse and don’t ask about it.
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