Sibling Bullying and Abuse: A Hidden Epidemic (2022)

Sibling Bullying and Abuse: A Hidden Epidemic (1)

Sibling abuse is the most common but least reported 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 maltreatment; yet, it’s been called the “forgotten abuse.” [1] Therapists also frequently overlook it.

Usually, the perpetrator is an older child (often the eldest) exploiting the emotional dependence and weakness of a younger sibling. Girls are at greater risk of abuse, generally by an older brother. When a brother abuses a sister, it often involves physical or sexual abuse. Sisters abuse one another also.

Lack of Reporting

Under-reporting is predominantly 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. Hence, they typically overlook abuse and confuse it with sibling rivalry. When they don’t protect the victim, it constitutes a second wound–first inflicted by the sibling, then by the parent.

(Video) The Hidden Epidemic of Sibling Abuse

Sibling Rivalry

Sibling rivalry and abuse are different. Squabbles, jealousy, unwillingness to share, and competition are normal sibling behaviors. Fighting between equals can be, too. Rivalry is reciprocal and the motive for is for parental attention versus harm and control. Rather than an occasional incident, abuse is a repeated pattern where one sibling takes the role of aggressor toward another who consistently feels disempowered. Typically, an older child dominates a younger or weaker sibling who naturally wants to please his or her sibling. It’s often characterized by bullying. Unlike rivalry, the motive is to establish superiority or incite fear or distress. Intent and the degree of severity, power imbalance, and victimization element are all factors to be considered. Inappropriate parental discipline or ineffective attempts to respond to rivalry or abuse can compound the problem by the lack of consequences or by targeting one child. If a parent is overly strict or abusive, the perpetrator often vents his or her rage on the younger sibling.

Types of Abuse

Abuse may be physical, psychological, or sexual, and can be expressed through seemingly benign behaviors, such as ordering, manipulation, poking, or tickling. It’s damaging when there is persistent teasing, denigration, or physical harm by one sibling on another.

Emotional abuse between siblings is common, but is difficult to research. However, its effect 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 may use manipulative tactics, such as playing the victim, deceit, threats, withholding, bribes, stonewalling, or trickery in order 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 down), shoving), and may include weapons.

(Video) Sibling Abuse: A Silent Epidemic | Signs of Sibling Abuse & Tips to Heal Trauma

Sexual abuse More than one-third of sex offenses against children are committed by other minors―93% are brothers abusing younger sisters. [2] Sexual abuse is distinct from age-appropriate curiosity. It may involve nurturing without the use of force. Behaviors include fondling, lewd acts intended to cause sexual arousal (that needn’t be on bare skin) masturbation, unwanted sexual advances, or forcing a sibling to view 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 aren’t believed or are met with hysteria rather than empathy. Often, parents are in denial and doubt the victim’s story to protect themselves and the perpetrator.

Risk Factors

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 can’t be present for their children’s needs and feelings. These are factors that make sibling abuse more likely: [3]

  • Spousal/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 mimic that authoritarian behavior and attitude toward younger siblings
  • Gender and birth order matter. First-born children are more likely to be offenders, and younger females to be victims. Siblings close in age or an older brother-younger sister pair are risk factors.
  • The father has anger issues.
  • An older child overseeing a younger sibling breeds to resentment, boundary confusion, and abuse of power.
  • Parental neglect or lack of supervision
  • Parental normalization of abuse by ignoring or minimizing it. Silence is taken as assent.
  • Parental inability to resolve sibling conflict or respond appropriately
  • Parental favoritism toward one child or comparing siblings
  • Coercive parenting
  • A parent taking sides, blaming the victim, or shifting responsibility to the victim, e.g., “Don’t play with him, then.”
  • Substance abuse by a parent or the abuser
  • Children with a conduct or mood disorder 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 unmet 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 heightens anger, fear, anxiety, and guilt. Both victims and perpetrators often have low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Children may complain of headaches, stomachaches, and bowel, eating, and sleep 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 behavior. Abuse causes fear of the perpetrator that may lead to PTSD and produce nightmares or phobias.

Survivors continue to struggle into adulthood with shame, depression, boundaries, low self-esteem, PTSD, loneliness, hopelessness, and drug abuse. They may have somatic complaints, fear the dark, and sleep and eating disorders. Survivor trauma accumulates “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” which are linked to codependency and negative health as adults.

(Video) Sibling Abuse - The Adult and the Inner Child - Episode 8

Survivors’ low self-esteem, lack of assertiveness, and inability to protect themselves lead to difficulties resolving conflict at work and in intimate relationships. They’re confused about boundaries and what constitutes a healthy relationship. They may become aggressive or develop codependent, pleasing behaviors and repeat their accommodating, submissive, victim role in adult relationships. Having been betrayed by a sibling and parent (through lack of protection), they’re distrustful and fear dependence and vulnerability. They may be hypervigilant and emotionally unavailable or attract someone who is. Consequentially, 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 is recommended to work through trauma. Clients should present the issue, because most healthcare providers underestimate the impact of sibling abuse and don’t ask about it.

Therapy should focus on healing the trauma and overcoming shame. See Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.

©Darlene Lancer 2019

(Video) Sibling bullying is no joke. Bullying is no joke. Interview with Dr. Dieter Wolke.

First published by California Assn. of Marriage and Family Therapists in The Therapist, (Nov. 2019)

[1] Kiselica, M. S. and Morrill‐Richards, M. (2007), Sibling Maltreatment: The Forgotten Abuse. Journal of Counseling & Development, 85: 148-160. doi:10.1002/j.1556-6678.2007.tb00457.x


[3] Caspi, Jonathan (2012). Sibling Aggression: Assessment and Treatment. Springer Publishing Company. pp.14–19, 223–226.

(Video) 'Sibling bullying'; New study says it can leave serious scars

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What is sibling abuse called? ›

Sibling abuse, also referred to as sibling bullying, or 'forgotten abuse' is the physical, emotional/psychological, and/or sexual abuse of one sibling by another. It is the most common form of family violence, even more so than parent-child abuse.

What are the effects of sibling abuse? ›

Potential effects of sibling violence include severe symptoms of trauma, anxiety, and depression, including sleeplessness, suicidal ideation, and fear of the dark, loneliness and psychological difficulties, and aggression and delinquency.

Can you get PTSD from sibling abuse? ›

Like all forms of child abuse, sibling abuse can lead to myriad problems for victims, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, self-loathing, and low self-esteem.

Why do siblings abuse each other? ›

There is no single cause of sibling sexual abuse. A range of factors including dysfunctional family dynamics, lack of supervision, and past sexual abuse can all play a role.

What is a toxic sibling? ›

A toxic sibling relationship is a relationship that is unbalanced in its power dynamic and may involve sibling abuse and dysfunctional sibling rivalry. Sibling estrangement can be caused by parental favouritism, having immature parents, parental or sibling abuse and psychopathy.

Is sibling abuse a crime? ›

Although there are no federal, and few state laws, to protect children from sibling abuse, parents and guardians can be reported to CPS for parental neglect if they fail to provide proper supervision for their children. Sibling abuse occurs more often than is reported and can cause serious ongoing psychological damage.

What is sibling alienation? ›

Sibling alienation occurs when one adult sibling wants to push aside another. While sibling alienation can occur at any point, one sibling may be especially tempted to alienate another in order to gain control of care-taking or inheritance outcomes with aging parents.

How do you deal with a disrespectful sibling? ›

How to Deal with Annoying, Difficult, and Disrespectful Siblings, According to 7 Experts
  1. Know your bill of rights.
  2. Set personal boundaries with your siblings.
  3. Prepare yourself mentally.
  4. Use positive self-talk.
  5. Be grateful that you don't have to live with your siblings.
Mar 13, 2021

How do you deal with aggressive siblings? ›

Here are eight essential tools to help your child deal with aggression from a younger sibling.
  1. Model. ...
  2. Teach. ...
  3. Empathize, Acknowledge, and Problem-Solve. ...
  4. Give him the words. ...
  5. Act out scenarios in a fun way to help your older child remember what to do in a tense situation. ...
  6. Set limits. ...
  7. Protect.

What is a trauma bond in siblings? ›

Siblings who share a trauma history can sometimes form a trauma bond. A sibling trauma bond is an emotionally complex interpersonal relationship and can be very challenging to break.

Can you be traumatized by a sibling? ›

Can sibling abuse lead to PTSD? Abuse is abuse, no matter who it's carried out by. Sibling abuse, just like other forms of abuse, can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How do you deal with a Gaslighting sibling? ›

How to Deal With Gaslighting Family Members
  1. Trust Your Version of Events. A gaslighter is going to try to make you question your version of reality. ...
  2. Don't Confront Them. ...
  3. Document Their Behavior. ...
  4. Educate Yourself. ...
  5. Talk to a Professional. ...
  6. Set Boundaries. ...
  7. Spend Time With People Who Are Loving and Supportive.
Sep 9, 2022

What is a trauma bond in siblings? ›

Siblings who share a trauma history can sometimes form a trauma bond. A sibling trauma bond is an emotionally complex interpersonal relationship and can be very challenging to break.

What is sibling alienation? ›

Sibling alienation occurs when one adult sibling wants to push aside another. While sibling alienation can occur at any point, one sibling may be especially tempted to alienate another in order to gain control of care-taking or inheritance outcomes with aging parents.

What are the five types of sibling relationships? ›

  • The BFF. This type of sibling doubles as your bestie. ...
  • The Tattler. This one acts like the third parent you really don't need. ...
  • The Good Example. She/He's the one who sets the bar. ...
  • The Bully. ...
  • The 'Doguli' ...
  • The Defender. ...
  • The Peacemaker. ...
  • The Idol.
Apr 18, 2019

Can a younger sibling be abused? ›

Sibling sexual abuse is a misuse of power and authority. Older children who sexually abuse their younger brothers and sisters frequently abuse them in other ways as well.


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