Sibling rivalry is considered a normal and routine part of family life these days. Bickering, teasing and fighting among siblings can be seen everywhere from school bus stops to our television sets.
Sibling rivalry can and often does, however, slide into sibling abuse, with the potential to cause serious lifelong trauma and suffering. Sibling abuse takes many forms. Emotional torture, such as name-calling or taunting, is all too common between those who are familiar with one's weakest points. But sibling abuse can also involve physical abuse -- hair pulling, shoving, hitting, and even threats of bodily harm. Sibling abuse is a very serious problem in the US. The Department of Health and Human Services reported nearly 1 million cases of sibling violence in 2006.
A recent Dr. Phil episode addressed this issue. The episode featured two sisters - Amanda and Corrina. As children, Corrina, the older sister, would taunt Amanda - telling her that she hated her and that she wished she were never born. Occasionally, she was also physically abusive with her younger sister - on one occasion rolling her up in a carpet so that she couldn't escape. Corrina explained that Amanda was an erratic and difficult child, and that the two girls were left alone a lot and Amanda was forced to look after her wild sister. She admitted that she might have been abusive to Amanda, but that Amanda antagonized Corrina on a daily basis.
The key fact in this sibling abuse story is that the two girls were left alone a lot. Amanda needed support from an adult (she was later diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome) and Corrina needed to be allowed to be a kid and not her sister's caretaker. Both girls most likely needed more parental involvement, support and love.
Parents need to take an active role in preventing sibling abuse. Although it's easier said than done, modeling healthy relationships with others - particularly family members - helps set the tone for children's relationships. It's not a good idea to give older children too much responsibility in caring for younger children. Try and stay alert to rivalries among the children and intervene when necessary, and also try and remain aware of subtle ways you might be expressing favoritism for one child over another. Finally, seek therapeutic help if the situation is not getting any better. Sibling abuse is real and painful, and can cause lifelong suffering when it is not addressed.