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Family Dynamics

The Dark Side of Siblings

The dirty family secret parents dismiss.

Most parents who introduce their first born to a new brother or sister are well aware of, if not totally versed in, the difficulties that may arise. Parents read one or more of the books categorized as "how to introduce your child to a new sibling." They talk to their child and to other parents to avoid initial and future sibling backlash. Apparently much of this good intention and preparation goes unheeded.

Siblings abuse each other: As many as 74 percent push or shove their brothers and sisters according to Murray Straus, Ph.D., author of Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family. Dr. Straus also found that 42 percent go further-they kick, punch and bite their siblings. If we add verbal abuse, the number climbs to 85 percent who "engage in verbal aggression against siblings on a regular basis."

There are few studies of sibling abuse and compounding the limited data is fact that abuse among siblings is a well-kept secret. It can remain ongoing and undetected for years. The victim is usually younger and not as strong and, thus helpless to fight back. In my family the story was a slightly different. I, the much younger sister, tormented my brother with little repercussion from our parents. They, like many parents, didn't want to believe that a child they treasure could be such an aggressor.

Sibling abuse is far more common in families than spousal and parent-child abuse combined. John Caffaro and Allison Conn-Caffaro, authors of Sibling Abuse Trauma, call sibling assault "pandemic." There is more of it among male children than between sisters and its intensity varies by age.

When Dick or Jane cries foul, parents tend to ignore the situation or rationalize it by telling themselves that kids will be kids, s/he didn't mean it, or they'll outgrow the fighting. Physical assault is often accompanied by verbal abuse with lifelong detriment to the recipient, report the Caffaro's.

Some children warm to a new sibling without incident, without displays of regression or aggression. Others spend a lifetime believing they are not as good as the newcomer. Early feelings of inadequacy can grow into sibling abuse: a family's dirty secret that unlike spousal abuse, rarely makes headlines, but leaves indelible scars. The key for parents is to distinguish between what is sibling rivalry and what is sibling assault, be it physical or verbal and intervene when necessary.

Were you abused by a sibling? Were your parents aware of the abuse? Do you feel as if you were damaged by your sibling's hostile treatment?

For more information:
What Parents Need to Know About Sibling Abuse: Breaking the Cycle of Violence by Vernon Wiehe

Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family
by Murray Straus, Richard J. Gelles, and Suzanne K. Steinmetz

Sibling Abuse Trauma: Assessment and Intervention Strategies for Children, Families, and Adults by John Caffaro and Allison Conn-Caffaro

Related: Who is the Most Violent Person in Your Family?
and What Difference Do Siblings Make?

Copyright @2009/2016 by Susan Newman