Sibling Abuse Essay

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The concept of sibling abuse emerged as a form of family violence in the early 1980s. Sibling abuse involves emotional, physical, and sexual abuse perpetrated by one sibling against another. Using broad definitions of sibling abuse, prevalence estimates range from 60% to over 95% of individuals reporting experience with sibling abuse. Because it is so common, some argue that these behaviors should not be considered child maltreatment. Instead, they represent normal sibling rivalry and conflict. Others argue that sibling violence should not be accepted because it has serious effects on the victims and may lead to other forms of violent perpetration in the future.

Psychological aggression between siblings is the most common and also the most controversial form of sibling abuse. Nearly all children engage in some name calling or ridicule with a sibling. It is argued that children lack the conflict resolution skills to address situations in a more healthy and mature manner. However, the prevalence may not diminish the impact of these acts, which may also include terrorizing acts such as forced exposure to frightening things, abuse of pets, and destroying prized possessions.

Physical aggression is also common among siblings, with approximately two thirds of siblings engaging in physical violence. Most commonly, this abuse involves less severe forms of violence. However, injury due to physical sibling violence is not uncommon. Critics argue that children are impulsive (e.g., verbal aggression) and lack the maturity to manage anger and conflict. Conversely, physical sibling abuse may also be characterized as an effort to control and dominate, much like other forms of interpersonal violence.

Sexual abuse between siblings is the least common and also the least controversial. Describing sexual activity as including a wide range of acts, such as sexual hugging and kissing, exhibiting or fondling genital areas, and sexual intercourse, approximately 10%–15% of college students report these behaviors with a sibling. The majority of these involve less severe experiences. Most agree that sexual behavior between siblings is inappropriate and abusive. However, sexual curiosity is considered a normal part of sexual development for young children. Therefore, mutual exploration at some ages may not always be exploitative or abusive.

Defining Sibling Abuse

One difficulty in determining the definition of sibling abuse involves determining if abuse includes those behaviors that cause emotional or physical harm or if it includes behaviors that deviate from normal sibling activities. Little consensus has been reached by experts on the boundaries of the definition. Some criteria are helpful to consider in defining abusive sibling behavior.

Age is a consideration, as it relates to the degree to which the behavior is developmentally appropriate. A toddler who hits a sibling would be assessed much differently from an adolescent who has developed empathy and greater control of angry impulses. As mentioned previously, development is also a consideration in sexual behaviors.

Age is also a factor, as it relates to power disparities. Differentials in size, strength, age, and ability may also change whether a behavior is considered abusive. Gender may also be a consideration in the power disparity, particularly in cultures and families holding more traditional gender role expectations. The presence of domination is among the most commonly cited in abuse definitions.

The degree to which the behaviors are mutual or one-sided is also a consideration. When two parties willingly and mutually engage in a behavior, it is less likely to be considered abusive. However, when one party is pressured or coerced, due to power disparity, manipulation, or verbal or physical means, the interaction is more likely to be considered abusive.

Frequency and duration of the behavior are also considered. Although it is possible for a particularly severe behavior that happens only one time to be considered abusive, definitions of abuse frequently involve repeated patterns of behavior over a long period of time. It is this pattern that may cause relatively minor behaviors to have a serious detrimental impact.

Finally, the degree to which the behaviors cause harm is a criterion to consider. This harm may take the form of physical injury or emotional pain. Typically, this element of victimization is a necessary component in defining abuse.

Risk Factors

Sibling violence and abuse is most common between brothers, although it also exists between sisters and in mixed-gender families. Some prevalence studies indicate that males are more likely to report both perpetration and victimization, often with another brother. Other studies that looked at more emotional and verbal forms of sibling abuse find that females actually engage in more negative sibling interaction.

Parents play an important role in determining the degree of sibling abuse. In families in which domestic violence or parental child abuse and neglect occur, sibling violence is also common. Social learning theory explains that violence between siblings would be a normal extension of other forms of violence, and children not only learn that violence is acceptable and normal, but also model the specific abusive behaviors. Also, feminist hierarchical models and conflict theory explain that abuse occurs as individuals struggle to dominate the weaker members of the family. In neglectful families in which a child is given excessive responsibility to care for another, abuse is also likely.

Even in families in which domestic violence is not occurring, marital discord can increase the likelihood of sibling abuse. Frequent arguments and stress among parents lead to an environment that may be more dysfunctional, more chaotic, and less nurturing of the needs of children. Each of these environmental elements has been associated with sibling aggression.

Parental favoritism and comparing of children also lead to an environment that is conducive to sibling abuse. Conflict theory identifies that children compete for the attention and favor of parents. Abuse results when one child feels empowered by the favoritism of the parent or when another strikes back at the favored child out of anger and resentment.

The degree and appropriateness of parental intervention may serve to reduce sibling abuse. However, when parents take sides or compare the siblings without addressing the emotional needs of both, sibling aggression may actually be exacerbated.


Many forms of abuse in the family of origin have been linked to later revictimization by others or perpetration of abusive behaviors. Due to difficulties in defining and measuring sibling abuse as well as to the frequency with which it coexists with other forms of family violence, research has not been able to clearly make this link in the case of sibling abuse. However, it has been found that negative sibling interactions can be related to difficulties in later relationships, both in friendships and in romantic relationships. In addition, sibling abuse has been found to be related to negative emotional states such as depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem later in life. In severe cases, suicide attempts or posttraumatic stress symptoms may occur.


  1. Hoffman, K. L., Kiecolt, K. J., & Edwards, J. N. (2005). Physical violence between siblings: A theoretical and empirical analysis. Journal of Family Issues, 26, 1103–1130.
  2. Wiehe, V. R. (1997). Sibling abuse: Hidden physical, emotional and sexual trauma (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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