Sibling Rivalry or Abuse

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This page addresses the growing problem of sibling violence. How do you decide what is sibling rivalry or abuse?

Sometimes young kids may not know what behavior is acceptable. It is the responsibility of the parents to teach them and set boundaries. Hopefully, the information below will help you to find out if one of your children is abusing the other. Some of the information may be repeated throughout the different articles.

I have placed on this website a true story of sibling abuse entitled "Sibling Abuse: A Survivors Story". Everyone needs to read this story. It will help you understand what children who are abused by their brother or sister are going through. Follow this link, "Sibling Abuse: A Survivors Story", to read the story.

* As always, we advise you to seek professional help if you find there is abuse or violence between your children.

Sibling Violence A Family Secret

By Katy Butler
The New York Times

From infancy until he reached the threshold of manhood, the beatings Daniel W. Smith received at his older brother's hands were qualitatively different from routine sibling rivalry. Rarely did he and his brother just shove each other in the back of the family car over who was crowding whom, or wrestle over a toy firetruck.

Instead, Smith said in an interview, his brother, Sean, would grip him in a headlock or stranglehold and punch him repeatedly.

"Fighting back just made it worse, so I'd just take it and wait for it to be over," said Smith, who was 18 months younger than his brother. "What was I going to do? Where was I going to go? I was 10 years old."
To speak only of helplessness and intimidation, however, is to oversimplify a complex bond. "We played kickball with neighborhood kids, and we'd go off exploring in the woods together as if he were any other friend," said Smith, who is now 34 and a writing instructor at San Francisco State University. (Sean died of a heart attack three years ago.)

"But there was always tension," he said, "because at any moment things could go sour."

Siblings have been trading blows since God first played favorites with Cain and Abel. Nearly murderous sibling fights -- over possessions, privacy, pecking orders and parental love -- are woven through biblical stories, folktales, and fiction and family legends.

In Genesis, Joseph's jealous older brothers strip him of his coat of many colors and throw him into a pit in the wilderness. Brutal brother-on-brother violence dominates an opening section of John Steinbeck's "East of Eden".

This casual, intimate violence can be as mild as a shoving match and as savage as an attack with a baseball bat. It is so common that it is almost invisible. Parents often ignore it as long as nobody gets killed; researchers rarely study it; and many psychotherapists consider its softer forms a normal part of growing up.


But there is growing evidence that in a minority of cases, sibling warfare becomes a form of repeated, inescapable and emotionally damaging abuse, as was the case for Smith.

In a study published last year in the journal Child Maltreatment, a group of sociologists found that 35 percent of children had been "hit or attacked" by a sibling in the previous year. The study was based on phone interviews with a representative national sample of 2,030 children or those who take care of them.

Although some of the attacks may have been fleeting and harmless, more than a third were troubling on their face.

According to a preliminary analysis of unpublished data from the study, 14 percent of the children were repeatedly attacked by a sibling; 4.55 percent were hit hard enough to sustain injuries like bruises, cuts, chipped teeth and an occasional broken bone; and 2 percent were hit by brothers or sisters wielding rocks, toys, broom handles, shovels and even knives.

Children ages 2 to 9 who were repeatedly attacked were twice as likely as others their age to show severe symptoms of trauma, anxiety and depression, like sleeplessness, crying spells, thoughts of suicide and fears of the dark, further unpublished data from the same study suggest.

"There are very serious forms of, and reactions to, sibling victimization," said David Finkelhor, a sociologist at the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, the study's lead author, who suggests it is often minimized.

"If I were to hit my wife, no one would have trouble seeing that as an assault or a criminal act," Finkelhor said. "When a child does the same thing to a sibling, the exact same act will be construed as a squabble, a fight or an altercation."

The sibling attacks in Finkelhor's study were equally frequent among children of all races and socioeconomic groups; they were most frequent on children 6 to 12, slightly more frequent on boys than on girls, and tapered off gradually as children entered adolescence.

Few experts agree on how extensive sibling abuse is, or where sibling conflict ends and abuse begins. It is rarely studied: Only two major national studies, a handful of academic papers and a few specialized books have looked at it in the last quarter-century. In addition, it is as easy to over dramatize, as it is to underestimate.


In 1980, when the sociologist Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire published "Behind Closed Doors," a groundbreaking national study of family violence, he concluded that the sibling relationship was the most violent of human bonds. Judged strictly by counting blows, he was right: Straus and his colleagues found that 74 percent of a representative sample of children had pushed or shoved a sibling within the year and 42 percent had kicked, bitten or punched a brother or sister. (Only 3 percent of parents had attacked a child that violently, and only 3 percent of husbands had physically attacked their wives.)

John V. Caffaro, a clinical psychologist and family therapist in private practice in the San Diego suburb Del Mar, defines sibling abuse as a pattern of repeated violence and intimidation.

In an interview, Caffaro, a co-author of "Sibling Abuse Trauma," said abuse was most often determined by a combination of disengaged upbringing by parents, testosterone and family demographics. It occurs most often in large families composed entirely of closely spaced boys, and least frequently among pairs of sisters, he said.

"A kid can hit a sibling once and it can look pretty bad, but that's not what we consider abuse," he said. "We're looking for a repeated pattern and when that happens, somebody -- a parent -- has got to be out to lunch."

Abuse occurs most frequently, he said, when a parent is emotionally absent as a result of divorce, long working hours, extensive business travel, alcoholism, preoccupation with his or her own problems or other factors. "One or both parents aren't really around much to do their jobs. It's almost a given," Caffaro said, adding that "peripheral" fathers are particularly problematic.

"Things are chaotic, boundaries are blurred, and supervision is minimal," he said, noting that those families do not always look chaotic from the outside.

"Sometimes the father is just basically extensively out of town for business and Mom is not a good limit-setter," he said.

In other cases, he added, parents escalate conflicts by playing favorites, ignoring obvious victimization, intervening only to shut the kids up or blaming older children without understanding how younger children helped provoke them.

Caffaro said that in his experience, sibling violence could rarely be attributed simply to an extraordinarily aggressive or psychotic child.

Several people said that the abuse continued until they reached early adolescence and became strong enough to defend themselves. In Smith's family, however, the fights became even more violent when he reached his late teens, because he took up tae kwon do, began lifting weights and eventually struck back.

The brothers never fought again, never spoke about the violence and were not close for most of their lives. Sean Smith went on to a difficult adult life, and had only recently freed himself from addiction to alcohol and methamphetamines when he died three years ago, Daniel Smith said.

Getting Along: Sibling Fights

By Lesia Oesterreich
Family Life Extension Specialist
Human Development & Family Studies
Iowa State University

Why kids quarrel and what parents can do about it

There are a number of reasons that kids quarrel, fight, and tease. Sometimes they are just bored, tired, or hungry. Other times they are seeking attention, looking for companionship, or trying to develop their own sense of power. Understanding why kids quarrel can help you know what to do.

1. Basic needs

It never fails. Whenever you are the busiest - shopping, cleaning, or running errands - quarreling and teasing break out. "Mom, he hit me." "She took my book." "He called me dumb!" Sound familiar?


The first thing to ask is what basic needs are not being met here? Kids who are tired, hungry, or bored are not going to feel cheerful and cooperative. A few minutes of rest, a healthy snack, and some interesting things to do can work wonders.

2. Attention

Sometimes kids get into a bad habit of squabbling as a way of getting attention. If this situation seems common in your house, it may be time to "reprogram" your kids so that only good behavior gets rewarded.


Ignore mild quarrels. Ignoring sometimes works, but only if no one is in danger of getting hurt. Remain calm, and avoid speaking or looking at your children. If things do not seem too out of control, you may find it helpful to leave the room or to listen to music with headphones. Ignoring works best when parents also make the effort to give attention for good behavior.

Spend time with each child. Studies shows that 15 to 20 minutes of one-to-one attention with a child per day will significantly reduce whining and aggressive behavior. Reading to your child, playing a game, or simply involving them in everyday routine activities are good ways to give positive attention.

Teach children to ask for attention in a positive way. Use statements like "When you need a hug, let me know"; "I can't always play with you for a long time, but I almost always can take time to read you a book"; "Yelling hurts my ears, try tapping me on the shoulder and asking for help."

Make each child feel uniquely special. It is not necessary or even possible to treat children equally in every way. Each of your children has a unique personality and interests. Encourage those traits and interests. Avoid making comparisons, and try not to set your children up for competition. Saying "Angie loves to draw and paint" is better than saying, "Angie is a better artist than Jason."

3. Companionship

Some children seem to have a knack for getting brothers and sisters to play with them. Other children seem to have greater difficulty doing this and quickly discover that starting a quarrel with a sibling is a sure way to get them involved.


Teach children words to make play work well. For some children this means something as basic as saying "Would you play with me?" or "May I play with that toy?" or "Can we take turns?" For others it means reminding them to say "please" and "thank you."

Provide activities that children of different ages can do together. Older children get very frustrated with younger siblings because they want to play but have limited skills. Teach older children how to give younger children a simple task to involve them in play. For example, a 4-year-old could pretend to deliver pizza on his tricycle. His 5-year-old sister could make construction paper money and give it to the 3-year-old sister who would pay the delivery person and bring the pretend pizza into the house. A toddler who loves to push over blocks could be given her own set of blocks to stack, sort, and knock down while her older brother and sister build a block castle nearby. Pretend play, play dough, blocks, puppets, and musical activities also are good activities for sibling play.

Teach children how to negotiate or compromise. Learning to trade one toy for another and learning to take turns are a child's first lesson in the art of negotiation. Take the time to show a toddler how to trade for a toy rather than just grab for it. With older children, focus on how to take turns. Sometimes a timer helps. If one child doesn't want to play, teach your other child how to make a deal to play later. Most 4- and 5- year-old children can learn to find something else to do for at least 30 minutes. If children can't agree on what to play, help them learn how to brainstorm ideas until they can come up with something they both agree on.

4. Power

Part of growing up is learning about personal power. Children naturally experiment to see whether they can get each other to do things. Children notice when a sibling can do something they cannot. Competition between siblings can sometimes make children feel very insecure and intolerant. Learning to handle competitive feelings is a real challenge for young children.


Avoid taking sides. For younger children, calmly but firmly separate the two children and lead them to separate rooms. Avoid yelling or lecturing. Talk with them only after they have had a few minutes to cool down. For older children, sit the kids on the floor near each other, but not too close (any place not too comfortable will do) and tell them that they can get up only when they each can tell you what they did wrong. Each child has to "confess" his or her own actions, not the other child's. This technique helps children accept responsibility for their actions and lessens blaming.

Give children choices. As children learn to make simple choices between wearing red or yellow socks, or playing with a train or a truck, they begin learning how to make decisions. Sometimes they also learn the consequences of those simple decisions. Making good decisions takes practice. Parents can give children opportunities to learn about decision-making. For example, when kids quarrel, parents can say "You can decide how to share the play dough, or I will put it away."

Encourage win-win negotiations. When children seem stuck in negotiations, it is often helpful to lead them through problem-solving steps:

(1) stop the action,
(2) listen to each other,
(3) name the problem,
(4) think of different ways to solve the problem,
(5) choose a win-win plan that meets everyone's needs,
(6) carry out the plan, and
(7) evaluate how well the plan worked.

Most young children will need adult help in thinking through this process, and it does take time. The advantage is that after doing this process over and over, young children soon will become fairly good at identifying a problem and coming up with different options for solving the problem on their own. A child that has lots of practice in thinking of different ways to solve a problem is much more likely to solve a conflict in a positive way.

Avoid comparisons. Parents compare children for a number of reasons. Often, they believe that such comparisons will shame children and give them an incentive to do better. However, comparing children to each other often sets them up for a great deal of jealousy and envy later on. It is generally better to avoid comparisons. Focus your words and actions specifically on each child's behavior. Correct or encourage children in a more positive way.

Encourage personal goals. Sometimes it is helpful to encourage children to turn their competitive feelings into personal goals for themselves. In other words, help children to "compete" against themselves by improving their own skills. For young children this may mean improving their skills in bouncing a ball, learning to skip, singing a song, building elaborate sand castles, or tying shoes. You also can use this opportunity to talk with your child about important values such as practicing, doing your best, trying hard, and so on.

Don't overlook cruel behavior

Parents often will shrug off fighting and teasing between brothers and sisters with comments like "That's just the way kids are" or "Kids will be kids." However, sometimes fighting between siblings can get entirely out of hand.

Parents often ignore, deny, or overlook cruel behavior between their children. Yet thousands of adults have suffered serious emotional trauma from sibling abuse. Believe it or not, sibling violence is thought to occur more frequently than violence between parents and children or spouse abuse. Outside the home, much of this mistreatment would be considered assault. If someone else hit or abused a child, most parents would be outraged. However, between siblings, it is usually ignored.

Characteristics of sibling abuse


Physical abuse may involve hitting, biting, slapping, shoving, punching, tickling to excess, and injurious or life-threatening behavior such as choking or being shot with a BB gun.


This includes extreme teasing, name-calling, belittling, ridiculing, intimidating, annoying, and provoking. Children also destroy personal possessions or torture and kill pets to get an emotional response from their victim.


Sexual abuse includes unwanted touching, indecent exposure, attempted penetration, intercourse, rape, or sodomy between siblings.

How to tell when things have gone too far

Children respond to sibling abuse in different ways. Telltale signs include:

* protecting themselves,
* screaming and crying,
* constantly avoiding a sibling,
* abusing a younger sibling in turn,
* acting out an emotionally abusive message,
* telling parents,
* fighting back, and
* submitting.

When difficulties between siblings get in the way of normal living, or become harmful or dangerous, things have gone too far. If you are having trouble with sibling abuse in your family, review the parenting suggestions in this publication. You may also want to consider seeking professional help.

Sibling Abuse

What is sibling abuse?

Sibling abuse is the physical, emotional or sexual abuse of one sibling by another. The physical abuse can range from relatively mild forms of aggression occurring between siblings, such as pushing and shoving, to extremely violent behavior such as the use of weapons.

Often parents don’t recognize the abuse for what it is. Typically, parents and society expect fights and other physical forms of aggression to occur among siblings. Because of this, sibling abuse often is not seen as a problem until serious injuries occur. Another factor is that in some cases, siblings may switch back and forth between the roles of abuser and victim.

Besides the immediate dangers of sibling abuse, the abuse can cause all kinds of problems on into adulthood. Being abused by a sibling can really mess up a person's life.

How common is sibling abuse?

Research shows that violence between siblings is quite common. In fact, it is probably even more common than child abuse (by parents) or spouse abuse. The most violent members of American families are the children. It has been estimated that three children in 100 are dangerously violent toward a brother or sister. Likewise, many researchers have estimated sibling incest to be much more common than parent-child incest. It seems that when abusive acts occur between siblings, they are often not perceived as abuse.

How do I identify abuse? What is the difference between sibling abuse and sibling rivalry?

At times, all siblings squabble and call each other mean names, and some young siblings will "play doctor". However, here is the difference between typical sibling behavior and abuse: If one child is always the victim and the other child is always the aggressor, it is an abusive situation.

Some possible signs of sibling abuse are:

* One child always avoids their sibling 
* A child has changes in behavior, sleep patterns, eating habits, or has nightmares 
* A child acts out abuse in play 
* A child acts out sexually in inappropriate ways

What are some of the risk factors for sibling abuse?

Much more research needs to be done to find out how and why sibling abuse happens. Some risk factors are: 

* Parents are not around much at home 
* Parents are not very involved in their children's lives, or are emotionally unavailable to them 
* Parents accept sibling rivalry as part of family life, rather than working to minimize it 
* Parents do not stop children when they are violent (they may assume it was accidental or part of a two-way fight) 
* Parents increase competition among children by:
   - playing favorites
   - comparing children
   - labeling or type-casting children (even casting kids in positive roles is harmful) 
* Parents have not taught children about sexuality and about personal safety 
* Parents and children are in denial that there is a problem 
* Children have inappropriate family roles, for example, they are burdened with too much care-taking responsibility for a younger sibling 
* Children are exposed to violence:
   - in their family
   - in the media
   - among their peers
   - in their neighborhoods 
* Children have been sexually abused or witnessed sexual abuse 
* Children have access to pornography

How can I prevent abuse from taking place between my children? 

* Minimize the rivalries between your children. 
* Set ground rules to prevent emotional abuse, and stick to them. For example, make it clear you will not tolerate name-calling, teasing, belittling, intimidating, or provoking. 
* Don't give your older children too much responsibility for your younger kids. For example, use after-school care programs, rather than leaving older children in charge of younger ones after school. 
* Set aside time regularly to talk with your children individually, especially after they've been alone together. 
* Know when to intervene in your kids’ conflicts, to prevent an escalation to abuse. 
* Learn to mediate conflicts. 
* Model good conflict resolution skills for your children. 
* Model non-violence for your children. 
* Teach your children to "own" their own bodies. 
* Teach them to say “no” to unwanted physical contact. 
* Create a family atmosphere where sexual issues and problems can be discussed. 
* Monitor your kids’ media choices (TV, video games, and Internet surfing), and either participate and then discuss the inappropriate media messages or ban the poor choices.
* In short, stay actively involved in your kids' lives.

What should I do if there's abuse going on between my kids?

When one sibling hits, bites, or physically tortures a brother or sister, the normal rivalry has become abuse. You can't let this dangerous behavior continue. Here's what to do: 

* Whenever violence occurs between children, separate them. 
* After a cooling off period, bring all the kids involved into a family meeting. 
* Gather information on facts and feelings. 
* State the problem as you understand it. 
* Help the kids work together to set a positive goal. For example, they will separate themselves and take time to cool off when they start arguing. 
* Brainstorm many possible solutions to the problem, and ways to reach the goal. 
* Talk together about the list of solutions and pick the ones that are most acceptable to everyone. 
* Write up a contract together that states the rights and responsibilities of each child. Include a list of expected behavior, and consequences for breaking the code of conduct. 
* Make sure you don't ignore, blame, or punish the victim. 
* Make your expectations and the family rules very clear. 
* Continue to carefully monitor your kids' interactions in the future. 
* Help your kids learn how to manage their anger.

If problems continue or violent behavior is extreme, your family should get professional help.

Can sibling relationships have lasting effects into adulthood?

In the last few years, more research has been done on the lasting effects of early experiences with sisters and brothers. Siblings can have strong, sometimes long-lasting effects on one another's emotional development as adults.

Research indicates that long-term effects of sibling abuse can include: 

* Depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem 
* Inability to trust; relationship difficulties 
* Alcohol and drug addiction 
* Eating disorders

Even less extreme sibling rivalry during childhood can create insecurity and poor self-image in adulthood. Sibling conflict does not have to be physically violent to take a long-lasting emotional toll. Emotional abuse, which includes teasing, name-calling, and isolation can also do long term damage.

What are some sources of additional information and support?

The National Child Abuse Hotline—Call 1-800-422-4453 or 1-800-4-A-CHILD . This number provides crisis counseling, child abuse reporting information, and information and referrals for every county in the United States. Referrals include national, state, and local agencies. The hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by mental health professionals. You can also call your local Department of Social Services. Their telephone numbers are listed in the phone book in the County Government section.

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