Sibling Maltreatment*


                   A minor argument would erupt into violence when I wouldn't do what my brother wanted me to or I wouldn't

                 agree with his opinion. I was shaken, hit, kicked, and slapped. I was never badly hurt, but the level of my

                 brother's rage was such that I was always afraid of it. (Wiehe, 1997)

Although research findings indicate that sibling maltreatment is one of the most prevalent forms of family violence, it is also the least studied and understood, as many people in society tend to overlook and minimize negative interactions when they occur between siblings. It seems that the most common societal and familial view is that "kids will be kids" and that hurtful behaviour is an inevitable aspect of a sibling relationship. While it may be that conflict or rivalry between brothers and sisters is unavoidable, negative behaviors that escalate into damaging forms of abuse or maltreatment are unacceptable, and can cause a great deal of damage and developmental difficulties for the children involved. Unfortunately, most siblings and parents do not recognize the difference between behaviours that are healthy and those that are maladaptive, leading to a high degree of physical and verbal maltreatment between siblings. 

One of the reasons it is important to research and understand sibling maltreatment is the tremendous developmental influence that a sibling can have, with studies indicating that the sibling relationship is one of the most influential relationships in one's lifetime. Thus, the quality of a sibling relationship can have tremendous impact and can lead to many positive or negative effects for the individuals involved. 

While conflict can be helpful in teaching children many skills such as problem solving and negotiation strategies, conflict that escalates into abuse can cause many negative ramifications. Maltreatment or abuse would be characterized by hurtful physical behaviours that cause damage or pain to the victim. Maltreatment can also be verbal or emotional in nature, consisting of such behaviours as teasing, ridiculing, or humiliating the victim, as well as causing damage to one's treasured belongings or mistreating a pet. Sibling maltreatment is normally characterized by a recognized power differential, with a clearly identifiable instigator and victim. However, there are cases where two siblings may each be engaged in the maltreatment of one another. A key aspect of abuse between siblings is the victim's perception that the instigator wants to do him/her harm. 

There are several negative effects that can arise from sibling maltreatment, many of which are long-lasting and can extend into adulthood. For victims of sibling maltreatment some of the ramifications include physical injury, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, disrupted interpersonal relationships, an inability to trust, and playing the victim role in adult relationships. Instigators may also be negatively impacted by a dysfunctional sibling relationship, and may experience peer rejection, delinquency, anger management problems, and the maintenance of aggression into adulthood. Many siblings who have a dysfunctional relationship continue to experience difficulties with one another as adults, which can lead to feelings of grief, depression, anger, and resentment over not being able to maintain a close, healthy sibling relationship.

One of the most important contributing factors to a dysfunctional sibling relationship is the role of the parents. Many siblings who engage in maltreatment are either left unsupervised or have parents who accept or normalize abusive interactions. Siblings are also negatively impacted by parents who model violent behavior in the home, engage in corporal punishment, or experience extreme emotional difficulties of their own. In addition, rivalry can escalate into maltreatment when parents show differential treatment to their children or compare their children in a manner that increases feelings of competitiveness and jealousy. 

For those who are suffering from the negative ramifications of a dysfunctional sibling relationship, there is help available. Counselling can be extremely effective in helping individuals overcome the negative effects of abuse, as well as to grieve the inability to have a close sibling relationship. Family counselling may also be helpful for siblings to make amends and develop a closer relationship to one another, as well as to learn more appropriate methods of handling conflict. For parents who are experiencing emotional difficulties, counselling may be helpful in alleviating some of their stress, as well as in providing education on parenting and the difference between conflict and maltreatment.  

- Dr. Tamara D. Hanoski, R. Psych (2002)

*This article was originally published with Student Counselling Services at the University of Alberta, www.ualberta.ca/~uscs/sibling_maltreatment.htm