Synopsis: Psychological or physical abuse by siblings is much more common than most people realize. It can leave severe psychological scars. However, parents often downplay it, calling it “normal sibling rivalry.” Experts discuss the extent of the problem, warning signs of abuse, and how parents can act without involving family services officials and endangering the family.
Host: Reed Pence. Guests: Dr. John Caffaro, Distinguished Professor, California School of Professional Psychology; Nancy Kilgore, PTSD trainer, abuse survivor and author, Girl in the Water; Dr. Mandy Morrill, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Valparaiso University.
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Reed Pence: Anyone who’s had a brother or a sister growing up knows that an occasional quarrel is almost inevitable. Maybe it even degenerates into a little shoving. But it’s not a big deal. Often a little sibling rivalry can even be a good thing.
John Caffaro: It can be pretty fierce, but it’s usually pretty balanced. And it can be over many, many things like achievement, attractiveness, social relationships with peers, all those sorts of things can be things siblings will have conflict over. But there’s actually some evidence that this kind of rivalry actually strengthens siblings relationship and teaches sibling about things like how to share, how to compromise how to win without being humiliated how to lose without self-debasement.
Pence: Dr. John Caffaro is distinguished Professor at the California School of Professional Psychology in Los Angeles, and a researcher into sibling relationships. He says siblings can be competitive and still be each other’s best friends. But for a lot of children, a brother or a sister becomes more than a rival. They may be a perpetrator of abuse.
Caffaro: It starts often with what we call psychological maltreatment or what’s more commonly known as teasing. Teasing is probably learned in the sibling dyad first. If you have a brother or sister, that’s probably where you learned how to tease or to be teased because it’s very common. But it can proceed very quickly from there to things like ridiculing or insulting, threatening and even terrorizing a brother and sister.
Nancy Kilgore: The abuse primarily started around four years of age when my mother got pregnant with her last child. My sister was put in charge of me and she was basically supervising me doing a lot of parental things that a parent would do and she was an overwhelmed child.
Pence: That’s Nancy Kilgore, a trainer in PTSD, who describes nearly fifteen years of abuse at the hands of her older sister in her book, Girl in the Water.
Kilgore: It escalated, and the majority of it was emotional and being told that I was stupid, or inferior or that I really didn’t belong to my family. I was adopted and around ten I went into severe physical abuse by my sister when my mother would go to the grocery store. And I was tortured at that point and I was physically, sexually and emotionally abused at that point in my life.
Pence: Unfortunately, Kilgore’s terror is far from rare. Caffaro says sibling abuse is more common than parental abuse and domestic violence combined. He says between thirty and fifty percent of children endure it at some point. Psychologically, it’s a jarring betrayal for a child to be abused by a family member. But most parents pass it off as normal sibling rivalry. They don’t see the worst of it, the older sibling beating up or terrorizing their younger brother or sister.
Mandy Morrill: We hear it all the time like “Oh it’s normal for your brother to pick on you,” or “it’s normal for your sister to tease you,” and we dismiss all of this, but there can be very long-term consequences for self esteem and the interpersonal confidence usually that someone builds in relation to this.
Reed Pence: Dr. Mandy Morrill is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Valparaiso University. She’s also done research on sibling abuse.
Morrill: There’s a lot of denial that happens because I think that’s a really hard thing for parents to get their head around. That one of their children is harming another there’s a lot of emotional drama that parents go through when they’re trying to face that and deal with that. And there’s not really anywhere to reach out for the parent there’s no crisis lines for this. There’s no parental help support groups for this.
Kilgore: Many parents don’t want to see it, and when it is brought to their attention they deny it. And she basically wanted us to be happy little girls, and she didn’t teach us how to deal with conflict and competition between each other, and when I would go and tell her that things were happening she basically dismissed what I was saying and diverted me to another task or whatever. And so I stopped talking, I stopped going to her.
Pence: That makes parental attention, or the lack of it, a key factor in sibling abuse.
Caffaro: Often sibling abuse can’t happen if parents are paying attention, so we see in most of the more extreme cases of sibling violence that either parents are physically absent for a lot of the time and perhaps leave one older child in the care of a younger. Or parents may be there, but they may not be emotionally or attached in a sense. They may not be in tune enough with their children to really know when there are problems and to intervene appropriately when there are problems. So, the lack of supervision and the lack of appropriate attention and caretaking is a big big risk factor for the development of sibling abuse.
Pence: Especially if they’re not paying attention, many parents simply can’t fathom any reason that one of their kids would abuse another. They wouldn’t see an older child’s resentment when their place as the shining star of the family is usurped by a new baby. Parents may not know a child is being bullied at school, and needs to reclaim their power at home. Morrill says it’s usually power that’s at play, one way or another.
Morrill: It can be related to limitations of resources in the home, and trying to fight in a way to get more of those resources like parental attention, maybe TV time, all of those limited resources that families have that usually siblings have to balance out trying to find a way to get more of it. You know, getting more power in a way in the home. Another thing that tends to happen is when a sibling takes on a parentified role, a lot of households are trying to make ends meet and have parents or guardians who have to work quite a bit. So an older sibling may be put in a parentified role. They may become resentful of that and take it out on their brothers or sisters.
Caffaro: What happens often times in terms of how it escalates from there is that parents would intervene in a way that suggests that one child is being blamed and the other child is being deemed innocent and that kind of intervention can actually do more harm than good because once children are fighting over something like parental love the violence gets much more intense very quickly. Children will do all kinds of extreme things if they believe that what they’re fighting with their brother or sister about is over the affection or the attention of a parent.
Pence: Obviously, that has implications for how parents should intervene when it appears one child is abusing another. The key is doing something about it at the right time. Not so early that it’s an overreaction, and not so late that one child’s already suffering from mental or physical damage.
Caffaro: If parents are paying attention early and discover this kind of behavior with their children quickly, then it’s a lot better if parents can actually teach the children how to resolve their conflicts rather than intervene and interrupt it themselves. You might create consequences for both children until they discover how to resolve the conflict, but it’s much better to hand the responsibility back to children in the beginning so they learn conflict resolution skills. You might have to monitor that resolution at first, but that sets up a template where children actually learn something that had a resolved conflict rather than look to parents to solve their problems.
Pence: Kilgore advocates weekly family meetings where kids can bring up anything and be heard. She says no secrets should be allowed in the family. And Caffaro says parents need to look for red flags like these.
Caffaro: If one child is always getting hurt and the other child is always doing the hurting, that’s a big red flag. Sometimes there are the more subtle red flags that come up for parents, but they don’t necessarily pay attention to them, like a child would just repeatedly tell them that they are afraid of or being hurt by their brother or sister and a parent might ignore that or just blow it off as again kind of normal horseplay.
Morrill: When your children are reporting to you that something is bothering them and something isn’t okay not to just dismiss it. Now that doesn’t mean that every time a child comes and says “Susie made fun of me and made me cry!” that you have to make a huge deal of it. But also not dismissing it, making the children feel that they’re going to be heard and that that’s safe to tell them. And also noticing if there’s a pattern if you have a child coming to you frequently and telling you that things are happening more and more. If you notice things like you have a child that doesn’t want to be alone with another sibling or seems to be fearful around another sibling or is trying to avoid another sibling. If you have siblings that are sharing a room and one of the sibling dyad doesn’t feel like they want to go to sleep that could be a sign of a problem as well.
Pence: However, if a parent does uncover abuse, especially severe, ongoing abuse, Morrill says stopping it can create unique problems.
Morrill: As a parent what are you going to do? Are you going to turn your child in? There’s a lot of fear “Well if I go and try to get help for this child of mine are they going to get family services involved? Are they going to take my children away? Am I an unfit parent?” So a lot of times it’s also the case that parents just don’t know where to turn they don’t know how to handle it and they don’t know what to do. So it’s a different kind of abuse that’s happening and we don’t really have an infrastructure set up to deal with it.
Pence: Caffaro says therapists often have difficulties with these cases, as well, because the abuser may not be removed, and may still be living in the family with his victim.
Caffaro: The child who’s in the “offender role,” the child who is doing the aggression doesn’t always get removed from the home or leave the home so the treatment has to include that child and the family as a whole. That requires generally a more integrated family based approach which a lot of clinicians aren’t necessarily prepared for because it’s a lot easier to sort of work singly with the victim or singly with a parent let’s say. So difficult in the sense that one of the first challenges for the clinician in this kind of a case is to actually try and get the parents on board and you might spend a number of sessions addressing with the two parents and strengthening their leadership skills in the family and going over rules in the family and going over how those rules get enforced or don’t get enforced and then addressing any barriers to those enforcements deficits that you discover in the therapy or in the treatment.
Pence: Often, kids who are survivors of sibling abuse feel they have no place to turn. They have to silently endure it and wait for they day they can move out. But abuse leaves its scars. Survivors may suffer from ptsd, as Kilgore did.
Morrill: If you grow up with a sibling or your closest peer and they have a huge impact on how you develop sense of self. So if that relationship is damaged or unhealthy that’s going to have a very big impact on your coping skills your self esteem and again like how you relate to others, those interpersonal competencies.
Pence: But in spite of that, survivors of sibling abuse may find it difficult to seek psychological help as adults. There’s little support of the kind that’s available to those who’ve suffered abuse at the hands of a parent or a partner.
Morrill: There’s a lot of guilt and shame associated with it that isn’t present with other types of abuse. A lot of self doubt like “Well was I really abused? Nobody ever talks about being abused by a sibling. Am I blowing this out of proportion?” So a lot of normalizing has to happen when you’re treating just to sort of get the person in a place where they understand that it wasn’t their fault and what happened wasn’t okay.
Pence: Morrill says survivors need to figure out how much responsibility they apportion to their parent for not seeing or not doing anything to stop the abuse. They need to decide if they ever want to have anything to do with their sibling ever again. Either way, there is an emotional cost. But surprisingly, Morrill says the abuser is also likely to need psychological help.
Morrill: The abuser suffers greater deficits in self-esteem as an adult and greater deficits with interpersonal competency as an adult. So I do think if we’re trying to grapple with this problem we need to also be paying attention to how are we treating the abuser you know how are we trying to stop that cycle from happening in other relationships in that person’s life. Because, yes that sibling that abused as an adult will very likely abuse their partner have a greater propensity towards abusing other family members, just not knowing how to relate to others in a healthy way.
Pence: Morrill says if the abuse is stopped and both perpetrator and victim are treated while they’re children, there’s a much higher chance that they’ll both recover and lead normal lives. But that requires parents to pay attention, not ignore abuse, and never accept it. You can find resources through the national child abuse hotline at childhelp.org… Or the sibling abuse survivor’s information and advocacy network, at s-a-s-i-a-n-dot-org. Nancy Kilgore’s book, Girl in the Water, is available through amazon.com. I’m Reed Pence.