What Is Sibling Abuse?

... and why aren't we talking about it?

This page is where you can find information, definitions and answers to questions you may have about Sibling Abuse. Click on the headings and circles below to learn more.

Content warning: The content on this page directly addresses various types of abuse, and may be triggering to some readers. Please take care of yourself.

Sibling abuse is the least-discussed and least-researched, – but most prevalent – form of domestic abuse.  

Also sometimes called sibling aggression, sibling bullying, or the ‘forgotten’ abuse, it is the unwanted and ongoing abuse from a sibling. The perpetrator is usually, but not always, an older brother or sister; the victim is usually younger. Similar dynamics of step-siblings, half-siblings and cousins can also be called sibling abuse.

Emotional Abuse includes a number of non-physical ways of exerting power over a sibling: name-calling, ridiculing, taunting, teasing, belittling, degrading, isolating, threatening to harm them, their pets or their possessions. Some of these behaviours can seem normal and fairly harmless. For example, some siblings tease without an intent to harm and feel remorse when they realise it has. But being teased day after day, perhaps year after year, by someone you love, can completely destroy one’s self-esteem.

The most common forms of Physical Abuse are hitting, shoving, slapping, punching, biting, hair pulling, pinching, spitting, kicking, or being hit by an object; tickling can also be a form of abuse, when done to an extreme. Siblings can also engage in severe, injurious and/or life-threatening forms of violence; choking or smothering, holding one’s head underwater, using or threatening to use a weapon.

Sexual Abuse is not two toddlers curious and checking out their different private parts or playing doctor; it is inappropriate sexual behaviour both with contact (from inappropriate kissing and affection, to touching or fondling, to rape), or without contact (indecent exposure, forcing the victim to watch pornography, sexualized discussion). 

Sometimes the perpetrator ‘grooms’ their victim, like with other forms of sexual abuse, manipulating and blurring the line between sibling ‘love’ and domination.

All three forms of abuse range from mild to severe; some may happen infrequently and others constantly, for long periods of time. It’s usually normalized by calling it “sibling rivalry”, and it can begin as rivalry, but without intervention, there’s an increased chance the behaviour will escalate, crossing a line into abuse. That shift can be subtle, the severity and number of occurrences increasing over long periods of time, or transitioning quickly.

We’ve come to accept conflict between siblings as normal sibling rivalry, and sometimes it is. Children all want their parents’ attention, they want their own space, their own stuff. There is a degree of healthy competition, the opportunity to learn how to work things out, resolve conflicts, disagree and argue without violence or harm. With rivalry, there’s a more equal balance of power; each sibling wins sometimes, nobody feels victimized.

So when is it abuse? Read about the markers of sibling abuse below.

  • An imbalance of power: age, size, cognitive ability, role within the family
  • There’s an intention to harm
  • Age appropriateness: closely-aged toddlers fighting physically is likely rivalry (although more recent research shows it can be just as damaging as the fighting of older children); teenage boys ‘wrestling’ could result in serious injury  
  • Age difference: closely-aged children arguing over chores vs. a 15-year-old forcing her 7-year-old sister to do her chores, using threats to isolate her or harm her physically; two toddlers ‘playing doctor’ vs. a 14 year-old-boy using his 8-year-old sister to ‘practice’ what he saw in an online porn video
  • One is most often the victim; one is usually the aggressor: the victim feels targeted, intimidated, afraid, trapped
  • Although one event can be considered abuse if it has a lasting, serious impact, abuse is usually chronic and ongoing, changing form or getting worse over time
  • Confusion and conflicting feelings, often to the extreme, are present for both victim and perpetrator: love and hate; anger and shame; adoration and fear
  • Perpetrators can use coercion, threats, intimidation, gaslighting, lies, and blaming their sibling to keep them silent – and the same tactics to keep the parents from finding out

With minimal research in sibling abuse, along with the silence surrounding it, it is difficult to know exactly how common it is, but some studies have shown:

  • Up to 75% of family violence is between siblings
  • Sibling violence is more common than child abuse and intimate partner violence combined
  • Sibling bullying is 3 times more common than school bullying
  • 53% of children aged 3 to 17 have committed acts of severe violence towards a sibling
  • A child is 5 times more likely to be sexually abused by a sibling than an adult family member (one US report  indicates it may be 20 times higher)

Every story is unique, but in addition to physical injuries, the emotional, psychological and social impact can be profound and lifelong:

  • By the time they are 18, children abused by a sibling are twice as likely to have depression, anxiety and self-harm
  • Many survivors struggle with: mental health issues; substance abuse; issues with self-worth, shame, trust; self-harm; suicidal ideation; difficulties with interpersonal relationships; estrangement from the family
  • Disclosing the abuse: when a child discloses sibling abuse and they are not believed, the damage is not just to that child but to the entire family structure
  • All family members are impacted in some way 
  • The perpetrator may or may not ever acknowledge their behaviour (usually not, according to the research); they may live with ongoing guilt, or remorse; their unchecked violent behaviour may continue
  • The Cycle of Violence – “Hurt people hurt people
    o   A child is abused by a parent; they then victimize a younger sibling, who does the same to another sibling … or a kid at school … or their partner … or their own child
    o   A victim may unconsciously choose partners in which they continue to be victimized

What might start out as ‘normal sibling rivalry’ can escalate into abuse, if left unchecked, when some of these are also present:

  • Observance of violence, emotional abuse, inequality, imbalance of power between parents AND/OR from parent to child (child abuse)
  • Parents caught up with their own stressors and unable to attend appropriately to what is going on with their children
  • Parental absence: siblings have lots of time alone, especially after school. Although there’s little research, the COVID lockdowns likely saw a significant increase in sibling abuse.
  • Older children being put in charge of younger siblings: it reinforces the imbalance of power, creating abundant opportunities for abuse and/or threats of abuse
  • Comparing children; favouritism; labelling (‘the smart one’, ‘the pretty one’, ‘the troublemaker’). Being the favourite can have dangerous consequences.
  • Imbalance of parental time or attention
  • Fights, teasing, arguments between siblings become ‘white noise’ – signs of conflict that can quickly escalate into abuse
  • When a sibling discloses their abuse they may experience: not being believed; being blamed; threats and further abuse from the abuser. If their sibling is punished, they may experience guilt – the conundrum of being abused by someone you also love
  • We’re not looking for it – we see it as normal sibling rivalry: “Is that even a thing?!”
  • The continued belief that family issues should stay behind closed doors
  • Children tend not to report abuse when it come from someone they love and need
  • Sibling abuse creates a very difficult situation for parents. They may not know it is occurring; they may feel uncomfortable with certain behaviours but, like most of us, think it is ‘normal’, or they may have lived with abuse and therefore it is IS ‘normal’. And if they do know something harmful is occurring – perhaps a child said something – they may not know what to do. Talking with a professional or reporting their own children’s behaviour can be frightening; there may be other problems in the house and they don’t want it known. 
  • Once it is acknowledged, it changes everything for the family.
  • The perception that children hurting children can’t be as harmful as adults hurting children. The response to a child in the emergency room with an injury from a parent is to call police and child protective services; the response to that same child with that same injury from wrestling with his brother is likely, “Kids will be kids!” They’ll fix them up and send them home – back to their abuser, who has 24/7 access and who now knows that at least some degree of violence is acceptable. And if the abuser is reprimanded or gets in trouble, it might make it even worse.
  • Learn and understand what sibling abuse is; look for signs of sibling rivalry and be proactive to ensure it doesn’t cross a line into abuse
  • Set boundaries about what is acceptable behaviour: fighting and violence can cause great harm, but so can name calling, mocking and teasing, especially when repeated over years, as it often is with siblings. If ignored, these can lead to much worse behaviours, and greater damage.
  • Talk about conflict and healthy ways to resolve – and be strengthened by – conflict
  • Actively teach about and reinforce personal boundaries and personal space; consent; the subtlety of threats
  • Intervene at earliest signs of conflict that is not equally balanced between the children
  • Spend time with each child, individually – provide opportunities to develop one-on-one relationships
  • Take their concerns seriously – believe them when they seek your help. If they are not heard or seen, eventually they will give up and expect and accept the abuse.
  • Avoid using your older children as babysitters; look for and ask all the children, in separate conversations, more details about the times you are absent
  • Watch for signs: children spending less time with a sibling; changes in mood or behaviour both at home and/or at school; isolating when at home or seeking opportunities to be away from home
  • Avoid comparison, favouritism – do everything you can to see their unique talents, skills, personalities
  • Be a positive role model – talk about issues that come up, and be more open about your own difficulties, as appropriate
  • Seek out support for your own struggles … Everyone benefits from counselling or therapy
  • If sibling abuse is occurring, seek professional help for the victim, the perpetrator and other members of the family; ensure the helper (counsellor, therapist, social worker etc) is well-informed about sibling abuse, and knows or will refer you to someone who knows the local, provincial and national laws that relate to sibling abuse