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Sibling Abuse

What is sibling abuse?
Sibling abuse is the physical, emotional or sexual abuse of one sibling by another [1]. The physical abuse can range from more mild forms of aggression between siblings, such as pushing and shoving, to very violent behavior such as using weapons.

Often parents don’t see the abuse for what it is. As a rule, parents and society expect fights and aggression among siblings. Because of this, parents often don’t see sibling abuse as a problem until serious harm occurs.  

Besides the direct dangers of sibling abuse, the abuse can cause all kinds of long-term problems on into adulthood.

podcast Listen: YourChild podcast interview on sibling abuse with UM expert Brenda Volling, Ph.D.

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 [1]. The most violent members of American families are the children. 

Experts estimate that three children in 100 are dangerously violent toward a brother or sister [2, 3].  A 2005 study puts the number of assaults each year to children by a sibling at about 35 per 100 kids.  The same study found the rate to be similar across income levels and racial and ethnic groups. 

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, family members often don’t see it as abuse [4].

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 may "play doctor". But 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: sad girl

For more information:

What are some of the risk factors for sibling abuse?
We need more research to find out exactly how and why sibling abuse happens. Experts think there are a number of possible risk factors:

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

Find out more about:

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:

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 researchers have looked at the lasting effects of early experiences with sisters and brothers. Siblings can have strong, long-lasting effects on one another's emotional development as adults.

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

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.

The abuser is also at risk—for future violent or abusive relationships, like dating violence and domestic violence.

What are some sources of additional information and support?

Related YourChild resources:

What are some good books about sibling abuse?

What books can help kids with anger management?

  • Hot Stuff to Help Kids Chill Out: The Anger Management Book, by Jerry Wilde
    Speaks directly to children and teens in a language they can easily understand to help them manage their anger rather than be controlled by it. Try reading and discussing it with your children.
  • References

    Written and compiled by Kyla Boyse, RN.  Reviewed by Brenda Volling, PhD.
    Updated November 2012


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