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  • Fern Schumer Chapman

The Fine Line Between Sibling Rivalry and Abuse

Unlike a rivalry, abuse is one-sided, and it's too often tolerated.

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  • Even professionals often mislabel sibling intimidation or violence as "just rivalry.”

  • Without criteria defining sibling aggression, it's difficult to determine acceptable and tolerable behavior.

  • Abuse tends to be one-sided, with one sibling having an advantage of age, gender, size, or cognitive ability.

  • Parents can create a family culture that does not tolerate aggressive, mean behavior.


Sibling maltreatment is the most common form of domestic abuse in Western society—more common than either domestic partner or child abuse, according to Professor Mark Kiselica of Cabrini University in Radnor, Pennsylvania. Kiselica reports that sibling victimization, which he calls “the forgotten abuse,” is three times more common than school bullying, and it often leads to estrangement in adulthood.


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Among children, it can be difficult to distinguish acceptable play—think roughhousing, wrestling, even a freewheeling game of tag—from actual conflict with intentional aggression, says Professor Corinna Jenkins Tucker of the University of New Hampshire, Durham. Belligerent, potentially injurious behaviors—such as intimidation, making threats, pushing, hitting, scratching, or biting—are common among siblings and often considered normal. Even professionals who work with children often mislabel aggressive sibling behaviors as "just rivalry.”


Yet it’s revealing to consider that these actions, when occurring between friends, classmates, or romantic partners, are typically—and often immediately—condemned.


“There are no universally accepted criteria regarding sibling aggression,” Tucker explains, “making it difficult to know when to be concerned, intervene in sibling interactions, or seek help. However, it is critical to recognize aggressive and abusive behaviors between siblings because their negative effects on well-being are similar to the impacts of parental child maltreatment and intimate partner violence.”


When Is Sibling Rivalry Abusive?

Often mischaracterized as "sibling rivalry," sibling bullying and abuse are forms of repeated, intentional, targeted aggression meant to control, overpower, or harm a brother or sister. No matter what their age, the more a person feels powerless, the more inclined he/she will be to take it out on someone even more powerless. Anger and hurt typically produce rivalrous, bullying behavior, which includes shaming, harassing, belittling, gaslighting, name-calling, threatening, insistently teasing, or excluding a victim.


Where is the line between sibling rivalry and sibling abuse? Tucker offers these guidelines:


  • Is physical violence (e.g., hitting, kicking, shoving) occurring in children beyond the toddler years?

  • Are sibling conflicts consistently settled by one sibling "winning" the fight?

  • Is the behavior physically or emotionally harmful? Does it carry a genuine risk of harm?

  • Is the behavior planned or patterned, suggesting an intent to harm?

  • Does a sibling feel victimized, targeted, frequently intimidated, and/or afraid?

  • Has the behavior escalated over time, becoming more aggressive and/or injurious?

  • Is there a consistent power differential between the siblings?


Sibling abuse tends to be one-sided. Often one sibling dominates, having an advantage of age, gender, physical size, cognitive ability, or other factors. The behavior typically occurs repeatedly over a period of time.


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The abuser may align with another sibling, friend, or even a parent in the punishing behavior, and the victim eventually may suffer serious injury. If the abuse is psychological, the victim may be demeaned, humiliated, alienated, and/or blackmailed. This, too, can inflict invisible but lasting injuries.


“When aggression is normalized in a family—and in society—sometimes the victimized sibling also struggles to identify the harm,” Tucker explains. “Additionally, many siblings are characterized as being both the bully and the harmed child. An unclear power differential can lead to greater acceptance of aggressive sibling behavior [by more than one child]. In these cases, the aggression could be tolerated because it is between ‘equals’ or because the behaviors ‘seem fair.’"


Risk Factors for Abuse

The risk factors for sibling abuse include:


  • Siblings who are close in age (or development)

  • Early difficulty in establishing solid parent/child attachment

  • Distant parents, who by literal absence or emotional remove are unavailable or uninvolved in their children’s lives

  • A “faraway father” with a low level of involvement or acceptance

  • High level of conflict between parents or step-parents

  • Parents reinforcing competition by playing favorites or comparing children

  • Parents modeling abuse and bullying tactics

  • Children who don’t learn how to handle conflicts


What Parents Can Do

Conflict between children is inevitable and can even be instructive. It can provide teachable moments in which children learn to listen, consider another person’s perspective, and negotiate differences. These crucial social skills, mastered in childhood, become the blueprint to help resolve conflicts in adulthood with siblings, peers, and romantic partners.


But parents want to be mindful of constructive versus destructive forms of conflict. It’s their job to help children learn emotional regulation. Toward that goal, parents should consider the following:


Parents absolutely can and should stop bullying. Start by establishing a family culture that does not tolerate aggressive, mean behavior. Intervene immediately when one child hits, pushes, or calls another a name. Model healthy ways to relate, teaching children how to treat each other with respect. Monitor and correct aggression as it arises. Be firm and consistent, so children learn what is acceptable and what isn’t.


Minimize jealousy. Make sure each child receives recognition and love. Praise children even-handedly for their good characteristics and efforts, so they feel equally valued. Avoid comparing your children, to one another or to others, and steer clear of labeling them by identifying “the athletic one” or “the smart one.” Such labels breed jealousy, competition, and contempt.


Hold the bully accountable. Help the bully to see and understand the pain he/she has inflicted. Insist that the bully take responsibility for his/her actions. Enforce consequences—such as mandatory apology, grounding, or loss of privileges—so children understand that bullying will not be tolerated.


Cultivate empathy in children. Identify kind, loving behaviors. Encourage children to try to understand others’ feelings. Emphasize collaboration over competition by creating opportunities to work together, supervising for cooperation and harmony.


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Parents often dismiss toxic childhood dynamics as “normal sibling rivalry” or “just a phase.” But these patterns, which tend to peak in adolescence (10-15 years of age), may continue or even worsen in adulthood. The bully continues to boost his/her fragile sense of self-worth by blaming the victim sibling for all sorts of problems, resisting any attempt at real understanding or resolution. Eventually, most victims simply give up, resorting to a policy of estrangement or going no-contact to protect themselves.


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References


Tucker, Corinna Jenkins, Whitworth, Tanya Rouleau and Finkelhor, David, Fall 2023 "What is the Line: When Does Sibling Conflict, Teasing, and Roughhousing Become Something More Serious?" (SAARA Bulletin #4) University of New Hampshire, Crimes against Children Research Center


Kiselica, Mark S., (2007) Sibling Maltreatment: The Forgotten Abuse, Journal of Counseling and Development: JCD 85 (2)

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