Parents must be able to distinguish between healthy sibling conflict and damaging abuse. Sibling rivalry is a normal, and mostly harmless, part of growing up. Siblings often compete without anyone getting hurt. These sometimes fierce, but balanced comparisons regarding achievement, attractiveness, and social relations with peers may actually strengthen sibling ties. For example, fair and balanced competition teaches children how to share, compromise, win without humiliation and lose without self-debasement.
Sibling violence or abuse can be described as a repeated pattern of physical aggression with the intent to inflict harm and motivated by a need for power and control. Often, it is an escalating pattern of aggression that parents have difficulty stopping. Some of the most important questions to ask are: “Is one child consistently a victim of the other?” “How often and how long has the behavior been occurring?” and “Is the behavior age appropriate?”
A 6-year-old child hitting his 4-year-old brother over a toy is one thing. A 12-year-old repeatedly hauling off and slamming his 8-year-old brother for hogging the video remote is something else again. When one child is always the loser, the aggression keeps escalating, and if parents do not intervene effectively, the safety of the victimized child becomes the primary concern.
There is often an emotional component to sibling violence, as well. Frequently, the aggression begins as “teasing,” which might include ridiculing, insulting, threatening, terrorizing, and belittling a younger or less powerful sibling. Sometimes, a child will destroy a younger sibling’s property as a means to incite the violence. Sibling violence appears to occur more frequently than violence between parents and children or spousal abuse.
What causes or leads to abuse?
What begins as normal sibling rivalry can escalate into something more when parents fail to adequately supervise their children or teach them appropriate means of resolving conflict. In one fairly common set of circumstances, parents may leave an older sibling in charge of younger ones. The child in charge may not know how to mete out appropriate discipline. When one child misbehaves, the older sibling may go to extremes to get the child to comply.
There is solid evidence now that being hurt by an older or stronger sibling has both long and short-term consequences. The younger child may begin to exhibit signs of depression, anxiety, fear of the dark, school behavior problems and even, in some cases, thoughts of self harm. The child who is the aggressor may also suffer. He or she may also be bullying children at school. There is some evidence that the child in the aggressor role may experience long-term effects, like being aggressive with dating partners or spouses in adulthood.
Don’t overlook cruel behavior
Parents often overlook, ignore, or deny cruel behavior between their children. Parents must intervene anytime there is a suspicion or danger of one child being hurt. They should also intervene after providing siblings with the opportunity to resolve their own conflicts and seeing that they may need some extra help. Timing and sensitivity is critical. At first, sibling conflict is often about fighting over resources (like toys, space, money, etc.). When parents intervene there is the danger of it becoming about the parent’s love. Fighting over a parent’s love will generally lead to much more aggressive sibling behavior.
How to intervene in early stages
If your family tends toward competitive disagreements, be mindful of minimizing rivalries between children by pointing out similarities in their behavior and avoid accentuating differences. Reward sensitive, positive behavior among brothers and sisters. When you praise positive interactions, the potential for sibling abuse is reduced. Set ground rules early regarding “no hitting” policies, name-calling, belittling, taunting, and terrorizing. You may dislike such emotional abuse but excuse it as sibling rivalry and mistakenly accept it as normal childhood behavior.
Set aside time regularly to talk with your children individually, especially after they have been alone together. Be sure to monitor your children’s media choices (TV, video games, and Internet surfing), and either participate and then discuss the inappropriate media messages, or ban their poor choices.
Once a sibling struggle begins, learn how to intervene in ways which prevent an escalation of the conflict. Take the time necessary to get each child’s perception of the conflict. Allow each child to say what the other’s perception is until they fully understand it. Get an expression of feeling from each child, whenever possible. What does each child want to do about the problem? Help them forge a compromise. If they cannot agree, take 10 minutes to work out options for a compromise.
Give your children reminders when they begin picking on each other. Help them to remember how to state their feelings to each other. Don’t solve the problem for them, but help them remember how to problem solve. Remember, it doesn’t matter who started it, because it takes two to make a quarrel. Hold children equally responsible when clearly established ground rules are broken. Teach your children how to compromise, respect one another, and divide things fairly. Give them the tools and then express your confidence that they can work it out by telling them, “I’m sure you two can figure out a solution.” Don’t get drawn in.
Listen and believe your children. Never dismiss a child who says that he or she is being victimized. Also, avoid giving one child too much responsibility or power over another. Provide good adult supervision in your absence. Be sure to investigate sudden changes in mood or temperament in your child. And seek professional help if you cannot control combative or abusive behavior among your children.
Therapists with training in both family therapy and family violence can help your family meet the challenge of dealing with sibling aggression. A therapeutic climate where families are encouraged and reminded of what they do well and parents learn to help children resolve conflicts on their own can reduce or eliminate sibling aggression. Parents can learn how to intervene in serious sibling conflicts immediately and effectively through a series of prescribed rules and conduct meant to encourage a win-win solution.
Parents sometimes also need to learn how to manage their own levels of anger so that they can teach their children how to manage theirs. The development, implementation and modeling of good conflict resolution skills during calm times can be helpful in moderating and reducing arguments and disagreements. Dangerous fights need to be stopped immediately. Children must be separated and taught how to calm themselves. Once they have calmed down, parents can facilitate discussion about what happened and make it clear that no violence is ever allowed. Children caught in fierce power struggles with a brother or sister appreciate a safe and structured therapeutic environment where they can address current conflicts without fear of retaliation or judgment.
This text was written by John Caffaro, PhD.
Use the AAMFT Consumer Update "Sibling Violence" pamphlets to market your practice.