Sibling abuse

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Sibling abuse includes the physical, psychological, or sexual abuse of one sibling by another, more often younger sibling by older sibling.[1][2] A fourth category that brought attention from researchers during the first decade of the 21st century is sibling relational abuse, which derives from relational aggression.[2]

Abuse occurs when one sibling consistently intimidates, terrorizes or controls another.[2]

Sibling abuse often occurs in dysfunctional, neglectful or abusive homes when parents fail to set boundaries or discipline abusive children.[3][4][5] A 1982 study found that of 60 percent of children who witnessed abuse between their parents later acted out the scene with their siblings.[6]

Types and prevalence[edit]

According to many authorities and researchers, sibling abuse is one of the most common forms of abuse,[7] however, its occurrence is largely overlooked by society at large and by investigators into interpersonal violence:

Physical abuse[edit]

Sibling physical abuse is far more common than peer bullying and other forms of family abuse, such as spousal or child abuse.[2] It includes but is not limited to hitting, biting, slapping, stabbing, shoving, punching and even tickling.[2][1] It is very difficult to calculate prevalence rates for different reasons that lie within the family or in cultural norms and beliefs. Within the family, adults have difficulty recognizing abuse because sibling competition and conflict are very common. Aggression is even considered to have a positive side in sibling relationships because it helps children gain skills to build relationships outside the family circle. Other individuals prefer to deny the situation and continue family life as if the problem didn't exist. The victim does not complain because of fear of retaliation from the perpetrator or because he/she is unable to recognize abuse from acceptable sibling aggression. On the other hand, cultural norms and beliefs deter individuals from openly addressing it because they don't want to be pointed out by society. Correct reporting of sibling abuse faces multiple challenges starting with the fact that it is under reported for the reasons stated above, professional child care providers having considerably different definitions of the term and the lack of a system to track the wide information. Sibling physical abuse persists from childhood through adulthood, with prevalence rates varying across studies and its intensity and frequency declining as the victim and or perpetrator grow up.[2]

Hotaling, Straus, and Lincoln[8] found that sibling aggression was somewhat common even in families that could not be classified as pervasively abusive, with 37% of 498 children committing at least one act of serious abuse during the previous year; in abusive families, 100% of children committed at least one act of serious abuse. Irfan and Cowburn[9] report that in Pakistani immigrant families in the UK, "Among perpetrators of abuse, 35% (highest proportion) of physical abuse was perpetrated by siblings, 33% by mothers and 19% by fathers."

Several studies show that sisters are more likely to be victimized by brothers than vice versa.[10][11] However, sisters can also abuse brothers, and traditional gender roles can allow such abuse to go unchecked. Schwartz and colleagues[12] found that while women are more likely to use physical aggression during disagreements, parents are more likely to view male aggression more negatively than female aggression, even when the abusive acts are identical (e.g., boys throwing objects during a fight is seen as a more serious transgression than girls throwing objects during a fight). Similarly, Tyree and Malone[13] report that women's violence as adults is more strongly correlated with aggression towards siblings during childhood.

Psychological abuse[edit]

Psychological abuse includes name calling, belittling, teasing, insulting, threatening to harm, and the destruction of personal property.[1] Adults, be it the parents or professional care providers, have difficulty differentiating between psychological aggression and abuse because it is difficult to identify when the balance of power is not evenly distributed, hence, the consequences of the aggression are not only injury but also control or domination of one sibling over the other.[2] Although it has been found to be the most prevalent type of abuse in sibling conflict, prevalence rates are difficult to calculate because of the difficulty in differentiating aggression from abuse.[2] Whipple and Finton[14] report that "Psychological maltreatment between siblings is one of the most common yet often underrecognized forms of child abuse. Bagley and Ramsey, Mullen, Martin, Anderson, Romans and Herbison, Kurtz, Gaudin, Wodarski, and Howing, and Beitchman et al., are some of the researchers that have found different negative psychological, academic and social consequences to be related to sibling aggression and abuse but causal inference requires more study.[2] Caffaro, J. and Conn-Caffaro, A. report, based on their research, that adult sibling abuse survivors have much higher rates of emotional cutoff (34%) with brothers and sisters than what is evident in the general population (<6%).[15]

Sexual abuse[edit]

Sibling sexual abuse includes penetration, touching, and other behaviors with sexual connotation that do not necessarily require touching.[1] To differentiate sexual abuse from sexual curiosity or playing innocent games there needs to be coercion and domination over one sibling. Prevalence rates are also difficult to calculate for several reasons: victims do not realize that they are suffering abuse until they reach maturity and have a better understanding of the role they played during the encounters, they are afraid of reporting, and there is no consensus on a definition of sibling sexual abuse.[2] Ryan[16] writes how, "Child protection has focused on adult-child [sexual] relationships, yet we know that more than 40% of all juvenile-perpetrated child sexual abuse is perpetrated in sibling relationships."

Caffaro & Conn-Caffaro (1998; 2005) define sibling sexual abuse as sexual behavior between siblings for which the victim is not developmentally prepared, which is not transitory, and which does not reflect age-appropriate curiosity. It may or may not involve physical touching, coercion, or force. Bank and Kahn[17] found that most sibling incest fell into one of two categories: "nurturance-oriented incest" and "power-oriented incest". The former is characterized by expressions of affection and love, while the latter is characterized by force and domination.

Rudd and Herzberger[18] report that brothers who committed incest were more likely to use force than fathers who commit incest (64% vs. 53%). Similarly, Cyr and colleagues[4] found that about 70% of sibling incest involved sexual penetration, substantially higher than other forms of incest. Bass and colleagues[19] write that "sibling incest occurs at a frequency that rivals and may even exceed other forms of incest," yet only 11% of studies into child sex abuse examined sibling perpetrators. Rayment and Owen[20] report that "[in comparison of] the offending patterns of sibling offenders with other teenage sex offenders ... Sibling abusers admitted to more sexual offences, had a longer offending history and a majority engaged in more intrusive sexual behaviour than other adolescent sex offenders. The sibling perpetrator has more access to the victim and exists within a structure of silence and guilt." A survey of eight hundred college students reported by David Finkelhor in Journal of Marriage and Family Counseling found that fifteen percent of females and ten percent of males had been sexually abused by an older sibling.[21]

Relational abuse[edit]

Relational abuse includes gossiping, humiliating in front of others, preventing socialization with desired groups. It is challenging to identify and calculate prevalence rates because it is normally done indirectly so the perpetrator is unknown to the victim. Additionally, an apparently good sibling relationship, with no physical or emotional direct aggression, may hide this type of abuse. Likewise, physical and emotional abuse are more notorious in bad sibling relationships.


"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."[3]

Sibling rivalry, competition and disagreements are considered a normal component of childhood and adolescence. To identify physical, psychological and relational sibling abuse, practitioners and parents need observe behavior and ask questions about the sibling's relationships that will help them understand if there are characteristics that differentiate aggression from abuse. Sexual sibling abuse requires additional considerations.[2] Victims may initially deny the existence of any type of abuse but this may be because they haven't realized it yet. Different questions about the prevalence of types of aggression, frequency, intention of harm, magnitude of the aggression and unidirectional dominance help assess the existence of abuse.[1][2] Regarding sexual abuse, individuals are less likely to openly talk about it, unlike other forms of abuse such as physical or psychological. For this reason, in addition to ask direct questions about sibling sexual abuse, practitioners and parents must look out for behaviors that may indicate the presence of sexual abuse. Another challenge comes when differentiating between sexual abuse and adequate sexual behavior.[1][2] The biggest difference relies in that incest happens with the consensus of both siblings while sexual abuse does not. A victim may not be aware that he/she did not consent because of innocence or lack of understanding of what was happening. The latter generally happens to children who are too young to understand sexual implications and boundaries.

Weihe[1] suggests that four criteria should be used to determine if questionable behavior is rivalry or abusive. First, one must determine if the questionable behavior is age appropriate, since children use different conflict-resolution tactics during various developmental stages. Second, one must determine if the behavior is an isolated incident or part of an enduring pattern: abuse is, by definition, a long-term pattern rather than occasional disagreements. Third, one must determine if there is an "aspect of victimization" to the behavior: rivalry tends to be incident-specific, reciprocal and obvious to others, while abuse is characterized by secrecy and an imbalance of power. Fourth, one must determine the goal of the questionable behavior: the goal of abuse tends to be embarrassment or domination of the victim.

Risk factors[edit]

There are several important risk factors associated with sibling abuse.[22] They can be categorized into family system, parenting behavior, individual, and other risk factors.[22]

Family system[edit]

This category of risk factors associated with sibling abuse looks at the family system as a whole. It includes negative and conflictual parent-child relationships,[23][22] parent hostility toward a child,[24][22] spousal abuse, partner conflict, marital conflict,[25][26][23][27][22] mother's marital dissatisfaction and negative emotional expressiveness,[28][22] maternal self-criticism,[29][30][31][22] financial stress,[32][33][22] low family cohesion, family disorganization and household chaos,[34][35][36][22] husband's losses of temper,[35][22] low maternal education,[37][22] and family triangulation.[38][39][40][22]

Parenting behavior[edit]

This category of risk factors associated with sibling abuse examines the parenting behavior of adult caregivers. It includes parental differential treatment of children,[41][22] fathers favoring later-born sisters,[42][22] active and direct judgmental comparison,[43][22] parents labeling their children "bad-good" and "easy-difficult",[44][45][22] low parental involvement, particularly by fathers,[42][22] ineffective parenting,[46][22] inconsistent discipline,[47][22] coercive parenting,[48][22] maternal coercive, rejecting, and over-controlling behaviors,[35][49][22] parental abuse of children,[50][22] parent's use of violence to resolve parent-child conflict,[51][22] parental neglect and approval of aggression,[52][22] corporal punishment,[35][22] not providing supervision,[53][22] not intervening in sibling conflict,[54][22] not acknowledging child-voiced claims of maltreatment,[55][22] not reinforcing pro-social behaviors,[56][22] and restricting children's efforts to diversify interests and specialization.[57][22]


This category of risk factors associated with sibling abuse considers individual traits of the offender child and the victim child. For offender children, known individual risk factors include lack of empathy for victims,[58][22] aggressive temperament,[59][22] lower or higher self-esteem than peers,[60][51][22] unmet personal needs for physical contact in emotion-deprived environments,[61][38][22] experience of victimization, including by siblings,[62][22] sibling care taking of younger brothers and sisters,[63][64][22] and boredom.[65][22] For victim children, a known risk factor is psychological distress such as anger, depression, and anxiety from violence victimization by siblings (linked to re-victimization).[66][67][22]

Other risk factors[edit]

Several other risk factors are associated with sibling abuse. One is birth order and age spacing. Martin and Ross found that first-born children were more likely to be sibling abuse offenders.[68][22] Imitating an older sibling's aggressive behavior,[69][22] being given the task of sibling care taking,[63][22] and close age spacing[70][71][22] were also found be closely associated with sibling abuse.

Another risk factor is gender. The presence of a male child within the sibling group[37][23][72][73][22] and older brother-younger sister pairs[70][74][50][62][10][22] are associated with the occurrence of sibling abuse and being female[75][22] is associated with the experience of victimization by a sibling.

Sociocultural background also factors into sibling abuse. Some known sociocultural background risk factors include cultural practices such as primogeniture and patriarchy,[76][57][22] disability of a sibling,[60][77][22] family economic pressure,[33][22] excessive sibling caregiving,[64][22] and ethnic/cultural background in which sibling aggression is widely condoned.[78][22]

Parental alcoholism,[22] parental support of child aggression,[22] and social glorification of violence in the media[22] have also been associated with sibling abuse.

Potential effects[edit]

The effects of sibling abuse are dire and closely parallel those of other forms of child abuse.[79]

Potential effects of sibling abuse include difficulty separating pleasure from pain and fear from desire in a sexual relationship,[80][55][79] depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, low self-esteem, and suicide,[81][82][83][84][85][86][87][79] re-victimization in adulthood,[88][89][79] prostitution in later life,[90][91][79] difficulty in developing and sustaining intimate relationships,[92][93][94][79] trouble negotiating boundaries, sexual issues, and interdependency in relationships,[95][79] shame, fear, humiliation, anger, and guilt,[40][79] severe psychiatric disorders such as dissociative coping and complex post traumatic stress disorder,[96][97][98][79] wide variety of health and mental health issues,[99][100][101][102][103][104][79] significant problems with affect regulation, impulse control, somatization, sense of self, cognitive distortions, and problems with socialization,[98][79] and higher risk of pregnancy than father-daughter incest.[105][106][107][108][79]

Potential effects of sibling violence include severe symptoms of trauma, anxiety, and depression, including sleeplessness, suicidal ideation, and fear of the dark,[109][79] loneliness and psychological difficulties,[110][79] and aggression and delinquency.[29][79]


Jonathan Caspi identified several prevention methods for children and families, educators and practitioners, researchers, and the culture at large in Sibling Aggression: Assessment and Treatment (2012).[111] For children and families, pro-social skill development to increase social-emotional competencies with siblings[112][113][114][111] and parental training[115][111] can be used to prevent sibling abuse. For educators and practitioners, addressing sibling relationships in the curriculum[116][111] can help prevent sibling abuse. For researchers, giving attention to sibling relationships[111] and developing prevention programs in collaboration with practitioners[111] are potential prevention methods for sibling abuse. For the culture at large, Caspi proposes not accepting sibling aggression as normal,[111] public awareness and educational campaigns,[111] and making sibling aggression visible.[111]


John V. Caffaro outlines clinical best practices for treatment of sibling abuse in Sibling Abuse Trauma: Assessment and Intervention Strategies for Children, Families, and Adults (2014).[117] They include “extra precautions to ensure the victim's safety, such as locks on doors, increased adult supervision, and cooperation of parents, extended family members, and the community”, “individual treatment for the victim and the offender, often with different clinicians possessing expertise in child abuse trauma”, and “no conjoint sibling or family meetings with the offender until he or she has accepted full responsibility for the abuse and until the therapist is satisfied that the family can and will protect the victim from further abuse”.[117]

Media portrayals[edit]

An important plot point within the traditional fairy tale of Cinderella is the eponymous main-character's cruel treatment at the hands of her stepsisters (with their mother's implicit approval).

The 1991 made-for-TV movie My Son, Johnny is a rare fictionalized portrayal of sibling abuse.[118] The film stars Corin Nemec as a teenager victimized by his older brother, played by Rick Schroder. The film was inspired by the real-life case of Philadelphia fifteen-year-old Michael Lombardo, tried and acquitted for the 1985 killing of his nineteen-year-old brother, Francis "Frankie" Lombardo, who had battered and abused him for years. Not depicted in the film, Michael Lombardo committed suicide in 1989 by drug overdose, following a bank robbery in Lansford, PA.[119]

British soap opera, Brookside, ran a controversial storyline in 1996, featuring incest between siblings Nat and Georgia Simpson that resulted in a pregnancy, which was followed by an abortion. The sympathetic portrayal of the situation attracted criticism from journalist Peter Hitchens in his book The Abolition of Britain.[120]

Canadian animated series Total Drama Pahkitew Island, the second half of the fifth season of Total Drama, brings in Amy and Samey, the show's first twin sibling pair. Amy is the mean twin, while Samey (who prefers to be "Sammy") is the nice twin who has to deal with Amy's abuse towards her. Amy even attempts to kill Samey, but she survives by having a parachute. Later, a contestant bonds with Samey and gives her the courage to stand up to Amy and get her eliminated.

Notable examples[edit]

Cheyenne Brando, the daughter of the legendary actor Marlon Brando, confessed that her brother Christian seemed to be in love with her and that he was jealous of her boyfriend Dag Drollet; that is why Christian killed him in 1990, according to Cheyenne. Christian stated during his trial that Cheyenne told him that Dag was abusive to her, that he wanted to protect her and that he never meant to kill Dag; it was a terrible accident. Christian was sentenced to ten years in jail in 1991 and Cheyenne committed suicide in 1995. Cheyenne was abusive toward her two sisters, Maimiti and Raiatua, as well as with Marlon Brando, and Tarita, her parents, particularly her mother. Tarita Teriipaia wrote a book in 2005, which revealed Cheyenne terrorized her own family when she began to suffer from schizophrenia.[121]

The French serial killer Guy Georges physically abused his adoptive elder sisters when he was 14, nearly killing them.[122]

In 2013, the Australian actor Hugh Jackman opened up about the physical and verbal abuse by his older brother. He said the abuse helped his acting in Wolverine and that when his brother apologized, Jackman felt released.[123][124][125][126]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Wiehe, Vernon R. What Parents Need to Know About Sibling Abuse: Breaking the Cycle of Violence (2002)
  • Caffaro., J. & Conn-Caffaro, A. (1998). Sibling Abuse Trauma, NY: Routledge.
  • Caffaro, J.; Conn-Caffaro, A. (2005). "Treating Sibling Abuse Families". Aggression & Violent Behavior. 10 (5): 604–623. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2004.12.001.
  • Caffaro, J. (2013). Sibling abuse trauma. 2nd Edition. NY: Routledge.
  • Caspi, J. (2012). Sibling Aggression: Assessment and Treatment. NY: Springer Publishing