Sibling abuse

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Sibling abuse (or intersibling abuse) is the physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse of one sibling by another.

Though several studies indicate that sibling abuse is far more common than other forms of family abuse,[1][2][3] chronic maltreatment by siblings has only relatively recently become the subject of serious clinical study and concern.[4] Sibling abuse is far less recognized than spousal or child abuse and is often considered less dangerous,[5] although siblings who are a great deal larger and/or older than their younger counterparts may in fact be capable of lethal violence towards their victims.[6]

Sibling abuse is significantly more likely to occur in dysfunctional, neglectful and/or abusive homes, and often reflects a lack of appropriate boundaries and discipline on the part of the parents.[4][7][8] In many cases, sibling abuse can occur as "second hand abuse" in which children who have been harmed or maltreated go on to harm siblings.[9] A 1982 study found that of 60% of children who witnessed their mothers abused by their fathers subsequently acted out the scene with their siblings.[10] Similarly, those who witness abuse as children are more likely to abuse as adults: Malone and colleagues[11] found that when children witnessed parental abuse they were more likely to behave abusively as adults, and that, contrary to common wisdom, girls from such families were more likely than boys to behave abusively towards partners as adults. The "Cinderella effect", which is a conventional wisdom in the English-speaking world, holds that sibling abuse is more common between half-siblings or full step-siblings than genetic siblings.


According to many authorities and researchers, sibling abuse is one of the most common forms of abuse,[12] yet it is often neglected by society at large and by investigators into interpersonal violence:

  • Vernon Wiehe of the University of Kentucky estimates that up to 53%[13] of children have committed at least one act of severe aggression towards a sibling, making sibling abuse more common than child abuse by parents and spousal abuse combined.
  • Hotaling, Straus, & Lincoln[14] 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.
  • Similarly, Whipple and Finton[15] report that "Psychological maltreatment between siblings is one of the most common yet often underrecognized forms of child abuse."
  • Irfan and Cowburn[16] 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.[17][18] However, sisters can also abuse brothers, and traditional gender roles can allow such abuse to go unchecked: Schwartz and colleagues[19] 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[20] report that women's violence as adults is more strongly correlated with aggression towards siblings during childhood.
  • Caffaro, J. & Conn-Caffaro, A. (1998; 2005) report, based on their research, that adult sibling abuse survivors have much higher rates of emotional cutoff (39%) with brothers and sisters than what is evident in the general population (<6%) Sibling abuse is also an act of violence, not just verbally.

Sexual abuse[edit]

Further information: Child-on-child sexual abuse
  • 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[21] 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[22] report that brothers who committed incest were more likely to use force than fathers who commit incest (64% vs. 53%). Similarly, Cyr and colleagues[7] found that about 70% of sibling incest involved sexual penetration, substantially higher than other forms of incest.
  • Bass and colleagues[23] 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.
  • Ryan[24] 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."
  • Rayment and Owen[25] report that "compared 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 a sibling.[26]

Versus sibling rivalry[edit]

"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."[4]

Sibling rivalry, competition and disagreements are considered a normal component of childhood and adolescence. Weihe[27] 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.


  • One child always avoids their sibling
  • A child has changes in behavior, sleep patterns, eating habits, or has nightmares
  • A child acts out abuse in play
  • A child acts out sexually in inappropriate ways
  • The children’s roles are rigid: one child is always the aggressor, the other, the victim
  • The roughness or violence between siblings is increasing over time
  • The abused child is usually sad or is trying to talk to someone about it, but can't because the abuser is always around.


Risk factors[edit]


  • Parental unavailability and lack of adequate supervision of children in the home
  • Attachment difficulties in which parents may be physically available but emotionally absent
  • Ineffective parenting
  • Low levels of parental acceptance and involvement linked to higher levels of sibling conflict
  • Parental favoritism
  • Sibling relations characterized by power imbalances, role rigidity, and unclear boundaries
  • Consistent disregard for siblings' personal and psychological space
  • Families with distressed marriages and high levels of parent-child and spousal conflict
  • Relationship between family functioning and larger ecosystem factors such as sexism in society or pornography

Protective factors[edit]


  • Father's level of positive involvement with sons closely associated with stability of sibling behavioral problems
  • Quality of mother-child interaction mediating effects of overt martial conflict on older siblings' tendency to behave aggressively
  • Parental warmth and involved interactions; consistent, nonpunitive discipline management
  • Affectional ties with alternative caregivers including grandparents and older siblings
  • Presence and ability to make use of community support systems (i.e., neighbors, teachers, friends)
  • Parents learning to create balance between overinvolvement in siblings' affairs and a lack of protective, competent parenting

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.[31] 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.

British soap opera, Brookside, ran 1996 a controversial storyline in 1996, featuring incest between siblings Nat and Georgia Simpson that ended in pregnancy followed by an abortion. The sympathetic portrayal of the situation attracted criticism from commentators such as Peter Hitchens (in his book The Abolition of Britain).[32]

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.

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 with 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 started to suffer from schizophrenia.[33]

The French serial killer Guy Georges physically abused his adoptive elder sisters when he was 14, nearly killing them.[34]

The Australian actor Hugh Jackman opened up the physical and verbal abuse of his older brother in 2013. He said that this abuse helped him for his acting in Wolverine and when his brother apologized, Jackman felt released.[35][36][37][38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Straus, M. (1979). Measuring intrafamily conflict and violence: The Conflict Tactics Scale. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 59, p. 75-88.
  2. ^ Straus, M. & Gelles, R. (1990). Physical violence in American families: Risk factors and adaptations to violence in 8, 145 families. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.
  3. ^ Straus, M., Gelles, R., & Steinmetz, S. (1980). Behind closed doors: Violence in the American Family. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
  4. ^ a b c University of Michigan Health System: Sibling abuse
  5. ^ Steinmetz, S. K. (1981). A cross-cultural comparison of sibling violence. International Journal of Family Psychiatry, 2(3-sup-4), p. 337-351.
  6. ^ Time Magazine: Reluctant Referees
  7. ^ a b Cyr, M., Wright, J., McDuff, P., & Perron, A. (2002). Intrafamilial sexual abuse: Brother-sister incest does not differ from father-daughter and stepfather-stepdaughter incest. Child Abuse and Neglect, 26, p. 957-973.
  8. ^ Laviola, M. (1992). Effects of older brother-younger sister incest: A study of the dynamics of 17 cases. Child Abuse and Neglect, 16, p. 409-421.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Pfout, Schopler, & Henley, "Forgotten Victims of Family Violence," Social Work, July 1982.
  11. ^ Malone, J., Tyree, A., & O'Leary, K. D. (1989). Generalization and containment: Different effects of past aggression for wives and husbands. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 51, 687-697.
  12. ^ Stepp, G. "From Sibling Violence to Brotherly Love"
  13. ^ Wiehe, V. "Rivalry or Abuse?"
  14. ^ Hotaling, G. T., Straus, M. A., & Lincoln, A. J. (1990). Intrafamily violence and crime and violence outside the family. In M. A. Straus and R. J. Gelles (Eds.), Physical Violence in American Families (p. 431-470). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books
  15. ^ Whipple, E. and Finton, S. 1995. Psychological maltreatment by siblings: An unrecognized form of abuse. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, Vol. 12, no. 2, pp 135-146
  16. ^ Disciplining, Chastisement and Physical Child Abuse: Perceptions and Attitudes of the British Pakistani Community
  17. ^ Graham-Bermann, S. A. and Cutler, S. E. (1994). The Brother-Sister Questionnaire: Psychometric assessment and discrimination of well-functioning from dysfunctional relationships. Journal of Family Psychology, 8(2), p. 224-238.
  18. ^ Finkelhor, D. and Baron, L. (1986). Risk factors for child sexual abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1(1), p. 43-71.
  19. ^ Schwartz, M., O'Leary, S. G., & Kendziora, K. T. (1997). Dating aggression among high school students. Violence and Victims, 12, 295-305.
  20. ^ Tyree, A., & Malone, J. (1991). How can it be that wives hit husbands as much as husbands hit wives and none of us knew it? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.
  21. ^ Bank, S. P. & Kahn, M. D. (1982). The sibling bond. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc.
  22. ^ Rudd, J. M., and Herzberger, S. D. (1999). Brother-sister incest/father-daughter incest: A comparison of characteristics and consequences. Child Abuse and Neglect, 23, pp. 915-928.
  23. ^ Bass, L., Taylor, B., Kunutson-Martin, C. and Huenergardt, D. (2006) Making Sense of Abuse: Case Studies in Sibling Incest. Contemporary Family Therapy, Vol 28, no 1, pp 87-109
  24. ^ Ryan, G. (2005) Preventing Violence and Trauma in the Next Generation. J Interpers Violence 2005; 20; 132 doi:10.1177/0886260504268605
  25. ^ S. Rayment and N Owen. (1999) WORKING WITH INDIVIDUALS AND FAMILIES WHERE SIBLING INCEST HAS OCCURRED: THE DYNAMICS, DILEMMAS AND PRACTICE IMPLICATIONS. Paper presented at the Children and Crime: Victims and Offenders Conference convened by the Australian Institute of Criminology and held in Brisbane, 17–18 June 1999
  26. ^ Finkelhor, D. (1978). Psychological, cultural, and family factors in incest and family sexual abuse. Journal of Marriage and Family Counseling, 4, 41-79.
  27. ^ Wiehe, V. R. (1997) Sibling abuse: Hidden physical, emotional, and sexual trauma, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  28. ^
  29. ^ Caffaro, J.V. (2013). Sibling Abuse Trauma, 2nd Edition. NY: Routledge
  30. ^ Caffaro, J.V. (2013). Sibling Abuse Trauma, 2nd Edition. NY: Routledge
  31. ^ IMDB page
  32. ^ Hitchens, Peter (2000). The Abolition of Britain. Quartet Books; New edition (1 April 2000). ISBN 0-7043-8140-0. 
  33. ^ "1990-2004: "Brando's Affair", Family drama and Death of Marlon. Part 1". 
  34. ^ "Guy Georges". 
  35. ^ "Hugh Jackman: "My wife and my kids are the real centre of my world"". 
  36. ^ "Hugh Jackman : Fils abandonné et frère tyrannisé, il est devenu Wolverine !". 
  37. ^ "Hugh Jackman: 'What are ya – a poof?'". 
  38. ^ "Bullied Jackman wanted to 'kill' brother". 

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.
  • Caffaro, J. (2013). Sibling abuse trauma. 2nd Edition. NY: Routledge.