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Sibling maltreatment: the forgotten abuse.
Journal of Counseling and Development
March 22, 2007
Kiselica, Mark S.; Morrill-Richards, Mandy





Historically, violence in the home was considered a private matter. In
the 1970s, however, the feminist movement assisted in raising
awareness throughout mainstream America about family violence, and
since that time there have been many advances in the study of various
types of abuse among family members (Ammerman & Hersen, 1991). Today,
issues involving the maltreatment of older adults, child abuse, and
spousal abuse are researched regularly by social scientists in an
attempt to understand the causes of violence in the home and to
develop programs designed to prevent family violence. Despite these
advances, sibling abuse remains underrepresented in the professional
literature.

Data reported in several studies over the past 3 decades suggest that
sibling abuse is pandemic and can have fatal results. For example,
Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz (1980) found that as many as 40% of
children in the United States engage in physical aggression against
siblings, and as many as 85% engage in verbal aggression against
siblings on a regular basis. Wiehe (1998) estimated that as many as 53
out of every 100 children are perpetrators of sibling abuse. Goodwin
and Roscoe (1990) used the Conflict Tactics Incidence Scale (Straus,
1979) to measure the frequency of abuse in families among 272 high
school students, and they found that 60% of the participants reported
being either a victim or a perpetrator of sibling abuse. In their
national surveys of 8,145 families, Straus and Gelles (1990) reported
that 80% of children ages 3 to 17 years commit some form of violence
against a sibling. The most recent data regarding homicide in the
United States indicate that siblings perpetrated 6.1% of all murders
committed by family members in 2002 (Federal Bureau of Investigation,
2004). These statistics are startling and point out that sibling
relationships can be marred by violence.

The pervasive nature of sibling abuse can be better understood when it
is considered in relation to data regarding officially verified cases
of severe intrafamily abuse. Approximately 1% of children in the
United States are severely abused by a parent (U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families,
2002), 1.8% of adult women experience extreme abuse by an intimate
partner (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2003), and 3% to
5% of older adults experience some form of family-based elder abuse
(National Center on Elder Abuse, 2005). Unfortunately, national
statistics based on reported cases of sibling abuse "do not exist
because generally cases of physical or emotional sibling abuse do not
come to the attention of authorities" (Wiehe, 2000, p. 412). However,
extensive national survey data reveal that serious violence between
siblings is disturbingly common and much more prevalent than serious
child abuse by parents: 53% of children ages 3 to 17 years have
committed acts of severe violence (such as punching, kicking,
stabbing, or attacking with objects) against a brother or sister,
whereas only 2.3% of parents have engaged in severe violence toward
their children (Straus & Gelles, 1990). Collectively, these data
suggest that sibling maltreatment might be the most common form of
intrafamily abuse. Indeed, Straus and Gelles (1990), the authors of
the most definitive study of violence in families in the United States
ever undertaken, concluded, "Children are the most violent persons in
American families" (p. 110).

Sibling relationships are ubiquitous. Caffaro and Conn-Caffaro (1998)
found that 83% of the adult population in the United States was raised
with at least one sibling in the family. Adults typically have more
siblings than children, and, compared with statistics in the past, a
greater percentage of current adults do not marry or marry at a later
age. These findings indicate that the sibling relationship is unique
in its longevity and can be one of the most influential relationships
in one's life. Therefore, the impact siblings have on one another
should not be minimized (Felson, 1983; J. Newman, 1994).

Why does sibling abuse occur? Authorities on the subject have proposed
that maladaptive parental behavior and dysfunctional family structures
play key roles in the genesis of sibling abuse. Parental treatment has
an impact on the sibling relationship. When the family structure
supports power imbalances, rigid gender roles, differential treatment
of siblings, and lack of parental supervision, there is an increased
risk for sibling abuse (Bank & Kahn, 1982; Leder, 1993). In a study
conducted by Wiehe (1997), the normalization of abuse by parents was
found to be a key factor in the severity and frequency of abuse
between siblings. When parents are unable to make the distinction
between normal sibling rivalry and sibling abuse, it can lead to other
risk factors, such as the inappropriate expression of anger from one
sibling toward another. Parents may encourage this behavior as a form
of release or ventilation of anger, which usually has the effect of
promoting aggression rather than easing hostility in the child
(Feshbach, 1964). Several studies have found a link between child
abuse and the delinquent behavior of siblings. It has been shown that
an abused child may inflict abuse on a sibling because he or she is
modeling the actions of his or her parents (Freeman, 1993; Glaser,
1986; Wiehe, 1998).

The tolerance of sibling abuse can have devastating results for both
the victim and the perpetrator. Therefore, it is crucial that
counselors learn more about the serious problem of sibling abuse.
Accordingly, the purpose of this article is to explore numerous issues
central to sibling abuse, including definitions of sibling
relationships and various forms of sibling maltreatment, the impact of
the family environment on sibling interactions and psychological
development, the characteristics of perpetrators and victims, and
gender differences and multicultural considerations associated with
sibling abuse. We describe a three-stage counseling process for use
with families struggling with sibling abuse and suggest
recommendations for research and counselor education pertaining to
sibling abuse.

* Definitions of Sibling Relationships and Sibling Abuse

Sibling abuse is extremely complicated and not easily defined. It is
difficult to determine where normal developmental behavior between
siblings ends and abuse begins. Many factors, such as the severity and
intent of an act by one sibling and the emotional impact of that act
on another sibling, must be considered when determining if an
interaction is abusive. Normal sibling conflict usually consists of a
mutual disagreement over resources in the family (e.g., parental
attention), whereas sibling maltreatment consists of one sibling
taking on the role of aggressor in relation to another sibling. Like
other forms of abuse, sibling abuse has three main categories:
psychological, physical, and sexual (Johnston & Freeman, 1989). The
first step to understanding these categories is to define what
constitutes a sibling relationship.

Sibling Relationship

Sibling relationships may comprise biological siblings (sharing the
same biological parents), half siblings (sharing one parent), step-
siblings (related through marriage of parents), adoptive siblings,
foster siblings (related through a shared home), or fictive siblings
(may not be biologically related but are considered siblings). The
sibling relationship itself consists of "all interactions, verbal and
nonverbal, of two or more individuals who are members of the same
sibling subsystem and who have parents in common" (Caffaro & Conn-
Caffaro, 1998, p. 75).

The relationship siblings have with each other is unique as compared
with any other emotional connection between people and may have the
strongest impact on a person's social development. Johnston and
Freeman (1989) found that, over time, sibling relationships that are
positive have a beneficial effect on children and those that are
negative have an adverse impact on children. Positive sibling
relationships include normal sibling rivalry, which is not considered
harmful in mild forms. When siblings are positive toward each other, a
supportive environment exists in which healthy development is likely
to occur. Negative sibling relationships, by comparison, are
characterized by fear, shame, and hopelessness. When the relationship
is negative, there is a possibility that some form of abuse is
occurring (Johnston & Freeman, 1989).

Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse is the most difficult category of abuse to define
in the sibling relationship. This form of abuse between siblings is
typically not recognized by parents and is often dismissed as normal
sibling rivalry (Wiehe, 1997). What are some signs that interaction
between siblings is psychologically abusive and not normal behavior?
Whipple and Finton (1995) described psychological abuse as follows:


The distinction of such acts from "normal" behavior involves
both constancy and intensity. Examples include ridicule,
which involves both words and actions that express contempt,
and degradation, which deprives the victim of a sense of self
worth.... The sibling who is able to exacerbate a fear gains
control in the relationship through minimizing the other's
self-esteem. (p. 137)
In his study of 150 adult survivors of sibling abuse, Wiehe (2000)
documented that 78% of the participants had experienced emotional
abuse, including numerous and often cruel forms of abuse, such as
belittling, intimidation, scorn, provocation, destroying possessions,
and torturing and killing of pets.

Psychological abuse can have serious long-term consequences if parents
minimize the importance of abusive actions between siblings and do not
seek help for their children. It is important for counselors to take
reports of psychological abuse seriously and to observe the behavior
of siblings. If the abuse is not addressed, victims may internalize
abusive messages. Children who experience psychological abuse may act
out by crying or screaming or hide in an attempt to isolate themselves
from the abuser (Wiehe, 1998). It has been shown that there is a
connection between experiencing emotional abuse as a child and
developing habit disorders, conduct disorders, neurotic traits, and
psychoneurotic reactions; experiencing lags in development; and
attempting to commit suicide (Ammerman & Hersen, 1991). In addition,
both the victims and the perpetrators of emotional sibling abuse tend
to have significantly lower levels of self-esteem as adults than do
nonvictims (Garey, 1999). Psychological abuse is also present in both
physical and sexual sibling abuse (Whelan, 2003).

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse by a sibling is defined as one member of the sibling
pair deliberately causing physical harm to the other member. The harm
may be inflicted by shoving, hitting, slapping, kicking, biting,
pinching, scratching, and hair pulling (Caffaro & Conn-Caffaro, 1998;
Wiehe, 2000). More severe forms of physical abuse by siblings include
the use of broom handles, rubber hoses, coat hangers, hairbrushes,
belts, sticks, knives, guns and rifles, broken glass, razor blades,
and scissors to inflict injury and pain (Wiehe, 2000). Some victims
have reported that their siblings attempted to drown them, nearly
suffocated them with a pillow, or repeatedly hit them in the stomach
until they lost their breath (Wiehe, 2000).

Sibling violence is the most common form of intimate violence in the
United States (Straus & Gelles, 1990). Simonelli, Mullis, Elliott, …


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