Editor’s Note: The author responded to our invitation for guest blogging for NASW-NYC Connections. If you are interested in submitting a piece, please email us.
Sibling abuse is an understudied phenomenon that continues to receive little attention. Curiously, intake and psychosocial assessments in social service and mental health agencies continue to focus on the quality of parent-child relationships. Assessment regarding the nature and quality of sibling relationships is either neglected or minimized.
A widespread societal belief holds that most siblings have conflicts and fights while growing up, and that these conflicts are normal. This may be. However, sibling abuse is NOT sibling rivalry! There are distinct differences between normative sibling rivalry and sibling abuse. With sibling rivalry, children have an equal opportunity for advantage or disadvantage. Sometimes, one sibling is hurtful to another; and another time the other sibling is hurtful. Sibling abuse indicates pervasive, ongoing damaging behavior from one sibling to another in which there is intent to harm by the abusive sibling and an induced sense of fear, shame, and hopelessness in the victim. While sibling rivalry fosters skills of communication, negotiation, and competition, sibling abuse does not warrant any positive outcomes.
It is interesting that as a society we have rallied to the cause of bullying: through media, anti-bullying legislation, and outraged parents. I would posit that bullying could be termed peer abuse. In much the same way that we distinguish peer teasing from bullying, we need to distinguish sibling rivalry or sibling aggression from sibling abuse. There are parallels between peer teasing and sibling rivalry and between bullying and sibling abuse. And, thankfully, serious measures have been taken to protect children from peers in the realm of bullying. As a society we have acknowledged the devastating influence a child can have on another child – physically or emotionally. We also need to pay attention to the devastating implications of siblings who abuse siblings.
A child who presents with academic issues, behavioral issues, a depressive disorder, or anxiety disorder may be the target of sibling abuse. Practitioners who are aware of the influence of sibling abuse are able to recognize how to help each sibling involved in the abusive relationship, the family system, or the adult who has this traumatic past. Sibling abuse is not only a psychological issue for the victim, but also representative of a dysfunctional family system in which the dyadic relationship or the behavior of the perpetrator is a symptom of greater pathology.
Additionally, failure to assess the nature and quality of sibling relationships or the developmental history of an adult client can have profound effects on the survivor. Consider how this experience may influence one’s sense of self, mood, career, and relationships.
Most of us have siblings. Yet I often wonder how many of us consider the influence of those relationships on our current interpersonal relatedness and general functioning. At workshops where I have trained staff on sibling abuse assessment, I invite attendees to consider many facets of their own current and historical relationship with their sibling(s). Most acknowledge that this is the first time they have reflected on this. Yet, they are well-aware of the impact a parent(s) has had on his/her own development. Giving consideration to our own dynamics, countertransference, transference, and projections is a fundamental aspect of practice. Be curious about your own experience with a sibling – and be curious about those you treat.
Amy Meyers, PhD, LCSW is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at The College of New Rochelle. She has consulted for the Administration of Children’s Services and has provided trainings on sibling abuse assessment and intervention to the Department of Social Services and staff at mental health agencies in NYC where she also maintains a private practice.