Sibling abuse is known as the ‘hidden’ or ‘forgotten’ abuse, but it’s very real and has lasting effects.
Teasing, mind games, wrestling…sibling rivalry is not only common but to be expected from time to time.
Yet some sibling dynamics do cross a line, and it can be difficult to detect where that line actually is. You may have even grown up believing your experience was typical when it was anything but OK.
It may help you to know what’s considered acceptable in a sibling relationship, and what’s considered abuse. From there, there are many ways to find support and begin the healing process.
Abuse is abuse, no matter who it’s carried out by. Sibling abuse, just like other forms of abuse, can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It may come down to your biology. Continuous exposure to traumatic events can activate your nervous system and re-wire your brain to be on alert for the next threat, says Leia Charnin, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“That activated system may get flooded and initiate strategies that promote protection, which may look like: overthinking, feeling frozen and numb, a range of anger to rage, helplessness, and even despair,” she says.
“It’s important to honor that your nervous system is working in a completely natural way as it attempts to process news of yet another threatening event,” Charnin adds.
What about complex trauma?
Though it’s not yet an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) has many similarities to traditional PTSD, but with a few additional symptoms.
CPTSD can impact:
- how you feel about yourself
- how you relate to others
- how you handle your emotions
Complex trauma can occur from repeated exposure to a traumatic experience over a long period of time, versus a one-off event as you’d see with traditional PTSD.
There are many ways that you can experience abuse from a sibling.
Sometimes it can feel difficult to discern whether or not what you experienced was a typical developmental stage, or whether it qualifies as abuse, says Geri-Lynn Utter, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia.
“For instance, is it typical for two teenage siblings, ages 12 and 14, to argue with one another and say mean things to one another?” Utter says. “The answer is yes.”
“On the other hand, is it typical for one teenage sibling to consistently hit, slap, or punch their sibling to intimidate or scare them into doing something they do not want to do? The answer is no.”
The three main types of sibling abuse are:
- emotional abuse: insults, coercive control, manipulation, threats, excessive teasing, shaming, destroying something you love
- physical abuse: being held down, punching, choking, kicking, slapping, biting, hurting another with toys or weapons
- sexual abuse: touching, masturbation, intercourse, being forced to watch pornography, threats of what will happen if you tell anyone or don’t go along with it
A 2019 study suggests that sibling sexual abuse is the least reported and treated, but also the most common and long lasting of all types of sibling abuse.
There are several signs that you, or someone you care about, may be experiencing abuse from a sibling, says Utter.
- marks from self-harm
- unexplained injuries
- weight changes
- low self-esteem
- suicidal ideation
- lowered academic performance
- refusal to be left alone with a sibling
- running away from home
- sleep disturbances
- social isolation
- substance use
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, you’re not alone. Help is available right now. You can:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.
- Call a crisis hotline, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
- Text HOME to the Crisis Textline at 741741.
- Not in the U.S.? Find a helpline in your country with Befrienders Worldwide.
If you’re experiencing sibling abuse, or have in the past, you may feel isolated by your experience. It may help you to know that there are other survivors out there.
In fact, a 2013 study of over 4,500 children found that 37.6% had experienced sibling abuse. It was most common between two brothers, especially those close in age.
And that number could be too conservative of an estimate. It’s difficult to know how often sibling abuse actually happens, as many times it goes undocumented.
“Sibling abuse is also referred to as ‘forgotten abuse,’ because it is often overlooked,” Utter says.
But remember that you’re not alone and there are ways you can cope.
For something so often dismissed as “natural,” sibling abuse can impact you in ways that are far-reaching and long lasting. “The mental health effects can be devastating if sibling abuse (or any kind of abuse) isn’t addressed,” Utter says.
For example, a 2017 study found that sibling abuse that occurs more than once a year is enough to impact someone’s behavior for a lifetime in several ways. For the survivor, it can lead to:
- acts of physical violence against others
- aggressive reactions (called reactive abuse)
- difficulties managing your temper
It may change how you feel about yourself on the inside, as well. A 2018 study reported that sibling bullying was associated with feeling less competent, lowered self-esteem, and decreased satisfaction with your life overall.
It may also increase your chances for abusive dynamics in the future. For example, a 2019 study discussed how sibling abuse in childhood may be a contributing factor of elder abuse later on in life.
So far, less is known about the mental health effects of sibling sexual abuse, as it’s the least studied topic area. But a 2021 study did note that it could lead to several symptoms.
- challenges with sexual function
- lowered self-esteem
Sibling abuse is understudied as a whole, so researchers still need more data about how, specifically, to treat it. In the meantime, there are many treatment options for PTSD.
“It’s important to remember that what is happening within the home is not your fault,” Charnin says. “Your brain naturally searches for ways to control the environment, but you can’t control abuse, and it’s important to receive help.”
Treatment for PTSD typically includes a combination of approaches. This may include:
- support groups
- self-care strategies
- lifestyle adjustments
- medication to help with symptoms such as anxiety, depression, or sleep disturbances
There are several evidence-based therapies that can help you navigate trauma-related symptoms, says Charnin. Some specific modalities for trauma recovery may include:
- eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy
- prolonged exposure therapy
- cognitive processing therapy
You may also find it helpful to reach out for support in your inner circle, suggests Utter. “If you don’t feel comfortable telling your parents, reach out to your school counselor, teacher, coach, or an adult you can trust to help you,” she says.
If you’re in immediate danger, leave as soon as possible and call 911 to document your experience. You can also call a trusted loved one outside of the house, or reach out to local domestic violence shelters in your area.
What if it’s happening to someone I know?
If you learn that sibling abuse is occurring, reach out to a mental health professional as soon as possible, says Utter.
“For example, if you’re a parent and learn that one of your children is being abused by another, you can reach out to their pediatrician to help coordinate a referral for the appropriate mental health treatment,” she says.
Sibling abuse is often forgotten about, as it’s deemed one of the more socially acceptable forms of abuse. Yet it’s common and has long lasting impacts in childhood and beyond.
Not only can it cause PTSD (or CPTSD), but it can lead to a range of other mental health symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, lowered self-esteem, and difficulty in future relationships.
You don’t have to go through this alone. The first stop for any treatment plan is working with a professional, preferably one who specializes in domestic abuse. You may find it helpful to use our search tools to locate a therapist near you.
Some other helpful resources may include: