General Parenting Issues — 20 January 2008
Parents should prevent emotional abuse between siblings

Child abuse and school bullying by peers are serious areas of concern that are well studied by researchers and educators and available to the public. However, emotional abuse among siblings is a phenomenon of grave concern that is often overlooked.

Emotional abuse between siblings includes: name calling, teasing, belittling, ridiculing, taunting and labeling the child as having an undesirable nature or attributes. Adults reciting childhood abuse relate stories such as: “I looked up to my older sister and believed whatever she said about me. When she called me stupid, fat and ugly, I took these traits as my own. Even twenty five years later I still hear her messages and do not feel very good about myself.” Or, “My brother, a musically gifted child, told me repeatedly that I should not sing at home because I had a bad voice and I was tone deaf. I wasted many valuable years resisting other people’s appreciation of my vocal talents. Even today, singing in a professional group, I still berate myself with his words for every error I make.”

These examples may be appear to be unique, or may be attributable to these individuals’ inherent low self-esteem. However, the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect (ABCAN), in their 1995 report stated: “There are tens of thousands of victims overwhelmed by lifelong psychological trauma, thousands of traumatized siblings and family members, who, as adults, continue to bear physical and psychological scars.” Many people, who have been tormented by a sibling, can attest to the life-long effects of childhood emotional abuse.

Parents often dislike the occurrence of maltreatment between their children but see it as a natural childhood behavior or a manifestation of sibling rivalry that will pass. This mistaken notion leads parents to not intervene often enough or sternly enough to stop this type of sibling abuse. Most parents are quick to limit physical harm inflicted by siblings and are more lax about emotional maltreatment. Both forms of abuse leave serious psychological marks and must be stopped.

According to Iowa State University’s Extension division publication, “As many as 53 of every 100 children abuse a brother or a sister. Outside the home, much of this mistreatment would be considered assault. Between siblings, it usually is ignored.” This frequency is alarming.

The hurt child often reports the name calling or belittling to the parent, who may send the child back to tell the other child to stop, or just work it out. Understandably, some parents, tired of continued complaints, ignore or dismiss the complaining child or hold the victim responsible for provoking this conduct. “What did you do to him before he yelled at you and called you a name?” The parent’s behavior only compounds the distress and overwhelms the abused child. The parent has unintentionally obstructed an opportunity to restore the hurt child’s esteem.

Parents, please,

• Understand that verbal abuse, taunting, name-calling and ridicule by a sibling is a serious form of abuse that may have life-long damaging implications for your child.
• It is your responsibility as a good parent to address each conflict between your children, as tedious and annoying as it may be for you.
• Refrain from believing that if your parents ignored your sibling offenses and you have not suffered, that your children will probably be equally fortunate.
• Fighting and jealousy between siblings may be normal, but should not escalate to physical, verbal and emotional abuse. Any behavior that tears down a child – is abusive and inexcusable.
• Monitor your children’s access to physically or verbally violent content in their electronic viewing and games.
• Gather the feuding children and listen to their version of the incident. Affirm each child’s frustration and set clear guidelines about acceptable and unacceptable conduct and the consequences for repeated emotional maltreatment. Be consistent about enforcing the consequences for the abusive child.
• Abstain from telling the hurt child to not pay attention to the taunts, or that he/she is too sensitive. Every child knows what hurts him/her physically or emotionally. Trust your child’s experience. Heart-ranching sobs, extreme anger and isolating oneself are often clues to the depth of your child’s emotional pain.
• Provide good supervision for the children in your absence. Train the child-care person how to handle your rules and expectations.
• Praise your children for cooperative and kind exchanges and esteem them often. It will help them grow feeling more secure and confidant.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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