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

Though sibling abuse is as common, or more common, than other forms of abuse, chronic maltreatment by siblings has only relatively recently become the subject of serious clinical study and concern.[1] Sibling abuse is far less recognized than spousal or child abuse and considered less dangerous, 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.[2] Nonetheless, it is generally rare for the police or child welfare agencies to get involved in cases of sibling abuse.[citation needed]

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.[3] 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.[4] Similarly, Malone and colleagues[5] found that, contrary to common belief, girls who witnessed spousal abuse were more likely than boys to behave abusively towards partners as adults. The"Cinderella effect", which is a conventional wisdom in the Anglosphere, holds that sibling abuse is more common between half-siblings or full step-siblings than genetic siblings; academic research on this topic has formed no consensus.


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

  • Vernon Wiehe of the University of Kentucky estimates that as many as 53%[6] 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 more common than spousal abuse.
  • Similarly, Whipple and Finton[7] report that "Psychological maltreatment between siblings is one of the most common yet often underrecognized forms of child abuse."
  • Irfan and Cowburn[8] report that, amongst Pakistani immigrant families in the UK found that "Among perpetrators of abuse, 35% (highest proportion) of physical abuse was perpetrated by siblings, 33% by mothers and 19% by fathers."
  • According to experts it is estimated "that three children in 100 are dangerously violent toward a brother or sister."

Sibling sexual abuse

  • Bass and colleagues[9] 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[10] 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[11] 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 students reported by D. 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.[12]

Sibling abuse vs. Sibling rivalry

"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."[13]

Sibling rivalry, competition and disagreements are considered a normal component of childhood and adolescence. When compared to sibling abuse, rivalry tends to be relatively balanced and reciprocal. Even in more pronounced forms, sibling rivalry is a common and solvable problem which is rarely damaging to a child and is often dealt with through parental supervision and intervention. In contrast, sibling abuse is characterized by an imbalance of power: abuse is extreme, pervasive, traumatizing and pathological physical or psychological behavior by one sibling (usually older or larger) onto the other. 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.[14]

Traditional gender roles can allow sibling abuse to go unchecked: Schwartz and colleagues[15] 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[16] report that womens's violence as adults is more strongly correlated with aggression towards siblings during childhood.

Signs of Abuse

  • 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

Media portrayals of sibling abuse

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). In the well known Disney film adaption, the sisters are named 'Anastasia' and 'Drizella'.[17]

The 1991 made-for-TV movie "My Son, Johnny" is a rare fictionalized portrayal of sibling abuse.[18] 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 15-year-old Michael Lombardo, tried and acquitted for the 1985 killing his nineteen-year-old brother Francis "Frankie" Lombardo who had battered and abused him for years.

In the British soap opera Eastenders, a storyline occurred involving Ben Mitchell abusing his stepsister Louise Mitchell by burning her wrist and locking her in a storage cupboard and generally being aggressive to her.[citation needed] Another British soap opera, Brookside, ran in 1996 a controversial storyline 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).[19]

U.S. talk show Dr. Phil explored issues relating to sibling abuse in their 1330th episode.[20]


  1. University of Michigan Health System: Sibling abuse
  2. Time Magazine: Reluctant Referees
  4. Pfout, Schopler, & Henley, “Forgotten Victims of Family Violence,” Social Work, July 1982.
  5. 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.
  6. Rivalry or Abuse?
  7. 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
  8. Disciplining, Chastisement and Physical Child Abuse: Perceptions and Attitudes of the British Pakistani Community
  9. 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
  10. Ryan, G. (2005) Preventing Violence and Trauma in the Next Generation. J Interpers Violence 2005; 20; 132 DOI: 10.1177/0886260504268605
  11. 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
  12. Finkelhor, D. (1978). Psychological, cultural, and family factors in incest and family sexual abuse. Journal of Marriage and Family Counseling, 4, 41-79.
  13. University of Michigan Health System: Sibling abuse
  14. University of Michigan Health System: Sibling abuse
  15. Schwartz, M., O'Leary, S. G., & Kendziora, K. T. (1997). Dating aggression among high school students. Violence and Victims, 12, 295-305.
  16. 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.
  17. "Lady Tremaine & Stepsisters". Retrieved August 13, 2010.
  18. IMDB page
  19. Hitchens, Peter (2000). The Abolition of Britain. Quartet Books; New edition edition (1 April 2000). ISBN 0704381400.
  20. "Sibling Abuse". Retrieved August 13, 2010.

Further reading

  • Wiehe, Vernon R. What Parents Need to Know About Sibling Abuse: Breaking the Cycle of Violence (2002)


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