Mental health effects of sibling abuse I Psych Central

Sibling abuse is known as “hidden” or “forgotten” abuse, but it is very real and has lasting consequences.

Teasing, mind games, fighting…sibling rivalry is not only common, but to be expected from time to time.

Yet some sibling dynamics cross a line, and it can be difficult to find where that line really is. You may even have grown up believing your experience was typical when it was anything but OK.

It can help you understand what is considered acceptable in a sibling relationship and what is considered abusive. From there, there are many ways to find support and begin the healing process.

Abuse is abuse regardless of who it is committed by. Sibling abuse, like other forms of abuse, can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It could come down to your biology. Prolonged exposure to traumatic events can activate your nervous system and rewire your brain to be alert for the next threat, says Dr. Leah Charnin, a licensed psychologist in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“This activated system can be flooded and initiate strategies that promote defense, which can look like: overthinking, feeling frozen and numb, ranging from anger to rage, helplessness and even despair,” she says.

“It’s important to respect that your nervous system is working in a completely natural way as it tries to process news of yet another threatening event,” Charnin adds.

There are many ways you can experience sibling abuse.

Sometimes it can be difficult to know whether what you’ve experienced was a typical developmental stage or whether it qualifies as abuse, says Geri-Lynn Utter, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia.

“For example, is it typical for two teenage siblings, ages 12 and 14, to fight and say mean things to each other?” Utter says. “The answer is yes.”

“On the other hand, is it typical for a teenage sibling to constantly hit, slap, or hit their sibling to intimidate them or get them to do something they don’t 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
  • assault: restraining, hitting, choking, kicking, slapping, biting, hurting another with toys or weapons
  • sexual assault: touching, masturbation, intercourse, forcing you to watch pornography, threats of what will happen if you tell someone or don’t agree to it

A 2019 study found that sibling sexual abuse is the least reported and undertreated, 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 sibling abuse, Utter says.

Physically

  • bruises
  • signs of self-harm
  • unexplained injuries
  • changes in weight

Emotional

Behaviorpara

  • hypersexuality
  • decreased academic performance
  • refusal to be alone with a sibling
  • running away from home
  • sleep disorders
  • social isolation
  • substance use

If you are experiencing abuse from a sibling or have in the past, you may feel isolated from the experience. It might help 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 violence. It most often occurred between two brothers, especially close in age.

And that number may be too conservative an estimate. It is difficult to know how often sibling abuse actually occurs, as many times it goes undocumented.

“Sibling abuse is also called ‘forgotten abuse’ because it is often overlooked,” Utter says.

But remember that you are not alone and there are ways to cope.

For something so often dismissed as “natural,” sibling violence can affect you in ways that are far-reaching and long-lasting. “The mental health effects can be devastating if sibling abuse (or any type of abuse) goes unaddressed,” Utter says.

For example, a 2017 study found that sibling abuse that happens more than once a year is enough to affect someone’s behavior for life in several ways. For the survivor, this can lead to:

  • acts of physical violence against others
  • aggressive responses (called reactive abuse)
  • difficulty managing your temper

It can also change the way you feel about yourself on the inside. A 2018 study reported that sibling bullying is linked to feelings of less competence, lower self-esteem, and decreased satisfaction with your life in general.

This can also increase your chances of abusing dynamics in the future. For example, a 2019 study discussed how childhood sibling abuse can be a contributing factor to adult abuse later in life.

Until now, less is known about the mental health effects of sibling sexual violence because it is the least researched topic. But a 2021 study noted that it can lead to several symptoms.

They include:

Sibling abuse is understudied in general, so researchers still need more data on how to specifically treat it. In the meantime, there are many treatment options for PTSD.

“It’s important to remember that what happens in the home is not your fault,” Charnin says. “Your brain naturally looks for ways to control the environment, but you can’t control the abuse and it’s important to get help.”

Treatment for PTSD usually involves a combination of approaches. This may include:

There are several evidence-based therapies that can help you deal with trauma-related symptoms, Charnin says. Some specific ways to recover from trauma may include:

You may also find it helpful to seek support from your inner circle, Utter suggests. “If you don’t feel comfortable telling your parents, reach out to your school counselor, teacher, coach, or trusted adult to help you,” she says.

If you are in immediate danger, leave as soon as possible and call 911 to document the experience. You can also call a trusted loved one outside the home or contact local domestic violence shelters in your area.

Sibling abuse is often forgotten because it is considered one of the more socially acceptable forms of abuse. However, it is common and has long-lasting effects in childhood and beyond.

Not only can it cause post-traumatic stress disorder (or CPTSD), but it can lead to a range of other mental health symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and difficulties 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 violence. You may find it helpful to use our search tools to find a therapist near you.

Some other helpful resources may include:

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