When there is more than one child in a family, sibling rivalry and conflict may emerge for different reasons. Sometimes, parents can notice and solve children’s problems and help them establish friendly relationships. Unfortunately, in most cases, child abuse remains hidden from public view and official reports. It is not easy for adults to recognize the signs of abuse. Besides, sibling conflicts gain different forms, affecting their physical, psychological, and emotional well-being at an early age. This briefing paper aims at discussing the existing forms of sibling abuse and helping UK families support their children. Understanding sibling relationships is a complex task, and the role of parents in preventing sibling abuse is as important as the contributions of the police, healthcare providers, psychologists, and the government.
Bullying or repeated unwanted aggressive behaviors by siblings involving power imbalance and negative emotions that are poorly reported and neglected because of unfair domination.
Reciprocal relationships between siblings that are based on jealousy, competition, or the desire to obtain parental attention, and, compared to abuse, occasional and normal for large families.
Physical harm: to provoke pain or traumas intentionally by kicking, biting, and slapping
Psychological harm: to diminish the sense of identity and self-esteem through belittling, intimidation, destroying favorite objects, and torturing (killing) pets.
Sexual harm: to force the engagement in not age-appropriate activities like sexual touching, forcing to watch indecent videos, observing dressing, or raping.
Social harm: to make other individuals observe and humiliate in public, including all types of harm mentioned above.
Importance of Sibling Relationships
Human relationships define the quality of life and future personal growth and professional development. According to Toseeb et al. (2020), siblings introduce a significant part of the child’s life and affect social, mental, and emotional health. Still, it is not always possible for children to establish positive contact with siblings, and aggression or conflicts occur in dealing with problems or solving mutual affairs (Yates and Allardyce, 2021). The nature of these relationships is complex, and much attention is paid to the environment in which unrestrained behaviors are developed (Yates and Allardyce, 2021). Children observe their parents and other adults and repeat their activities as decision-making and problem-solving models (Morgan, 2021). In large UK families, sibling relationships are critical because their positive and negative outcomes can hardly be avoided.
The Essence of Sibling Abuse
Despite the intention to create strong families and avoid unwanted harm in the child’s life, abusive behaviors are not easy to observe, report, and predict. Sibling abuse is defined as the most common but never reported form of family violence (Lancer, 2020). In this context, sibling abuse or sibling bullying is unwanted and repetitive behavior characterized by aggression and power imbalance (Toseeb et al., 2020). Some researchers define it as “the forgotten abuse” because not all adults notice it (Lancer, 2020). As a result, children have no ideas how to deal with it and accept it as a normal part of their lives.
Sibling Abuse in the UK
Regarding the absence of reports about sibling abuse, the government and other stakeholders address other documents like child protection plans. As findings show (Figure 1), more than 58,000 UK children officially needed professional help (NSPCC Learning, 2021). Being unsolved or poorly recognized, sibling abuse can be developed in a variety of forms, provoke multiple outcomes, and become an ordinary (even unwanted) part of sibling relationships in UK families. It is high time to stop neglecting this problem and involve as many people as possible to offer effective recommendations. If parents fail to protect their children from maltreatment within their families, new stakeholders with fresh ideas should be involved.
Causes of Sibling Abuse
It is expected that parents help young children reduce rivalry, offer the necessary support, motivates, and bring cooperation into action (Morgan, 2021). However, some adults believe in tolerance and equal treatment without considering the possibility of creating an environment that is favorable for sibling violence (as cited in Elliott et al., 2020). Family quarrels, coercive parenting, poor supervision, and favoritism also provoke wrong judgments and similar abusive behaviors in children (Lancer, 2020). Instead of analyzing situations, parents like to take sides and support a particular individual.
Not many people understand how critical a cultural understanding can be for sibling abuse promotion. Various cultures impose boundaries in human relationships, including acceptance of violence in some cases (Toseeb et al., 2020). As cultural norms support the use of power, siblings are exposed to abuse at different levels but fail to learn if their decisions are wrong or right.
The exposure to sibling bullying depends on personal characteristics and demographic differences. Boys are usually more engaged in sibling abuse than girls (Elliott et al., 2020). Besides, first-born children may offend younger children, addressing their privileges and experience (Lancer, 2020). However, if a child can prove their rights, it is possible to overcome age, gender, or other issues and achieve justice and fair treatment in a family.
In addition to the direct impact of parents, culture, and demographics, sibling violence can be promoted by not regular still possible factors like mental health disorders, media, or street observations. Stereotypical media representations affect children’s behavioral choices and preferences (Yates and Allardyce, 2021). Mental health disorders also increase the risks of violence in UK families (Dantchev et al., 2018). The relationships children are exposed to on the streets may challenge their understanding of family responsibilities and power distribution.
Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse are the major forms of deviant behaviors in childhood. The findings prove (Figure 2), sexual abuse cases are more reported than in other forms (Bentley et al., 2020). It can be explained by the inappropriateness and age-irrelevance of such activities at an early age. Children may not recognize when emotional abuse occurs or accept physical damage as regular or expected. This abuse is confused with other interactions and treated as a common form of relationship between children. Social neglect occurs when a child is bullied in public, and several people observe the offenses and define the possible impact on interpersonal relationships.
Depending on the type of sibling violence, children experience various consequences in their lives with time. For example, sexual abuse results from fear of sexual relationships with partners or wrong interpretations of responsibilities (Yates and Allardyce, 2021). The essence of punishment, blame, and disclosure can be distorted due to physical or emotional abuse, and children do not realize what they do wrong or why they are misunderstood (Dantchev et al., 2018). Poorly introduced relationships between siblings cause social isolation or unwillingness to cooperate in groups during studies (Yates and Allardyce, 2021). Finally, the development of psychotic disorders, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and alcohol/drug abuse is highly reported in people who experienced sibling abuse in childhood (Dantchev et al., 2018; Elliott et al., 2020). Some children receive professional help to deal with bad memories, while many individuals have to solve their problems on their own.
At this moment, families have limited information on how to mitigate conflicts between siblings and predict abuse in all its forms. Some options include creating family rules and open discussions with parents about current achievements, problems, concerns, and expectations. Awareness of family and social values facilitates the child’s understanding of appropriate behaviors and restricted norms and reduces the possibility of abusive activities. Cooperation with healthcare providers, psychologists, and other not-family-related individuals helps children evaluate their sibling relationships from a new perspective. Finally, the encouragement of kindness, empathy, support, and respect should be obligatory for any family in today’s society.
The theme of sibling violence is critical for discussions in UK research for many reasons. First, not many children know how to report abuse properly and admit that their siblings’ behaviors are not correct. Second, several forms of sibling violence distract and confuse young children. Finally, not many resources are available for the UK population to solve the problem of sibling abuse.
Bentley, H. et al. (2020) How safe are our children? Web.
Dantchev, S., Zammit, S. and Wolke, D. (2018) ‘Sibling bullying in middle childhood and psychotic disorder at 18 years: a prospective cohort study’, Psychological Medicine, 48(14), pp. 2321-2328.
Elliott, K., Fitz‐Gibbon, K. and Maher, J. (2020) ‘Sibling violence: understanding experiences, impacts, and the need for nuanced responses’, The British Journal of Sociology, 71(1), pp. 168-182.
Lancer, D. (2020) ‘Sibling bullying and abuse: The hidden epidemic’, Psychology Today. Web.
Morgan, K. (2021) ‘Does sibling rivalry ever end?’, BBC. Web.
NSPCC Learning (2021) Child protection plan and register statistics: UK 2016-2020. Web.
Toseeb, U., et al. (2020) ‘Precursors of sibling bullying in middle childhood: evidence from a UK-based longitudinal cohort study’, Child Abuse & Neglect, 108.
Yates, P. and Allardyce, S. (2021) Sibling sexual abuse: A knowledge and practice overview. Web.