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- Theories about Sibling Abuse
- Types of Sibling Abuse
- Characteristics of Sibling Abuse
- Serial Abuse of Siblings
- Consequences of Sibling Abuse
Sibling abuse is one of the more controversial topics in the area of domestic violence. Society places a great value upon sibling relationships, as exemplified by the use of such common terms as ‘‘brotherly/sisterly love’’ to indicate strong attachment, love, and caring. However, several studies indicate that incidences of sibling abuse occur in more than 60 percent of families (Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz 1980). This would make it the most common form of domestic violence. It is also one of the areas needing more research.
Many people do not want to talk about sibling abuse. Contemporary society tends to minimize it. There are a variety of reasons for this, including the fact that parents tend not to view physical aggression by one sibling toward another as abuse. Many parents and family members find excuses for such abuse. They use statements such as: ‘‘Don’t worry about it, it’s just normal sibling rivalry,’’ ‘‘They were just playing doctor,’’ ‘‘He really didn’t mean to hurt his sister/brother. He loves her/him,’’ and ‘‘They will grow out of it’’ (Wallace 2005).
Prior to discussing sibling abuse, several key concepts need to be defined. Domestic violence is any act or omission by persons who are cohabiting that results in serious injury to other members of the family/household. Clearly, violence against a sibling falls within this definition. For purposes of this research paper, sibling abuse is defined as any form of physical, mental, or sexual abuse inflicted by one child in a family unit on another. This definition covers various types of acts that will be discussed later. Additionally in this age of blended families and second marriages, this definition does not require the siblings to be related by blood. The definition also uses the term child. In this case, a child is a person under the age of eighteen. While there are reported instances of one sibling being abused by another when the victim is over eighteen, this is so seldom that it is not included in this discussion. It is also clear by the definition that sibling abuse does not include abuse by an adult member of the family against a child. However, there is a situation that involves siblings and adults that is so important that it will be briefly mentioned later in this research paper. That situation deals with what is known as serial abuse of siblings (Alexander 1990).
Theories about Sibling Abuse
Researchers cannot accept any one theory or theories regarding the cause or dynamics of sibling abuse; however, there are several theories that have received some support for their explanations of the cause of this type of abuse (Wallace 2005). These theories include the feminist theory, the conflict theory, and the social learning theory.
The feminist theory holds that violence and abuse are methods used by some men to control their female partners. It also argues that important social institutions tolerate the use of physical violence by men against women. These concepts create and encourage a social environment for spousal abuse and other forms of domestic violence, including sibling abuse. Relative power and its abuse are important concepts in domestic violence as well as sibling abuse.
The conflict theory holds that when different interests produce conflict, aggression and violence are techniques that individuals may use to resolve these situations, especially when other alternatives fail. Conflict among siblings may be based upon jealous rivalry, especially when they are competing for parental attention and affection.
The social learning theory provides another explanation of sibling abuse. This theory is based upon the assumption that behavior is learned through imitation and reinforcement. Aggression is adopted as a response to certain situations because there are rewards instead of punishments resulting from this form of activity. If parents use aggression or physical punishment, they are providing a model for their children to imitate in their relations with each other, since a parent may be a desired role model for the perpetrator of sibling abuse.
Types of Sibling Abuse
There are different forms of sibling abuse. Physical abuse may include any actions causing injury, including striking, kicking, punching, and use of instruments such as sticks or other items. Wiehe, one of the leading authorities in this area, includes prolonged tickling as a form of abuse practiced by siblings (1997). Emotional abuse includes name calling, ridicule, degradation, increasing an existing fear, destroying a prized possession, and torturing a pet. Sexual abuse of a sibling includes sexual exploitation or sexual activities with a child under circumstances that indicate that the child’s health or welfare is harmed or threatened. Some authorities argue that some acts may be simple curiosity, while others are clearly sexual abuse.
Characteristics of Sibling Abuse
There has been limited study in the area of sibling abuse. What researchers do know comes from several clinical studies. Sibling abuse occurs at a higher rate among children in families where child abuse and spousal abuse are also present. Of those families with spousal abuse or child abuse, sibling abuse is higher in families with child abuse. Although boys are more likely to engage in sibling abuse, both sexes can be perpetrators of this form of domestic violence. Sibling abuse, like other forms of domestic violence, crosses all racial and socioeconomic lines. Finally, as the siblings grow older, the abuse decreases.
Serial Abuse of Siblings
What happens when one sibling is abused and removed from the home and another sibling is left in the home where the abuse occurred? Should all children in a home where sibling abuse occurs be removed? If so, how do the authorities justify such actions? Serial abuse of siblings occurs when a perpetrator first abuses one child and then abuses another sibling. This type of abuse may include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or a combination of various types of abuse. The most publicized cases involve an older female sibling who is sexually abused and runs away without disclosing the abuse but returns to confront the abuser when her younger sister is reaching the age at which she was first abused. There have been several television documentaries dealing with this form of sibling abuse.
The perpetrator may abuse one sibling and immediately abuse the other sibling, or he or she may wait months or even years before abusing the second sibling. Several authorities have studied serial abuse and concluded that there are significant risks to the second sibling if left in the home of the abuser (Alexander 1990).
Consequences of Sibling Abuse
The consequences of sibling abuse include both immediate and long-term effects. Sibling abuse appears to result in negative relationships with peers in preschool and elementary school. It also may affect and influence the use of violence by the victim in adulthood. The perpetrator socializes the victim to the use of violence. Thus, the victim may accept violence as a method of dealing with others in certain situations as an adult. The victim may become dependent, may not be able to leave future abusive situations, or may become a perpetrator of abuse himself.
Whenever a child is placed at risk by a parent or caretaker, the law gives the government the right to take actions to protect that child from further injury or harm (Tower 1996). In the case of domestic violence, children may be removed from their homes by local or state agencies. If a parent or caretaker fails to protect one child from abuse by a sibling, the abused child may be removed from the home or environment that endangers him or her. In the case of abuse of one sibling by a parent or caretaker, the law is clear that the other sibling(s) may also be removed to protect them. Courts have held that a number of jurisdictions support the proposition that based upon a parent’s abusive behavior, courts have the power to remove siblings from the home because other siblings are in danger of abuse and should be removed for their own safety.
What becomes more controversial is the termination of parental rights based upon the abuse of a sibling by a parent or caretaker. Contemporary American society places great importance on the rights of parents to raise their children without interference. Many states authorize the removal of children in abusive situations but require that the courts establish a reunification plan to reunite the parents and the child. Many states have adopted a two-step process: First, the courts must find a specific statutory ground or basis for termination of the parent–child relationship, and second, the court must find that such action is in the best interests of the child.
There are a number of grounds or reasons for termination of the parent–child relationship. These include the parent’s failure to improve or take the necessary steps for the sibling’s safe return. This failure to improve may include failure to complete mandated counseling or a number of other court requirements. If there is a long-standing pattern of abandonment or extreme parental disinterest for the abused child and/or the abusive sibling, the courts may find this sufficient for the termination of parental rights. The parent may be suffering from long-term incapacity that renders him or her incapable of caring for the abused child, the abusive sibling, or another sibling or siblings. This type of mental illness may be sufficient grounds to terminate parental rights. Prior abuse with unsuccessful agency attempts to rehabilitate the parent may also be a reason. Finally, another reason may be that the original abuse of one of the siblings was so extreme that returning the victim or his or her sibling to the home presents an unacceptable risk.
Sibling abuse is one of the more controversial areas of domestic violence. It is also one of the more common forms of domestic violence. Despite this commonality, there is very little research being conducted into the dynamics of sibling abuse. Additionally, parents tend to minimize such conduct when they become aware of it. While no one theory can explain sibling abuse, various authorities have embraced the explanations offered by feminist theory, conflict theory, and social learning theory as the most popular frameworks in this area of domestic violence. Serial abuse of siblings involves the perpetrator abusing one sibling and then another. Sibling abuse, like all forms of domestic violence, has immediate and long-term consequences to its victims. There are a number of interventions in cases of sibling abuse, including removal of the sibling(s) from the home and even, in extreme cases, termination of the parent–child relationship.
- Alexander, Randell. ‘‘Serial Abuse in Children Who Are Shaken.’’ American Journal of Disabled Children 144 (January 1990): 58.
- Straus, Murray, Richard Gelles, and Suzanne Steinmetz. Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family. New York: Doubleday, 1980.
- Tower, Cynthia. Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect, 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1996.
- Wallace, Harvey. Family Violence: Legal, Medical, and Social Perspectives, 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2005.
- Wiehe, Vernon R. Sibling Abuse: Hidden Physical, Emotional, and Sexual Trauma, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997.
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