Sibling Abuse: The Unspoken Threat

CC image courtesy of Flickr, stefanos papachristou.
CC image courtesy of Flickr, stefanos papachristou.

“The least recognized.”

“A well-kept secret.”

“Written off.”

These are but a few of the phrases used to describe violence perpetrated between siblings. This violence can take any and every form that one sees in parent-child abuse — including emotional, physical, and sexual. And as you can see from the phrases often used to describe it, it’s not something talked about much.

Sibling abuse is an unspoken threat — even (and sometimes especially) in homeschooling families.

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Facts About Sibling Abuse

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Despite the lack of attention it receives, sibling abuse is not only real but significant in both impact and scope. It is actually more common than parent-child abuse. According to the New York Times, “Nationwide, sibling violence is by far the most common form of family violence, occurring four to five times as frequently as spousal or parental child abuse.” It is estimated by Social Work Today that “the rate of sibling incest may be five times the rate of parent-child sexual abuse.” Psychology Today reports that other forms of sibling abuse are also common:

“As many as 74 percent push or shove their brothers and sisters according to Murray Straus, Ph.D., author of Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family. Dr. Straus also found that 42 percent go further-they kick, punch and bite their siblings. If we add verbal abuse, the number climbs to 85 percent who ‘engage in verbal aggression against siblings on a regular basis.'”

Despite being so common, sibling abuse is not frequently studied nor does it get discussed on a large scale in the same way that parent-child abuse does. It is often excused or minimized with lines like, “They’re just kids” or “That’s something kids do.” Even sibling sexual abuse gets brushed aside, as Social Work Today points out: “Sibling sexual abuse has been dismissed as ‘child’s play’ in many cases and/or as a normal aspect of sexual development.” Psychology Today adds that, “There are few studies of sibling abuse and compounding the limited data is the fact that abuse among siblings is a well-kept secret. It can remain ongoing and undetected for years. The victim is usually younger and not as strong and, thus helpless to fight back.”

This is a problem because sibling abuse can cause the exact same damage as parent-child abuse. Even seemingly less impactful forms of sibling abuse, such as sibling emotional abuse, can be devastating: The New York Times has noted that, “New research suggests that even when there are no physical scars, aggression between siblings can inflict psychological wounds as damaging as the anguish caused by bullies at school or on the playground.” A study in Pediatrics by Corinna Jenkins Tucker found that sibling abuse was “associated with worse mental health” and the effects “often continue into adulthood.”

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Sibling Abuse and Homeschooling

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Sibling abuse can and has happened in many homeschooling families. Despite the fact that many homeschooling parents specifically withdraw their children from public school to avoid bullying, bullying is not unique to any particular schooling system. Sibling bullying can happen between siblings and it is just as harmful as peer bullying.

Physical Abuse

Many homeschooling families also face unique sibling abuse challenges due to some of their conservative Christian ethics. Due to the popularity of child training manuals such as Michael and Debi Pearl’s To Train Up a Child and Reb Bradley’s Child Training Tips, many families have adopted harsh and punitive corporal punishment tactics. While it is worth investigating whether such tactics are helpful or harmful, it is important to note that these discipline tactics are often forced by the parents onto their children to implement on each other. Many homeschool alumni have spoken up about either being forced to spank their siblings or being spanked by their siblings. This inappropriate transfer of power creates emotional chasms between siblings, perpetuating not only the impact of physical abuse but also the emotional damage of having a sibling or peer punish another. It ironically re-creates the exact same physical and emotional consequences as  peer bullying in public schools.

Homeschool alum Libby Anne has explained how her family implemented sibling-to-sibling spanking and the results it had on her relationships with her siblings:

“I don’t know exactly when it happened, but at some point early on my mom handed me the rod. She told me I was to spank my younger siblings if they misbehaved or broke any rules and she was not in the room. The rule was that I could spank any sibling at least five years younger than me. This meant that at ten I could spank my five-year-old sibling, and all those younger than him. This breaks my heart because now, years and years later, my younger siblings tell me they saw me as a bully, that they resented me, that I ‘lorded it over them.’ … I spanked them because I had been told to and did not know any better. I did not realize that as I spanked I was building a wall of resentment between me and my younger siblings. I wish for all the world that I had been allowed to be a normal sister to my younger siblings. Instead I was put up as a second mother, an authority figure, a clone of my parents and their methods.”

Libby Anne’s experience is sadly not uncommon, nor is it an experience relegated to a “fringe” aspect of religious homeschooling. Allegations have surfaced regarding the highly influential Suarez family, owners of The Old Schoolhouse magazine, and how they too required peer-to-peer punishments. Then-13-year-old Megan wrote that, “I was left in charge and instructed to care for and discipline the younger children in the home – even told to strike them in the face when ‘disobedient’ or ‘disrespectful’ (they’d give me ‘slapping privileges’), which still haunts me today.”

It is understandable that requiring a child — a young person who is still emotionally, physically, and psychologically developing — to inflict pain on a peer can create all sorts of problems. Children are not equipped, nor should they be, to handle such responsibilities. Forcing them to do so can create a plethora of unintended consequences. For example, it can encourage further sibling abuse, including age-inappropriate sexual behaviors, as homeschool alum Michael explains:

“Even before I would find the internet, my younger siblings and I were acting out [our parents’ corporal punishment] rituals. As soon as we were old enough to be left alone, the roles shifted whenever my parents left. I would make up rules and they would disobey and I would hit them. Later, we undressed in front of each other and then all spanked each other in turn for being immodest. I don’t know how many times we did it.”

Furthermore, as children are still learning boundaries, requiring them to hit each other is physically dangerous. Sibling abuse can tragically result in the death of a sibling. Take the case of Korresha Crawford, for instance, as explained by Homeschooling’s Invisible Children:

“Korresha Crawford, age 11, was beaten to death by her 17-year-old sister Cylena, who also assaulted their 13-year-old brother Michael. Two other siblings, ages 11 and 9, were unharmed. The children’s father, Lawrence Crawford, was…a Pentecostal minister [and] homeschooled the children while his wife Sylvia worked two jobs. However, Cylena was frequently left as the primary caregiver for her siblings.”

Sexual Abuse

Sibling abuse is by no means limited to physical abuse. In fact, the recent and high profile case involving the Jackson family from North Carolina shows that sexual abuse by siblings does occur. The six Jackson brothers — all homeschooled — repeatedly raped and sexually abused their younger sister for a decade. The parents knew about the abuse and did nothing to stop it.

This appears to be a tragically frequent occurrence. One of the most common patterns we have observed through stories sent to Homeschoolers Anonymous are experiences of incest. These experiences can be perpetrated by a brother against his sisters, as in the case of the Jackson brothers. Homeschool alum Christina has a similar story:

“Growing up, my mother told us nothing about sex. Nothing. As girls, she didn’t educate us about having your period, bras, body changes, nothing. I was introduced to sex when my brother molested me on Christmas day when I was eight years old. He was only eleven at the time and I write this with his permission… I was too scared to tell anyone what happened on Christmas, so I kept quiet for four months. In the meantime my brother had molested my little sisters as well, and I knew about it. I told my brother not to hurt my sisters anymore, so when it didn’t stop I finally got up the courage to tell my older sister.”

Another alum, Grace, similarly was abused by her brother. That brother also assaulted her younger, disabled sister:

“My brother would come into my room at night, and try to touch me, when I was sleeping. He also tried to place mirrors in strategic places so he could watch while I changed my clothes, or took a bath, or went to the bathroom. I became accustomed to having to close curtains, check everywhere for mirrors, and wedge a towel under the door for fear of being seen. When I first told my mother, she didn’t believe me. She said I was making it up… I’ll tell you one thing, if you want to kill your child from the inside out, tell them you don’t believe them when they say they are being sexually abused…   When he was 19 years old, he sexually assaulted my disabled sister, who had to go to the hospital because of it.”

While sibling sexual abuse is more commonly perpetrated by a brother against a sister, it must be noted that siblings of the same gender can also abuse each other. Homeschool alum Selena has shared her story about being the target of female-on-female sibling sexual abuse:

“I was the youngest in our household. Under Gothard’s strict sense of hierarchy, and because of my efforts to stave off some abuse and their interpretation as ‘rebellious’, my family readily interpreted these teachings to mean that I was the very bottom of the totem pole. As such, when I was about 7 or 8, my two older sisters began to abuse me as well. The middle sibling was hesitant, sometimes going along in fear with the oldest, and other times secretly trying to protect me. … The oldest of us tried to stay out of the house a lot, but when she was home, she did a lot of her own abusing. I think her way of coping was to feel powerful by abusing those she saw as being beneath her, while claiming to be their best friend to keep them close.”

As is the case with parent-child abuse, what homeschooling communities desperately need to do is take a sober look at what’s going on and not minimize. Abuse can and does occur within homeschooling families and we need to face the facts, not make excuses for them. This is especially important in cases of sibling abuse, since those cases are more prone to being swept under the rug or ignored.

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Warning Signs of Sibling Abuse

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The warning signs of sibling abuse can be similar to or the same as the warning signs of child abuse in general. Acquaint yourself with those signs here. Sibling abuse also has some unique warning signs, including (but not limited to) the ones listed here:

If a sibling is being abused

  • Child avoids interactions with sibling(s)
  • Child fears being left alone with sibling(s)
  • Child doesn’t want to be at or go home
  • Child acts out abuse in play
  • Child has unexplained bruises, scrapes, or other injuries after hanging out with sibling(s)
  • Child is overly compliant or withdrawn when interacting with sibling(s)
  • Child’s relationship with sibling(s) is entirely negative

If a sibling is an abuser

  • Child always assumes the role of an aggressor during playtime with sibling(s)
  • Child seeks inappropriate sexual contact with sibling(s)
  • Child demonstrates age-inappropriate sexual awareness and/or curiosity
  • Child takes younger children or siblings to “secret” places or plays “special” games with them
  • Child displays increasingly rough behavior during playtime
  • Child becomes violent towards pets or toys
  • Child frequently seeks out the company of younger children or siblings rather than peers
  • Child intentionally ignores boundaries of other children or siblings, even when other children or siblings express dismay or resist
  • Child views sexual images of other children on the Internet (or other places)
  • Child “rewards” other children or siblings with attention or prizes in exchange for sexual contact

These are not all the potential warning sings of sibling abuse. For more information about detecting abuse, see the resources listed at the end of this article.

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Responding to Sibling Abuse as a Parent or Caretaker

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As the parent or caretaker of a either a child who has been abused by a sibling or a child who has abused a sibling (or both), it is vital that you immediately take every step possible to protect the abused child and seek help for the abusive one.

First, protect the abused child.

Take whatever immediate steps you need to ensure that the abused child is protected from future emotional, physical, and sexual injury. If this requires relocating the abusing sibling temporarily until he or she can learn to behave differently, or whatever you need to do, make sure the abused child is safe.

Second, if the abuse is a criminal action, report it.

Learn how to report abuse here. This can be a difficult step as a parent. Having to report your own child for abusing another child is heartbreaking. But it is absolutely necessary for the safety of other children as well as the future wellbeing of the abusive child. Stop It Now! has helpful advice for parents needing to report their own children for abuse.

Third, get a professional counselor involved.

If you know or suspect that a child of yours is being abused by a sibling, make an intervention. Contact a professional who specializes in whatever form of abuse is occurring. Especially in the case of sexual abuse, children need immediate help both to recover from it (as a victim) and get help to stop (as a perpetrator). Sibling abuse is not “just a phase” or something people “grow out of.” Sibling abuse needs to be taken seriously and requires professional involvement.

Fourth, consider where the child may have learned the problematic behavior.

Especially in the case of sibling sexual abuse, it is important to ask if the child learned the sexually abusive behavior from someone else — an older child, relative, or parent. In many instances of sibling sexual abuse shared with Homeschoolers Anonymous, the perpetrators were themselves victims of abuse.

Fifth, make a safety plan.

It is important to ensure that other children and siblings are safe from an abusive child. Thus you need to make a safety plan for your family that is clearly communicated to everyone, including the abusive child. Stop It Now! has advice for such safety plans, which you can view here. An excerpt follows:

“While you’re setting up therapy, safety planning is an equally important priority.  It is very important that your son’s opportunities to further sexually harm another be limited.  He needs to take responsibility in planning with you and his father guidelines such as not being alone with any younger peers at any time. He should always be in eyesight of other adults when children are present, and should not be allowed to be in a room alone with a child with the door closed.”

Sixth, communicate with other parents.

As heartbreaking, stressful, and embarrassing as it is, if you know your child has abused other children or siblings, you need to contact any and every family that your child could possibly have also hurt. Let them know what is going on. Be transparent and open. Inform them of the exact steps you are taking to remedy the situation. Tell them about your safety plan. Encourage them to adopt the same safety plan around your child. Have them talk to their children and make sure they are safe.

Be proactive in protecting other children — by doing so, you are also helping the abusive child.

Seventh, do research.

You don’t have to go through the pain of sibling abuse alone. Go to the library or get online and research how you can help your family and other families recover from sibling abuse — as well as prevent further abuse.

Eighth, consider how you can make your family healthier.

Cases of physical violence between children often occur when children feel unable to express themselves. If your child has been acting out violently, talk to that child and figure out how to encourage the child to express anger and frustration in healthier ways. Don’t just lash out and model the same inappropriate behavior. Punishing children for abuse with other forms of abuse is counter-productive. The same goes for punishments involving humiliation. Acknowledge the incident (never ignore sibling abuse!), remain calm, and approach your children as rational human beings who can and must understand why abuse is not appropriate.

Other ideas for making your family healthier include:

  • Intervene in sibling disputes way before they escalate into potentially abusive situations.
  • Ease up on the responsibilities forced onto older siblings. Certain homeschooling subcultures actively promote giving older siblings an excessive amount of responsibility. However, this is counter-productive and damaging, as too much responsibility for, or power over, a younger child can create resentment and directly foster sibling abuse.
  • Set time aside each day to talk to each of your children individually so that if they have problems with other siblings they can feel safe telling you.
  • Teach your children about sexuality, good touch versus bad touch, and why it’s essential that they respect other children’s bodies and why consent is important.
  • Most importantly, always trust a child who comes to you with a story about abuse. The chance of such a story being false is extremely low.

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For more information about sibling abuse, see the following resources:

New York Times, “When the Bully Is a Sibling”

Out of the FOG, “Children Who Hurt Other Siblings”

Pandora’s Project, “Sibling Sexual Abuse and IncestDuring Childhood”

Psychology Today, “The Dark Side of Siblings”

SASIAN (Sibling Abuse Survivors’ Information & Advocacy Network) 

Social Work Today, “Sibling Sexual Abuse—Uncovering the Secret”

Stop It Now!, “Signs That a Child or Teen May Be At-Risk to Harm Another Child”

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