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Sibling Abuse - It's not just rivalry

In the backyard and the playroom, after school before the parents are home, in shared bedrooms ... a secret may be hiding. A secret that lives in many families and years later, leaves a deep scar. It is present in all communities – urban or rural, affluent or impoverished, large or small – and it crosses all racial, gender and cultural lines. It's a not-so-little secret that wants to stay hidden.

Sibling abuse. The emotional, physical and sexual abuse of one sibling by another. Most people have never even heard the term "sibling abuse" because it is absent in public discourse. People aren't aware that behavior considered normal sibling rivalry may actually be sibling abuse – or cross the line into it.

Why aren't we talking about it? Because fighting, taunting and name-calling between siblings is normalized – "kids will be kids", "all siblings fight". Or it is not revealed because the victims are shamed or threatened into silence. Often, children who do speak up are not believed, or they are punished for lying and then abused again by their sibling for telling. And the victims have no escape; the abusers are usually older, often in charge, with 24-hour access to their victim.

How common is it? As a social issue, sibling abuse has received little attention from Canadian researchers. International research is scant but emerging, reporting more emotional, physical and sexual abuse between siblings than any other inter-family relationship. Up to 75% of family violence is between siblings; 53% of children aged 3 to 17 years have committed acts of severe violence toward their brothers and/or sisters; a girl is between 5 and 20 times more likely to be sexually assaulted by her brother than anyone.

The silencing of this issue is embedded in a culture which still regards 'family' as sacred, private. And while great progress has been made in opening the closed family doors behind which other forms of abuse were once hidden, that which hides abuse between siblings remains intact. In the silence, children and youth continue to be harmed.

It would be unthinkable to allow or ignore the kind of fighting and conflict that occurs between siblings if they were adults, whether they were partners, spouses or strangers; between children outside of the family; or from parents or guardians toward their children. But somehow, between children in the same family, it's accepted; we don't even really notice it. But the victims do. And they never forget it. Because the harm endures.

For the survivors, the abuse by their brother or sister becomes a defining but often unspoken factor that haunts them throughout their lives. The long-term mental health effects are disturbing: children abused by a sibling are twice as likely to experience depression, anxiety, and self-harm by the time they reach the age of 18. In addition, lack of self-worth, substance abuse, difficulty in relationships, the continuation of the cycle of abuse ... all these are common issues for adults who were abused by a sibling.

Parents, teachers, mental health professionals, family and friends need to know that there are ways that they can intervene and change the outcome of the lives of children – and the adults they will become. Awareness is just the beginning.

It's time to talk about sibling abuse. Because home isn't always so sweet.

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