In the few years before I went to university, I spent a lot of time searching symptoms. Was I depressed? Anxious? What disorder, I desperately wanted to know, was at the root of my strange emotional outbursts; my unreasonable lack of interpersonal trust; the constant and overwhelming feeling of disorientation? Was I just destined to be unhappy? The answer, in hindsight, was laughably obvious – but emotional abuse is a powerful thing, and some things dominate your life so thoroughly that they constitute the fabric of your normality. I hated my first term away from home; it was awful and confusing, and what were you supposed to do with all this autonomy, all the time? How was I supposed to be a person without my sister or her shadow?
When I tell people now that my sister is abusive, it’s still difficult to get them to take it seriously, and if I’m honest I don’t really blame them. Although several studies have suggested that emotional abuse between siblings is one of the most common forms of child abuse, it’s also one of the least recognised. The statistics for other forms of sibling abuse, such as physical and sexual, are similarly troubling: for example, paediatrician Gail Ryan has noted that while child protection has focused on adult-child sexual relationships, “more than 40% of all juvenile-perpetrated child sexual abuse is perpetrated in sibling relationships.”
“When the perpetrator is a child, it’s often easy to dismiss even the possibility that they are capable of abuse”
The reasons for this lack of recognition are many and complex. Abuse in all its forms is already widely under-reported, particularly when the victims are children. When the perpetrator is also a child, it’s often easy to dismiss even the possibility that they are capable of abuse. Children bullying each other is something we might understand, but a sibling is a different kind of peer from a classmate. Whilst the narrative of ‘sibling rivalry’ is commonplace and understood as a healthy part of child development, a focus on the normality of rivalry displaces the possibility that this aggression can become a relationship characterised by unequal power distribution, humiliation, and/or control: abuse.
Even when a relationship is recognised as negative, it can be difficult for adults to take the actions of children seriously enough to understand them as abusive. Kids will be kids, children can be cruel, and teenagers are supposed to be a nightmare – so think nothing of it. For me, it’s still difficult to imagine a young child being capable of what I’ve later realised has had the effect of intense and unceasing emotional manipulation. Although effect, not intent, defines abusive behaviour, the defensive assertion that they ‘didn’t really mean it’ sticks more strongly to children who are still themselves developing.
The role of parents and/or other caregivers in sibling abuse is also key. Research has shown that other forms of abuse in the household, such as parental abuse or spousal abuse, are a significant risk factor for sibling abuse – children might ‘act out’ the abuse they witness or experience on their siblings. However, this is not always the case: sibling abuse can happen without other household abuse, in which case there are also several other risk factors. While more work needs to be done, existing studies suggest that sibling abuse is more likely when parents are not around much at home; when they are emotionally distant or are not very involved in their children’s lives; when they have not taught their children how to communicate or handle conflict in a healthy way from early on; and when they are in denial that there is a problem, or accept it as normal behaviour and just part of family life.
“More than 40% of all juvenile-perpetrated child sexual abuse is perpetrated in sibling relationships”
I recognise all of these characteristics in my own family, although I don’t hold most of them against my parents. They worked a lot and we were brought up largely by our grandparents, who don’t speak English. We spent a lot of long school holidays either alone together or as good as. When we were a lot younger I sometimes used to fight back, although at two years younger I could hardly stand my verbal or intellectual ground, so I tried to use my fists. My parents speak English, but they don’t speak the kind of English children use to taunt or insult each other. They did, however, understand a punch. I was reprimanded each time and told that I must be disciplined now because fighting as an adult can make you a criminal. This makes sense, of course, but I didn’t know then how to explain that physical force was the only power I had left in a relationship that was, like all abuse, about control and domination.
It’s hard to describe just how much my sister has dominated my family life – including, despite my best efforts, my relationship with my parents, which is otherwise fairly good. Like most forms of domestic abuse, it stays in the family, in the house, and in places where the abuser is confident others won’t notice or care: sibling abuse stays under the auspices of the parents. It’s unfortunate, then, that parents are often dismissive of the severity of sibling abuse, even when conflict is abundantly evident. As a parent, it’s probably not a situation in which you ever expect or would want to find yourself. It’s very difficult, I imagine, to begin to accept how reprehensibly one of your children has behaved towards another, and what work might have to go into rectifying that.
“It’s hard to describe just how much my sister has dominated my family life”
When I’ve tried over the past few years to talk to my parents about my sister, I’ve been met with a variety of interesting responses: you’re close-minded and need to give people a second chance; you’re jealous of her current success; you’re immature for being so hung up on the past. It’s good to be able to deal with annoying colleagues in the workplace. You’re naïve; all your friends probably behave like her at home. Thank you for always trying to keep peace in the family. I’m glad you’ve not really been affected by it. There’s nothing to be done, just play happy families, and hide your valuable items.
“I’ve been met with a variety of interesting responses: you’re naïve; all your friends probably behave like her at home”
Mary Stathopoulos, a senior researcher at the Australian Institute of Family Studies says: “A negative response to a disclosure, such as being disbelieved, may exacerbate feelings of trauma, particularly if the victim is still living in close proximity with the abusive sibling.” After three years of almost obsessive rumination, I’ve come to terms with what kind of person my sister is. The question that sticks in my mind now, however unfair it may be, is why my parents keep choosing the ease and convenience of passivity over me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. As I write, and as I imagine you reading this, I’m afraid you don’t believe me. I want to spill out paragraphs of lurid details, trying to convince you, trying to justify myself. I’m not going to do that – not least because I have a word limit. I will tell you the only thing my first counsellor said that really struck me: “This sounds like intimate partner abuse.” Growing up has been a slow story of getting out. But if you leave with one thing, let it be this: Sibling abuse isn’t ‘like’ domestic violence. It is a form of domestic violence, with serious lifelong effects like any other domestic violence, and its victims need to be recognised – as do its perpetrators.
I can’t pretend I have any more good advice to offer. After graduating, I’ve moved back home, where my sister will also live next year; the past two months have been the longest I’ve spent here since I left in October 2015. I respond to her messages, and when we’re both home we spend time together and I talk and laugh because I can’t justify to her or the rest of my family not doing so. I will play happy families and hide my valuable items, and I can almost feel the person I became outside shedding like newly dead skin, so maybe this is also a story about intractability, frustration, and getting stuck. In the end, it’s probably fitting that writing about an issue as overlooked as sibling abuse becomes less a call to action than a shout into the dark.
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One thought on “When I tell you my sister is abusive”
I hear you. As a child my cousin sexually assaulted me and to this day (I’m 22), even though my auntie found out, nothing was done. I smile around him and we all laugh together. But it will always be there, my life has been impacted greatly by it but it will never be fully acknowledged by my family. I think for that’s harder to understand than the incidences. So thank you for writing this article, I definitely feel like I’m shouting in the dark a lot.