Counselors play a fundamental role in the well-being of children and adolescents, including serving as advocates against abuse. We are trained to assess and intervene if clients are experiencing sexual, physical or emotional abuse or neglect. Children are a particularly vulnerable population given their size, power status and general lack of knowledge about how to protect and defend themselves against such threats.
Unfortunately, the abuse of children by adults continues in today’s society, even though it is illegal. Yet abuse of children by adults may not be as prevalent as other forms of abuse that children experience. For instance, they might suffer physical or emotional abuse from other children or peers, which is commonly referred to as bullying.
A less frequently explored form of peer-to-peer violence is sibling abuse. In the past, sibling abuse, which was often mislabeled as “sibling rivalry,” was considered to be a normal rite of passage that most children experienced. Today, many researchers posit that sibling abuse may be more prevalent than other types of family violence.
In 2007, Mark S. Kiselica and Mandy Morrill-Richards reported in the Journal of Counseling & Development that up to 80 percent of children may experience some form of sibling maltreatment. In 2010, Deeanna Button and Roberta Gealt reported in the Journal of Family Violence that 3 to 6 percent of children experience severe physical abuse (which may include the use of weapons) by a sibling. In addition to potentially being the most prevalent form of abuse for children, sibling abuse is often the least reported and least researched form of family violence.
As a former school counselor and elementary teacher, I was very surprised when I first learned about the possible high rates of children experiencing maltreatment by a sibling. I was researching the topic of teen dating violence for my dissertation, and one of the articles mentioned the possibility that teenagers who enter into violent dating relationships might have experienced violence with a sibling as a child. I knew there was a link between child abuse and dating violence, but I had never considered that sibling violence might also be a precursor. I became very curious about sibling abuse and ultimately changed the focus of my dissertation to examine school counselors’ attitudes and beliefs about sibling abuse.
Initially, I wondered if other counselors had already learned about sibling abuse; perhaps this was something I had simply missed during my training on child abuse and neglect. However, as I examined the literature on sibling abuse, I found that only one article had been published in the counseling literature on sibling maltreatment (the article by Kiselica and Morrill-Richards). My dissertation findings confirmed that school counselors were often unaware of sibling abuse and received little to no training on the subject, meaning that it might continue to go unaddressed. It seemed imperative to me that our field needed to start a dialogue and research around the topic of sibling abuse, especially as I continued to learn about the negative psychological ramifications associated with it.
Consequences and complications
Through my review of the literature, I discovered that children who suffer from sibling abuse experience myriad negative consequences over time. Many of these harmful side effects are similar to those faced by survivors of child abuse.
Survivors of sibling abuse have reported problems with depression, drugs and alcohol, sexual risk behaviors, low self-esteem, eating disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder and an increased risk of continuing the cycle of violence into their teenage years and adult lives. Counselors work diligently to prevent clients from experiencing adverse childhood experiences, but we may not be addressing sibling abuse because of a lack of awareness about this issue or a lack of reporting by clients and family members. This could result in the possibility of clients being harmed, both in the short and long term.
Further complicating this problem is the fact that there are currently no federal laws, and few state laws, to protect children and adolescents from abuse by a sibling, other than in cases of sexual abuse. So, even when counselors determine that sibling abuse might be occurring, it can be difficult to protect children from this form of abuse.
Counselors have shared that when they call child protective services (CPS) to report sibling abuse, they are typically instructed to call the police. When they call the police, they are generally told that this is a “family matter” and the counselor should contact the parents. One problem with this scenario is that sibling abuse occurs at higher rates within families in which domestic violence or child abuse is present. So, working with the child’s parents or guardians may not always be beneficial because of the presence of intrafamilial violence.
There is often a cultural silence that exists with all forms of intrafamilial violence, including sibling abuse, wherein children are told to keep family matters private. When family violence occurs, there are often threats made not to report it to anyone. So even children who might recognize that they are being abused by a sibling may not seek help because of the fear of breaking family bonds or the threat of retribution. In addition, many people normalize violence between siblings, excusing it as sibling rivalry without fully understanding the damage that can be caused both short and long term. Children may seek help from their parents, only to be told that what they are experiencing is normal or to “toughen up” or “fight back.”
Counselors can take several precautions to ensure that they are advocating for all clients when it comes to sibling abuse. First, counselors who are unfamiliar with this phenomenon should educate themselves about the topic. Sibling abuse can occur across the same domains as child abuse, including sexual, physical and emotional. Sexual abuse of a sibling is often referred to as incest and may include touching, fondling, indecent exposure, attempted penetration, intercourse, rape or sodomy. Physical abuse of a sibling might include slapping, hitting, biting, kicking or causing injury with a weapon.
Sexual and physical abuse may be the easier forms of sibling abuse to detect and report because of the physical evidence and a clear line being crossed. However, verbal or emotional abuse can occur along with or independent of sexual or physical sibling abuse. This psychological maltreatment might include name-calling, ridicule, threatening, blackmail or degradation. Abuse between siblings might also include property or pet abuse and relational aggression.
Similar to the definition of bullying, sibling abuse is viewed as a unilateral relationship in which one child uses his or her power to control and harm the other. With sibling abuse, however, the perpetrator has greater access to his or her victim. This close proximity can lead to additional layers of emotional abuse, such as damaging a sibling’s property or torturing or killing a pet.
Once counselors have more insight into sibling abuse, they can begin to integrate this knowledge into their work with clients. Elysia Clemens, of the University of Northern Colorado, and I adapted a five-step model to assess and intervene with sibling abuse. Heather A. Johnstone and John F. Marcinak developed the original model to be used in the nursing field when there was a suspicion of sibling abuse. Although our adapted model was specifically designed for implementation by school counselors, I have adapted it here to be useful to all counselors.
Our adapted model consists of counselors working with clients through five phases to assess, conceptualize, plan, intervene and evaluate for sibling aggression. Detailed information about each of the five steps can be retrieved from an article we wrote for the Professional School Counseling journal in 2014. That article includes a decision-making tree to help school counselors determine when to stop and report sibling abuse versus when to continue working with the client and family through each of the model’s five phases.
Assess for sibling abuse
In the first phase of this model, the counselor should assess for sibling abuse if there are red flags similar to those we might observe with child abuse (e.g., unexplained bruises, the child seems fearful of his or her sibling, etc.). This can be done by asking a series of questions: Is the client being hurt by his or her brother or sister? What kind of aggression is the child experiencing? How often is this occurring? Is the child afraid to be left alone with his or her sibling? Has the child reported this to anyone in the family? If so, what happened?
Remember that although it may be easier to identify and document physical or sexual violence or abuse, counselors will also want to inquire about emotional or verbal abuse. It is also important to note that the term sibling might pertain to a variety of people living in the home, including biological siblings, half brothers or sisters, stepsiblings, adoptive siblings and foster siblings. In some cases, there may also be what is described as a “fictive” sibling — a child living in the home who is not related but who assumes the role of a brother or sister.
It is important during the assessment phase for counselors to determine whether the sibling aggression would be defined as violence or abuse. If it is determined that the aggression is bilateral, there may need to be intervention on multiple levels within the family. The family may need some psychoeducation about sibling violence, including ways to intervene more effectively and provide proper supervision for all siblings.
If it is clear that there is a perpetrator and a victim of sibling abuse, then it is important to first assess how best to protect the client being victimized. Options may include reporting the case immediately to CPS, calling law enforcement or consulting with the client’s parents or guardians to determine whether they are willing to work to put a stop to the sibling abuse. Counselors will need to make this decision on a case-by-case basis. In our model, we emphasize the importance of working with the parents or guardians if at all possible. However, if the counselor assesses that the parents or guardians seem unwilling or unable to protect their child or may also be involved in intrafamilial abuse, then reporting to CPS or law enforcement would be the best decision.
Conceptualize with clients
Assuming that the parents are willing and able to work with the counselor to protect their child, the counselor will move on to the second phase, which involves helping the client and family conceptualize what type of sibling abuse is occurring. During this time, it is important to provide the family with some psychoeducation about sibling aggression. Helping the client and family understand the difference between sibling abuse and sibling rivalry is a key piece of this conceptualization.
The counselor will also want to differentiate between mild and severe sibling aggression. In the book Sibling Aggression: Assessment and Treatment, Jonathan Caspi explains sibling aggression on a continuum from sibling conflict to sibling abuse. Conflict or competition between siblings (e.g., fighting over who gets to pick the movie you watch or who has the best report card) would be considered mild sibling aggression, whereas severe sibling aggression would include violence and abuse. Examples include the aforementioned forms such as sexual, emotional and physical abuse. Counselors can also help parents conceptualize when and where the abuse is occurring and discuss ways in which providing better supervision and interventions would be beneficial.
Another key component to the conceptualization phase is to help the family gather more information about the goals and misbehavior of the sibling perpetrator. It is important to put mental health services in place for both the victim and the perpetrator of sibling abuse. The sibling perpetrator may have also experienced abuse or neglect of some kind, or the child may have some underlying mental health issues that need to be addressed.
In addition, other siblings in the family may have witnessed the abuse without experiencing it firsthand. It is important to work with the parents or guardians to ensure that these siblings who were not targeted also receive counseling services if necessary. The counselor can help the client and the family to conceptualize each of their roles in promoting better and healthier sibling interactions.
Plan for safety
Initially, parents or guardians may be unaware that sibling abuse is occurring in their home. One of their children might have complained about a sibling’s behavior, but the parents or guardians may not have realized the magnitude of the situation or didn’t possess the awareness that it went beyond normal sibling rivalry. During the conceptualization phase, the counselor works with the client and family to increase this awareness. With this knowledge, the family can start putting a safety plan in place.
It is important for counselors to work with their child clients to create plans that ensure they are safe and being properly supervised in the home. As counselors, we may be working with multiple family members throughout this process. Our work may include counseling the sibling victim, sibling perpetrator and nontargeted siblings, as well as consulting with the parents or guardians.
It is also critical for all members of the family to have input on the safety plan and for the counselor to ensure that they understand their role in the plan. If it is determined that the sibling abuse is occurring during a certain time of day or in a particular place, the counselor will want to address this in the plan. For instance, if the sibling perpetrator shares a room with the victim, the counselor should explore with the family how this might be escalating the problem and creating an unsafe and unsupervised environment. Part of the safety plan might include setting aside a space in the house where the sibling perpetrator is not allowed to go, thus ensuring that the victim always has a “safe zone.” In addition, if weapons such as belts, knives or other objects have been used to inflict sibling abuse, then removing or restricting access to these objects is another element to address in the safety plan.
Once the family is able to conceptualize the sibling abuse that has been occurring and has a safety plan in place, the counselor can work with the family to implement additional interventions. Sometimes, simply providing a greater level of awareness of the sibling abuse and establishing safety boundaries within the home might put an end to the abuse, making these additional interventions unnecessary. However, this will more likely be the case if no other forms of family violence are present and if the sibling abuse that occurred was milder in nature.
In instances in which intrafamilial violence may exist or the sibling abuse is more severe, it is important for the counselor to address the long-term impact of sibling abuse on the child victim, the sibling perpetrator, the nontargeted siblings and the family. Counselors can look at interventions that might help young children or adolescents break the cycle of abuse. There are no evidence-based programs for sibling abuse at this time. However, one way for counselors to help these clients is to explore evidence-based programs that have proved effective in working with children and abuse, including trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy, game-based cognitive behavior group therapy and play therapy.
In addition, counselors may want to recommend some parenting programs aimed at preventing child abuse and neglect, such as the Incredible Years parents training program, SafeCare and Project 12-Ways.
Evaluate if the plan is working
A key component of the evaluation process is for counselors to consult and collaborate with other professionals. As previously mentioned, the five-step plan discussed in this article was originally designed for school counselors. One piece of advice we give to school counselors is to work as part of an interdisciplinary team within the school setting to help sibling victims and perpetrators. This may include working with school administrators, teachers, nurses, social workers or psychologists. In addition, school counselors can seek permission from the parents or guardians to consult with outside counselors who may be providing services to their students outside of the school setting.
It is just as imperative for clinical mental health counselors to consult with school counselors regarding sibling abuse that is occurring in families. Establishing and maintaining an ongoing dialogue between mental health professionals is essential to evaluating if the family’s safety plan is working and if the client feels safe and supported.
In addition, counselors will want to continually evaluate with the client and the parents or guardians regarding whether the safety plan is working and if the sibling abuse within the home has stopped. Counselors should recognize that it might take some time for sibling aggression to stop completely. However, during this transition we want to ensure that the sibling victim is feeling safe and that the parents or guardians are providing proper support and supervision. At any point within these five phases, counselors can report sibling abuse to CPS or law enforcement. Although there are no federal, and few state laws, to protect children from sibling abuse, parents and guardians can be reported to CPS for parental neglect if they fail to provide proper supervision for their children.
Sibling abuse occurs more often than is reported and can cause serious ongoing psychological damage. Counselors can play an instrumental role in helping their clients acknowledge and put a stop to sibling abuse. Utilizing the five-step plan discussed here is one way for counselors to assess and intervene on behalf of child and adolescent clients who are experiencing sibling abuse.
In addition, counselors have the ability to increase awareness about the topic of sibling abuse in their communities and schools. We can educate those around us about sibling abuse, collaborate with others in the mental health and social services fields to better define what constitutes sibling abuse, and advocate for state and federal laws to protect children from sibling abuse.
There are several excellent resources for counselors and parents who want to learn more about ways to address and intervene with sibling abuse. I have listed a few of them here.
- Sibling Abuse Trauma: Assessment and Intervention Strategies for Children, Families and Adults by John V. Caffaro and Allison Conn-Caffaro (1998)
- Sibling Aggression: Assessment and Treatment by Jonathan Caspi (2012)
- Sibling Abuse: Hidden Physical, Emotional, and Sexual Trauma by Vernon R. Wiehe (1997)
- What Parents Need to Know About Sibling Abuse: Breaking the Cycle of Violence by Vernon R. Wiehe (2002)
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Diane M. Stutey is an assistant professor of counseling and counseling psychology in the School of Applied Health and Education Psychology in the College of Education at Oklahoma State University. She is a registered play therapist supervisor, licensed professional counselor, licensed school counselor and national certified counselor. Contact her at email@example.com
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