Sibling Abuse/Sibling Rivalry and Bullying

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Many of us have vivid memories of typical sibling rivalry: tugging over treasured stuffed animals; arguing about whose turn it is to wash dishes; impulsively yelling mean words; crying over hurt feelings; vying for the favored place among our parents. Those of us who complained to our parents were often met with a dismissive wave of the hand and the familiar words, “Kids will be kids.”

But is that really the best action to take? Children are the youngest members of a sacred group they call, “my family”. They are simply living life as open hearts with the beliefs that they will be loved, protected, and cared for by their family. Through no fault of their own, these beliefs were betrayed, unbelievably enough, by someone within their own sacred family group. But in a child’s mind—even an adult survivor’s mind—doubt can creep in. Was it me that was the real reason that caused this abuse to happen to me?

And I’m telling you, it’s not you.

The behavior in question may come in waves or cycles. Calm periods in between wild behavior swings can lull everyone around into believing “everything is okay—it was just a bad day. Everyone has bad days now and then.” Naturally we feel a particular kind of loyalty towards family members, born out of duty to those who have cared for us or who have shared histories. However, being family doesn’t mean we have to be at the mercy of someone with negative personality traits or worse yet, abused by someone with a personality disorder.

The American Academy of Marriage and Family Therapy describe sibling abuse or violence as “a repeated pattern of physical aggression with the intent to inflict harm and motivated by a need for power or control.” Delving further into this question of “what is sibling abuse?” we can explore the difficulties of living with a family member who has a personality disorder (multiple personality disorder, antisocial disorder, obsessive-compulsive, etc.). And for many different reasons, it can take parents a long time to come to the conclusion that “something isn’t right—something is very wrong.” But, they don’t know what to do about it, if they can face doing anything at all. Acknowledging that your child has a challenge of any kind, let alone a personality disorder, is one of the most painful, agonizing, grief-filled processes imaginable.

To compound it, we as a society need to acknowledge another fact: parenting is a complicated job and knowledge comes only with experience. For the most part, parents are simply young adults learning how to nurture and care for babies, toddlers, and small children—there is no school, internship or entry level experience that prepares us. We all figure it out as we go. It’s no wonder that parents are reluctant to face the reality of diagnosing a personality disorder. The possible ramifications, stigmas, and outlooks are daunting. There seems to be safety in taking the “wait and see” approach. However, the safety will be in learning, knowing, and being proactive.

“Kids will be kids” is a saying that is used over and over again to soothe worries and smooth ruffled feathers. But if you’re noticing a repeated pattern of physical aggression with the intent to inflict harm and motivated by a need for power or control, please take the time to consider carefully that there may be more going on than you realize. The underlying cause may be much more than sibling rivalry. Parents also know that part of their job is reducing risk factors that put our children in danger—making our children’s environment safe. And it’s not just the things parents can see out in the open: electrical outlets, stairs, hot stoves. It’s the things and people we can’t see, too.

Please start a conversation with your children. Having an ongoing open approach to conversation is going to be the key to understanding what is happening in your child’s life. Keeping them safe is going to involve understanding their experiences through their own perspective and is how we discover what is happening, with a large part coming through conversation.

If we wait to try to have open conversations until there are problems, it could be too late. It’s doubtful that a child will suddenly start sharing their problems if they have fear and pain when a pattern of open dialogue hasn’t been established. It’s all about their comfort level, and that goes down significantly when children feel vulnerable.

As an adult I know that when I was a child I didn’t have the knowledge or skills to understand and cleverly manipulate dangerous situations into safe ones. I also know that the power behind my sister’s anger was more than she could manage. Anger is a complex emotion that has physical responses (affecting adrenaline, heart rate, blood pressure); thought streams that allow us to fixate on our anger; and behaviors that express our inner turmoil. Seldom can we sit quietly and digest our anger.

Also, anger seems to be contagious. What happens when you are around someone who is angry? Do you feel your own adrenaline rushing, your heart rate racing, your blood pressure rising? Our reactions then in turn add fuel to the original fire of anger.

It’s tempting to put out fires as they spark and feel we are solving problems in the time and place they are happening. However, instead of putting out fires, we must find the underlying cause of the fire. Yes, it could mean big changes are in store if you want to fix the underlying cause. But these primary causes and secondary effects must be faced and resolved. A child’s safety must always come first. When a child is angry, please acknowledge their emotions and take steps to find out the cause behind the anger.

Further along the spectrum of being mad is an anger disorder known as Intermittent Explosive Disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates up to 16 Million Americans suffer from Intermittent Explosive Disorder. One established cause of anger and Intermittent Explosive Disorder in young children and adolescents are experiences of emotional and physical trauma.

With this knowledge in hand, it makes sense to investigate the cause of a child’s anger and violent actions. Please, in an effort to end sibling abuse and childhood bullying, start by acknowledging a child’s anger and beginning a conversation. If the child isn’t willing to open up and share their problems, then it might be time to consult a professional.

There is no question that young victims of sibling abuse are caught in circumstances beyond their control. They have suffered pain that no child should ever have to endure. But, I am delighted to deliver a message of hope to all victims of sibling abuse: “Most people can overcome the trauma of abuse and transform their lives to what they want it to be.” I know this because I have transformed my own life out of the chaos of sibling abuse into a beautiful life filled with joy.

Part of my transformation from trauma victim into strong survivor was never losing hope. I prayed and hoped to God that I would survive my circumstances. I was determined to get through every day no matter what my sister threw at me, sometimes literally. But that wasn’t all I did. I found solace in the friendships I made with others and allowed myself to live in the moment. I never talked about what happened at home, not even to my other siblings. I didn’t think they would understand or believe me. My story is a testimony to this truth. Victims don’t cause, allow, or otherwise hold a destiny to traumatic abuse. Further, abuse can be ended and overcome. I turned my passion for cinema into my “day job”, completely immersing myself into the atmosphere of Hollywood. I married the man of my dreams and we have built a wonderful life together.

So, don’t know where to start? You can take a first step towards healing by writing down the repeating patterns you’re seeing in your child and calling your child’s pediatrician. Speak with a trusted doctor and ask for a referral to see a behavioral specialist he or she recommends.

And know, one of the biggest dangers a child faces is when they are left alone with only one other person. A safer situation is when two or more adults are present to prevent any and all opportunity for abuse. Leaving a young child in the care of one adult or one teenager can leave the door open for criminal, abusive behavior.

The University of Michigan Health Systems has developed an excellent article about Sibling Abuse. In this article specific signs, risk factors, and prevention of sibling abuse are outlined. I encourage you to visit this excellent resource. I wrote my book, My Five Sisters, because I want to shed light on sibling abuse and childhood bullying. Slowly, this type of abuse is starting to be brought out into the open, but so much more needs to be done. It’s time to create a definition in the dictionary and face this very real problem in the 21st Century.

We do have choices and we can find solutions for ourselves and even our entire family. If we as parents, take steps to find help and protect those who need protecting. If we are spouses, we can take steps to liberate those who are being harmed. If we are siblings, most likely grown if you are reading this, we can understand that perhaps we are victims of something we would have never chosen. We can take steps to heal our wounded pasts and choose to live a healthy today. We do have choices. And together, we can learn more about how to stop sibling abuse.

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