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 ofCounseling & 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.
Select a topic in the field of family violence. What is your topic? What is its history both legal and social? How have other societal institutions impacted the way we think about your topic? What sociological theory exists that attempts to explain what you are researching? What theories from our text attempt to explain what you are researching? How has your topic been studied? What significant findings have been discovered? What questions remain unanswered? Where do we go from here? What potential solutions or responses have been suggested to contend with the area of family violence you are researching? If you were going to take on the task of researching your topic, how might you do it?
____6-10 pages long (front of page only)