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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sibling Abuse as a Child Protection Issue

I recall some years back a family that I and a colleague were working with. Child protection had become involved due to parental behaviours. These were addressed and some significant progress was made. Yet the abuse of the younger sibling by his older brother continue. It was both physical and emotional - and it could be quite brutal. When we tried to raise it as a child protection issue, we were told that it did not fit within the mandate of child welfare. They saw themselves as protecting children from parental or other adult caregiver behaviours not those that occurred between siblings.  Things have changed in many places around this issue but research to be published soon in the journal Qualitative Social Work suggests that we have a long way to go.

There has been a number of efforts since the case I refer to above, but these authors tell us that even coming to agreement on what constitutes sibling abuse remains a challenge.

The researchers help us get a sense of how the victims in their study saw the abuse which, in this sample, went on for at least 5 years in each of the cases. (19 cases from which saturation was achieved).

 The participants in this study identified sibling abuse as physical or psychological torment involving brutal physical force or emotional devastation. It
created feelings of helplessness as victims were unable to protect themselves or
gauge and anticipate actions that incited an assault. Abusive sibling acts engendered a pervasive state of fear and vulnerability; they resulted in hyper-vigilance and feelings of loneliness and isolation when it occurred and which endured into adulthood.
In another powerful theme, the researchers found that the role of parents matters:

 In the families of these informants, limited social and economic resources and
marital strain made it difficult for victims to obtain critical support inherent to
development. Parents were unable to model positive communication or manage
interpersonal conflict and emotional turmoil productively. This inhibited their children’s ability to modulate their own emotional experiences and mitigate the effects of abuse.

For me, this really speaks to the nature of family systems around abusive behaviour. We tend to think of abuse between adults or from adults to children. But if abuse exists in a family system, why would we not expect it could happen between siblings. Indeed, this research found that other abusive behaviour was evident in at least half of the homes. Further, parents did not protect either by failure to act or by minimizing the abuse between siblings. For the victim, the whole of the family system was then unsafe making it hard for the victim to find or seek out safety.  The perpetrator may have even been in a preferred position within the family by comparison to the victim.

I agree with the authors that we must seek legislation in child protection that includes sibling abuse as one form of abuse that should be within the consideration of child abuse. We have a ways to go on finding workable definitions but that has not stopped us with other forms of abuse in a family.


Meyers, A. (2014). A call to child welfare: Protect children from sibling abuse. Qualitative Social Work, online first. DOI: 10.1177/1473325014527332

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    I am the founder and Editor of Social Work Helper, and I would love to connect with you. My email is