What you don’t know can harm your child.
Last week twenty-year-old Jim told his mother that he has always been leery of his younger, but larger brother, Andrew. Jim’s cautiousness around Andrew dates back to the time Andrew shoved him off a dump truck breaking both of Jim’s wrists. The boys were six and five-years-old. The brothers have rarely seen eye-to-eye and as young adults tolerate each other, are cordial, but nothing more. Their mother had hoped they would be best friends at this point in their lives.
The story was related to me by the boys’ mother who is upset by her sons’ current relationship, but understands it better after Jim’s explanation of the dump truck incident. This was the first she learned that what she had believed to have been an accident might have been intentional-as Jim thinks. “They fought frequently as kids, but I chalked their behavior up to typical sibling rivalry,” she told me. “Now I wonder. I never heard of sibling abuse. It would explain why Jim doesn’t trust Andrew.” In retrospect, she looks at her boys’ childhoods in a different light.
Linda Mills points out in her post that “Sibling rivalry can and often does, however, slide into sibling abuse, with the potential to cause serious lifelong trauma and suffering.” Jim and Andrew’s mother labeled their frequent fighting sibling rivalry, but it might well have been ongoing abuse. “Sibling abuse” would explain Jim’s persistence in keeping his distance from Andrew and the caution he displays around him. Jim keeps a keen eye on his brother’s location whenever they are together. “I look over my shoulder to check where Andrew is. I try not to let him be too close behind me,” he told his mother.
Jim’s story and his lifelong wariness are not so unusual. There’s a fine line between an accident and intentional abuse. Parents have difficulty recognizing when that line has been crossed. As I point out in my post, The Dark Side of Siblings, there is far more sibling abuse going on than parents know. According to a report in The Journal of Counseling and Development the percent of children using physical aggression against siblings ranges from a low of 35 percent to a high of 80 percent.
These findings are in marked contrast to the percentages of abuse by parents against children: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families reports one percent of parents severely abuse their children. A different national study found that 2.3 percent of parents displayed abuse toward their children. That is a huge difference from the average (among available studies) of between 35 and 60 percent of brothers and sisters who physically abuse a sibling. Most sibling abuse is neither acknowledged by parents, nor, if recognized, reported to authorities.
The high instance of sibling abuse (hitting with rocks, baseball bats, shoving hard enough to cause injury) led Murray Straus and Richard Gelles, authors of Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family to conclude that “children are the most violent persons in American families.” You may not agree, but hopefully all parents will pay closer attention.