Wicked Sisters Do Exist, and What You Can Learn From Them


It never occurred to me growing up that my sister wasn’t going to be my best friend. I held her up on a pedestal and hung on her every word until those words slowly ate away at my self-worth and well-being.

We had a “Marcia and Cindy Brady” relationship where Marcia shined, and Cindy cringed. I wanted her to love me, but ultimately I learned why she never could.

There is a difference between natural sibling rivalry and sibling abuse. Identifying the behaviors can help parents change their parenting styles and techniques to aid their children’s social and emotional growth.

What Is Sibling Abuse?

Sibling abuse is prevalent, however, underreported. It’s estimated that up to 80 percent of siblings encounter some form of sibling abuse.

Shockingly, the prevalence of sibling maltreatment is higher than child or spousal abuse.

According to Diane M. Stutley of Counseling Today, “Survivors of sibling abuse have reported problems with depression, drugs, and alcohol, sexual risk behaviors, low self-esteem, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and an increased risk of continuing the cycle of violence into their teenage years and adult lives.”

My sister had two glorious years with my parent’s full attention and love. Everything revolved around her and her needs.

Then, the twins came. No longer did the earth and moon revolve around her, and she now had to take on the big sister role. Jealousy of new siblings is a natural phenomenon and can often be seen in nature.

Twins brought an immediate change to the family dynamics, and suddenly competition for love and attention took precedence.

My brother and I were best friends, literally doing everything together. We even had our own language that didn’t need any translation. I loved and trusted him with everything. However, he was powerless to protect me from her daily onslaught.

Family friends with daughters close in age showed me it was possible for big sisters to love and protect their little siblings. However, that wasn’t to be the case with us.

How Rivalry Is Different Than Abuse

Children’s birth order, gender, and intellect can cause intense competition amongst siblings. These disagreements and competition are considered normal and can help children learn socialization skills and healthy competition.

This rivalry is also for an external need like getting the parents’ attention or material need and resolves itself with parental guidance or on its own. The rivalry usually diminishes in their teens, though some continue into adulthood.

There is no secrecy with rivalry. It’s out in the open and can even have a sense of loving competition within the family. Parents can ensure that both rivals feel appreciated for their efforts but condone any negative behaviors that may injure or hurt the other sibling.

Typical rivalry behavior includes name-calling, immature behavior, and bickering. Parents will also note the following:

  • siblings are close in age; one to two years apart
  • same-sex siblings tend to have stronger rivalries
  • the middle child may notice a difference in parenting toward the older or younger child, causing negative favoritism from the parents

However, when this behavior becomes chronic, the bullying sibling typically demonstrates psychological, physical, and even sexual abuse toward another sibling.

The bully’s ultimate motivation is to dominate, humiliate and embarrass the victim. But many parents miss the mark by either neglecting to take the situation seriously, or their parenting style may be part of the problem.

These behaviors, like bullying, disparaging remarks, intentional shaming, goading, snide comments, and bouts of anger, lead the abused sibling to shut down or act out unless immediate parent intervention occurs.

However, the key for many parents and practitioners is to differentiate aggression from abuse. Identifying mental, physical, and emotional abuse through asking questions and observation can help them sort characteristics between abusive behavior and aggressive behavior.

What To Look For

Family dynamics, parenting styles, and the psychology of the bully all create the perfect storm.

The bully’s victim often feels it’s something they’ve done to create the discord. However, it’s the psychological state of the bully that must be evaluated, and parental influence must take precedence to change the destructive behavior.

Just being born is typically the problem. These dynamics come into play that makes the bully continue their harmful behavior:

Parental Influence:

  • Parents that lack the time or energy to intervene
  • Low parental involvement
  • Parental favoritism toward one or more children
  • Spousal abuse or marital conflict
  • Educational levels of the mother
  • Mother’s marital dissatisfaction expressing negative emotions and self-criticism
  • Financial stress
  • Low family cohesion and disorganization
  • The spacing of children and birth order

Psychology of the Bully:

  • Lack of empathy
  • Unmet personal needs
  • Higher or lower self-esteem
  • Sibling care-taking of younger siblings
  • Domination and power issues
  • Self-aggrandizing and exhibiting self-importance over the sibling
  • Physical or psychological control over the sibling
  • Domination or an imbalance of power over the sibling
  • Abusive behavior typically occurs in secrecy and an imbalance of power

My sister took advantage of my parents having to go to work. Often she was put in “charge” of us, which led to an immediate imbalance of power over us.

We were micromanaged over what we played and ate, even being excluded from games.

It may seem trite; however, the dominance moved into manipulating parental power over time. The bully can influence parental control due to the lack of concrete parenting skills put into place.

If there is a chink in the armor, they will find it.

Finding Help

If the victim is school-age, request time with the school counselor to document the abuse. A family therapist or counselor can rectify these dysfunctional relationships to break the cycle starting with family dynamics.

Parents can:

  • Take time to spend one-on-one with each child
  • Ask questions when disparaging remarks or behavior happens immediately.
  • Create various family conflict-resolution tactics during appropriate developmental stages.
  • Attend parenting classes to create a support system with other parents going through the same issues.
    Observe other families doing it right. Ask for advice.
    Set appropriate consequences when the behavior has been observed or revealed.

Teach the child to:

  • Create boundaries on how they want to be treated
  • Communicate feelings and how they may not be getting their needs met.
  • Create a communication channel for the victim-sibling to get help, i.e., call a neighbor or other family member or counselor.

Parenting is such an organic endeavor. We never really know how to handle each situation, but being aware of certain dynamics can lead to healthier responses to our children’s behavior.

Previously Published on medium

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The post Wicked Sisters Do Exist, and What You Can Learn From Them appeared first on The Good Men Project.