I have had discussions with three completely unrelated people about the sibling abuse they suffered as children. I see a lot of similarities in their stories, and I want to share the generalities here. I also want to present a theory that might be healing for some readers who suffered from sibling abuse. Please note that this is a just a theory that I am offering that I hope might be healing for some of you who suffered from sibling abuse. Each situation is going to be different, but if this helps even one person, it was worth writing about.
All of these situations have the same basic dynamic in common – The survivor was the younger child who was abused in some manner by the older sibling. There were only two children in each household. The survivor is unaware of any reason for the older child to abuse her – no known history of the older sibling suffering from any abuse from the parents or anyone else. The survivor told the parents repeatedly about the abuse, but the parents denied that it was happening. No matter how severe the abuse got, the parents refused to “see” that any abuse was taking place.
Let me start with a few observations. First, most parents do not let one sibling abuse the other. While they might allow a certain amount of tussling, it is not “normal” for a parent to allow an older child to torture a younger child. If anything, “normal” parents are more likely to intervene on behalf of the younger child simply because of the age and size difference. Denying that anything is happening (and repeatedly providing so little supervision that the abuse is ongoing) is not “normal.”
Second, I know firsthand that child abusers will use the people you love to silence you. My abusers silenced me by threatening my sister’s life, and they killed my dog in front of me to prove that they were serious. I was “willing” to endure anything without complaint and without “telling” to protect my sister.
Third, the younger sibling was a baby during the older sibling’s early years. Even if the siblings are close in age (such as 18 month apart), the older sibling was likely already walking and talking while the younger sibling is still an infant. So, just because you are unaware of your sibling being abused does not mean that it did not happen.
OK – On to my theory … Consider that the older sibling was abused by an adult who had regular access to the child. The abuser silenced the child by threatening to harm or kill the child’s baby sister or brother if he or she ever told. The parents found out and “rescued” the older sibling from the abuser but decided to sweep it all under the rug and not deal with it – denying it ever happened, not getting the child therapy, etc.
From the perspective of the older sibling, who had no therapy or other way to process the abuse, perhaps the older sibling turns her anger on the baby, thinking, “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have been abused. I was hurt because of you.” Of course, this is not true, but this is the way the child processes the abuse.
So, the child takes out all of her anger toward her abuser on this younger sibling, torturing her so she can suffer in the way that the abused child has suffered. Meanwhile, the parents, who are living in denial about the older child’s abuse, choose to deny the sibling abuse because facing it means that they must face the initial abuse to the older sibling. They basically give the older sibling a “free pass” because she was abused but the younger sibling was not. Sadly, this dynamic results in both children being abused, one by an adult and the other by the sibling.
Does this sound plausible to you? I am hoping that this theory might help make sense of a family dynamic for someone who has been struggling with this.
Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt