“You know,” she says, “I relate to a lot of the work you’ve written on childhood abuse.”
“I’d say ‘thank you,'” I reply, “but part of me wants to say ‘I’m sorry.’ Because it’s often not a good thing, that those particular writings resonate.”
“Well, no,” she says. “Not exactly a good thing that they make sense to me. But I’m grateful for them. So thank you.”
I smile, not knowing quite what to say in response.
“I wanted to pick your brain though because my situation was a little different than yours. Well, kinda.” She tells me that she never had a parent or other adult relative bully her, pick on her, or belittle her in any way that was damaging during her childhood.
But “I had a sister who was awful to me,” she says. She mentions a writing where I mention my sister Alice, who was always picking on me. I volunteer that Alice was always stealing my toys and giving them to my brother David. And of course, she was constantly cruel.
“Yes!” she says. “That’s so much like my sister.”
We bond over the fact that both of our sisters would go around telling other people at school who hadn’t had a chance to meet us that we were defective. Stupid. Worthy of their ridicule. People to be avoided. We both started high school that way, with a smear campaign having preceded our arrival.
Which frankly sucked.
“I know this isn’t real abuse, but it really screwed me up,” she says.
“Uh… sibling abuse IS real abuse,” I say. I tell her the research on it notes that it’s the most common form of familial abuse — more common than child abuse and domestic abuse are combined. Emotional aggression is more common than physical aggression. And no matter what form it takes, adult survivors of abusive sibling relationships can grow up with detrimental effects that are quite similar to child abuse. Many survivors of sibling abuse grow up struggling with feelings of worthlessness and having incredible difficulty in their adult relationships.
Researchers distinguish between sibling abuse and sibling rivalry by noting that sibling abuse denigrates, diminishes, and/or intimidates someone. In addition, sibling abuse typically results in the target feeling hopeless, afraid, or ashamed.
Sibling rivalries — a phenomenon believed to be healthy — don’t possess these elements.
Though not talked about very much at all, sibling abuse is VERY common and can be VERY damaging.