Some people are fortunate to have a positive relationship with their siblings. Your siblings might be the people you turn to whenever you’re in trouble or need support. For some people, though, the sibling relationship isn’t as agreeable.
Toxic siblings manipulate and gaslight you. They take a normal level of sibling rivalry too far, and turn everything into a competition. Siblings can even become abusive, just like anyone else. The effects of living with a sibling like this are far-reaching, and can last well into adulthood. The good news is that trauma treatment can help.
If you are being physically, sexually, or psychologically abused by your sibling or anyone else, get help from local authorities or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1 (800) 799-7233.
What does sibling abuse look like?
Just like any other relationship, sibling relationships can be toxic and abusive. Some experts call sibling abuse “the forgotten abuse” because we generally don’t pay as much attention to sibling abuse as we do to abusive parents or partners. But sibling abuse absolutely does happen, and can be as damaging as any other form of abuse.
Sibling abuse can be:
- Physical: Including hitting, biting, pushing, scratching, and more.
- Emotional: Name-calling, criticizing, intimidating, threatening, belittling, destroying property, and more.
- Sexual: Any type of sexual coercion including penetration, sexual touching, watching sexual content, and more.
Even if your sibling isn’t necessarily abusive, they can still be toxic.
Sibling rivalry vs sibling abuse
It’s important to distinguish when hurtful behaviors between siblings are abusive vs when they are signs of “normal” rivalry or fighting between siblings. As any of us with siblings know, sibling relationships aren’t perfect. Especially as children, there can be a lot of arguing and fighting that happens, whether it’s due to sibling rivalry or simple childhood arguments.
In general, when these behaviors are not reciprocal and happen repeatedly over a long period of time, they may be signs of abuse. For example, two siblings who argue over a toy, even if that argument becomes physical (like hitting or scratching), are likely not abusive.
But when one sibling hits, belittles, and threatens the other repeatedly, and the other sibling (the victim) feels frightened or controlled, then this could be a sign of abuse.
Signs of a toxic sibling relationship
Toxic sibling relationships can look a lot like toxic friendships. The problem is, because of shared DNA and the familial bond, these toxic sibling relationships can be even harder to walk away from than toxic friendships.
As adults, toxic siblings may continue to display the same abusive behaviors toward you that they did as children.
Some signs that your sibling is toxic include:
- They’re overly critical of you: They seem to always have something negative to say about your choices, behaviors, appearance, and more. They seem to always find flaws in whatever you are doing and make sure you know it.
- They betray your trust: You can’t trust them. Even if you ask them not to divulge confidential information, they continue to tell other people your secrets.
- They’re emotionally manipulative: They use manipulation tactics to get their way; for example, they might cry fake tears when they don’t get what they want.
- They gaslight you: They make you question your own sanity or reality, or tell you that you’re crazy or overreacting for being upset by something they did.
- They’re sexually inappropriate: Whether or not your sibling forces you to have sexual contact with them, they can still be sexually abusive. For example, they might make inappropriate sexual comments or force you to listen to sexual stories.
- They show no remorse: When they do these things to hurt you, they don’t seem to care.
- You feel drained when you spend time with them: You don’t get positive energy from being around your sibling; rather, you feel emotionally exhausted.
- They undermine you: Whenever you accomplish anything or receive attention (from your parents or others), they try to undermine your success.
- They sabotage your relationships: They seem to always get in the way of your relationships; whether it’s overt or covert, they find ways to sabotage.
- They ignore you or give you the cold shoulder: They leave you out of conversations or intentionally ignore you so you feel cut off.
- They are verbally abusive towards you: Friendly teasing from your sibling is one thing, but if your sibling calls you names, insults you, or yells at you, then this could be a form of verbal abuse.
- They prey on your weaknesses: Unfortunately for some, our siblings can know us better than anyone. Toxic siblings may use your weaknesses and past mistakes against you.
- They turn everything into a competition: A certain level of rivalry between siblings can be normal, especially as children. But toxic siblings can turn everything into a competition and become insistent on making sure you come out the loser.
- They try to control your life: They don’t allow you to make your own decisions, and don’t trust you know what’s best for your own life.
- They badmouth you to others: Just like toxic friends, they talk badly about you to other people in an effort to sabotage your relationships and reputation.
- They try pitting your parents or other family members against you: They want to always be the favored one in the family, so they talk badly about you or undermine you to get other family members to turn against you.
- They don’t allow you to have your own relationships with family: They demand you feel the same way about certain family members as they do. It’s understandable to expect you to take their side in situations of abuse, but toxic siblings may not want you to have your own relationships with family members at all.
- They always need to be right: It seems like they’re never wrong, and you’re never right; arguments don’t end until you concede.
How do you deal with a toxic sibling?
Having a toxic sibling can be emotionally draining and even traumatic. Toxic siblings can be physically, sexually, and psychologically abusive, and just like any type of abuse, the damage can last for a long time. Even if your sibling is not abusive, this type of toxicity can still lead to emotional damage, conflict, and estrangement.
There are different ways to deal with having a toxic sibling. Some people may choose not to continue a relationship with their sibling while others might work to mend it or cope with it in different ways. What works best for someone else might not be what’s best for you. You know your sibling and the relationship you have with them best – so always consider your unique circumstances when deciding how to deal with this difficult situation.
Communicate (if it’s safe)
If it’s emotionally and physically safe to do so, consider communicating openly and assertively with your toxic sibling. Use assertive communication styles, and be clear about how their behavior makes you feel and how you’d like them to change.
For example, you could say something like, “It makes me feel really betrayed and hurt when I ask you to keep something in confidence and you tell the rest of our family. I need you to start being more trustworthy and keep what I tell you to yourself. If you don’t, then I will no longer be able to trust you or share personal information with you.”
If your sibling is abusive, then it may not be safe for you to communicate with them in this way. Again, you know your relationship best – so if you don’t feel safe communicating with them in this way, then don’t.
Set strong boundaries
If communicating isn’t an option or doesn’t change your sibling’s toxic behavior, then you can also try to set very strong boundaries – and stand your ground. For example, perhaps your sibling becomes very critical and verbally abusive when they drink alcohol. You might set a boundary that you will no longer be in the same space with them when they’re drinking.
When you set these boundaries, be firm. When you go back and forth on boundaries that you’ve set, your sibling learns they are able to push and pressure you into backing down.
Some people may choose to have a strong boundary and not have any contact with their sibling. This is called sibling estrangement. It can be extremely emotionally difficult, but it might be necessary in some situations of extreme toxicity or abuse.
Get support for yourself
However you choose to proceed with your toxic sibling – whether you will try to maintain some sort of relationship or let go – it will likely bring a lot of emotional distress. It’s important to take care of yourself during this process. Especially if you were abused by your sibling as a child, you may be living with trauma and emotional effects.
It will be critical to get support for your mental health so you can heal from the aftereffects of this relationship and make decisions on how to move forward. Therapy and other types of holistic mental health treatment can give you the opportunity to process, express, and create solutions.
At The Center ● A Place of HOPE, we offer a unique trauma recovery program using our proven Whole Person Care method. Whole Person Care means that we see and honor who you are beyond the trauma you’ve been through, including sibling abuse.
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