From childhood until he was a young adult, Jordan* would lay awake at night and gnaw at his own fingers. He had discovered early on that it was easier to submit to his brother’s beatings than to oppose them, so he bit himself to cope with the fear.
“I was stuck. I couldn’t tell anyone that I was getting belted,” he said. “That plays a lot on your head as a kid.
“You feel like you’ve got no way out. You’ve just got to deal with the abuse.”
When Jordan was in the fifth grade his older brother was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While this helped to explain the violent outbursts, which far exceeded the bounds of ordinary sibling conflict, he said it also gave his parents reason to dismiss or downplay his brother’s behaviour.
This behaviour, broadly defined as adolescent family violence (AFV), is violence used by a young person against a parent, carer or sibling. Sibling violence, a distinct form of AFV, is violence carried out against a person by their brother or sister. This can include physical, emotional, sexual, psychological and economic abuse.
Sibling violence is an under-researched and misunderstood field, but a group of researchers at Monash University sought to examine the issue by drawing directly on the voices of individuals who recounted their experiences. The study, published late last year in the British Journal of Sociology, makes clear that violent behaviour directed towards siblings is frequently and perilously dismissed as sibling rivalry.
“Seeing sibling violence as ‘rivalry’, or as a normal part of growing up with siblings, serves to minimise and invisibilise the violence,” sociologist Dr Karla Elliott, the study’s lead author, told The Citizen.
“This denies the experiences of those who have experienced sibling violence and can even make it hard for them to realise they’ve experienced it.”
The study elicited responses from 23 siblings who had encountered family violence from their brothers or sisters, as well as reflections from parents, experts and practitioners about the challenges of addressing violence directed towards siblings.
In one response, a sibling described the escalating violence that her brother inflicted upon her: “Bites, scratches and punches escalated into nipple cripples and groin punches. Black eyes [caused me to miss] major events because my mother forbade me to bring shame on the family … Friends did not visit due to the violence, which became increasingly sexual.
“Attempted rape. Killed my pet.”
In another, a girl said she had begged her mother to contact the police on many occasions – including one incident where her sister held a knife to her throat – but her mother was committed to “keeping up appearances” and feared her sister would get a criminal record.
These anecdotes illustrate the spectrum of difficulties that survivors might experience, such as not being believed by their parents; an inability to access support services; sadness and grief at the loss of a sibling relationship; and resentment towards parents for their inability to appropriately address the violence.
The evidence indicates that these are not isolated incidents. Children’s Court data shows that in 11 per cent of family violence applications brought in 2018–19, the affected family member was a sibling of the respondent. This amount dovetails with the previous five years. And, it is worth noting that the data is not confined to perpetrators under the age of 18, as the Children’s Court also deals with adult perpetrators of family violence.
Still, it is difficult to know just how prevalent sibling violence is. Abuse in the home is often hidden, understated or not spoken about.
There is also a notable lack of research and community awareness about the issue. Of the scant research that is available, most is drawn from the United States and tends to focus on physical violence, while psychological and emotional abuse is overlooked.
The research does indicate that shame and guilt are common in families affected by sibling violence. As with other forms of family violence, shame and stigma continues to discourage victims and their families from seeking help.
Yet, despite sharing similarities with other forms of family violence, Dr Elliot says sibling violence has its own challenges and complexities which require nuanced considerations and tailored responses.
“As we argue in our article,” Dr Elliott says, “sibling violence can in some ways be seen to share similarities with family violence more broadly, including in terms of its gendered character, experiences of shame and stigma, the forms of violence experienced, and victims’ reluctance to report.”
She stresses, however, that the challenges and complexities of sibling violence require nuanced considerations and tailored responses. Importantly, she argues, “the creation of support services and specialised frontline responses for persons affected by sibling violence must be accompanied by clear strategies to facilitate access to those who need them”.
The 2016 Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence also noted that sibling violence is a form of family violence that receives inadequate recognition. “Research demonstrates the seriousness of sibling conflict, including aggression and violence, which has been linked to a wide range of negative youth outcomes,” the Commission’s report states.
Dr Cathy Kezelman, president of the Blue Knot Foundation, a national organisation helping adults recover from childhood trauma, says when children and adolescents are exposed to traumatic events the impacts can last a lifetime without the right support.
“This is especially if the trauma is repeated, ongoing, extreme and perpetrated within the family by the very people on whom the child depends for nurture and protection,” she says.
“These impacts vary from mental and physical health issues, difficulties completing an education, challenges with relationships, holding down a job – these can last a lifetime without the right support.”
Children and adolescents often feel helpless and powerless by reason of their inability to evade violent situations in the home. A younger, more dependent sibling is likely to have little choice but to succumb to intimidation and abuse.
“This can lead to ongoing feelings of lack of safety, hypervigilance, shut down and withdrawal,” Dr Kezelman says. She adds that while children develop coping strategies that enable them to manage ongoing trauma, much like Jordan biting his own hands, over time they can become more problematic.
When Jordan was 16, his brother came into his room and began to taunt him, throwing his things around until he got a reaction. This time, Jordan retaliated by pushing his brother into the wall with force. His brother got up and punched him in the head, over and over again.
“It was just thump after thump while I was on the ground. I thought, fuck I’m done.
“The only reason he stopped was because his mates grabbed him by the arms and held him back.”
These were not rare occurrences. “I remember most times I’d get home from school there would be a two-hour period until mum got home, from 3 until about 5, and that would just be hell on earth. I would just be in tears the whole time,” he said.
Only recently has he been able to associate some underlying health conditions that have plagued him for years with his brother’s abuse. Anxiously grinding and clenching teeth for many years caused significant damage that requires ongoing repair. He also suffers from panic attacks, stress and anxiety, and admits he has a short fuse and is easily frustrated.
Despite his parents’ failure to shield him from his brother’s blows, Jordan said he no longer harbours resentment towards them. But for many of the participants in Dr Elliott’s study, a sense of frustration and blame towards their parents, who they perceived as failing to keep them safe from violent siblings, was prevalent.
Meanwhile, there are now indications that the severity and frequency of family violence has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to these concerns, the federal government pledged an additional $150 million to support Australians experiencing family and sexual violence in March.
But months later, advocates say victims are still struggling to access help, amid revelations that almost half of the promised funding will not be distributed for over a year.
For many children and adolescents, the grim reality remains that safely isolating in the home is simply not possible.
*Name changed for privacy reasons.
If you have experienced childhood trauma, you can speak with a Blue Knot counsellor by calling 1300 657 380