Sibling Abuse as a Result of Childhood Mental Illness

December 18, 2017 Melissa David

Sibling abuse can result if one sibling has a mental illness like DMDD. Sibling abuse is often confusing for parents: When does rivalry become sibling abuse?

My family experiences sibling abuse because my son has disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD). This means his emotional responses are violently out of proportion to the trigger. Worse, the trigger is often his sister. If he perceives her to get anything positive that he does not, Armageddon breaks out. I don't know how siblings without mental illness interact. All I know is that the fighting that goes along with sibling abuse is exhausting.

Sibling Abuse vs. Sibling Rivalry

Siblings fight over everything: objects, parents, games. Parents expect it, even if we find it tiresome.

Rivalry becomes sibling abuse when the behavior of one sibling toward another is severe, intentional, and repeated. My son sometimes seeks out my daughter just to intimidate her or disrupt her. My daughter never attempts to hurt him except in self-defense. The majority of the time, she actually craves his attention because she loves him.

It's deeply hurtful to watch and for a parent, it causes chronic anxiety.

What Causes Sibling Abuse?

The causes of sibling abuse seem to be similar to what causes partner abuse. I read once that children with intermittent explosive disorder (IED), which is similar to DMDD, have a higher likelihood of abusing future intimate partners. This is partly because, like DMDD, once they lose emotional control, they can't come down easily. In the meantime, they destroy property or hurt people. When they've calmed, they feel terrible, but this doesn't heal the abused.

Like adults, in children, there is also a need for power and control. My son's in-home therapist noted that fights with his sister often involved him trying to take power away from her or trying to control her actions. He was especially triggered if he felt she got more attention, less homework, or anything he wanted for himself. He often wants to "even the playing field" without understanding that it's already even or that he's actually got more than she does sometimes.

How to Prevent Sibling Abuse

It's exhausting, but parents prevent it. I feel like I'm constantly in a boxing ring, racing to separate them or step between them to block a thrown object. I've had to physically remove my son to his room so that he can come down from a DMDD outburst in a safe environment. I've had family or friends take my daughter for a few hours so she can be safe elsewhere.

This is yet another reason mental illness is so isolating. My husband and I don't go out much because what babysitter could manage violent outbursts? My son cannot watch his sister alone, clearly. We have to be present to referee interactions.

Which means mental illness is exhausting, too. My children have to live together, so I need to protect my daughter while trying to help my son. They require two different types of parenting, but there's just me, juggling them both in the same boxing ring preventing them from sibling abuse.

How to Get Help for Sibling Abuse

My son's behaviors put him at risk of being harmed or harming others. Recent news stories have made anxiety for my daughter's wellbeing pretty high without worrying about her safety at home, too. I need to manage both their emotional overloads, and I'm nearing my own overload.

My next step for her is therapy, a safe place to discuss her brother and any sibling abuse. We tried it in family therapy, but my son reacted poorly to the talk of his abusive behavior. I hear this happens in therapy for abusive adult relationships, too.

I give my daughter outlets outside of the home: Girl Scouts, piano lessons, and after-school activities. She needs more alone time with both parents, and that's another step to take, though it's more difficult to make happen.

I'm at a loss, so if anybody knows of sibling abuse resources, please leave some in the comments. I'm sure it would help tons of parents.

See Also

APA Reference
David, M. (2017, December 18). Sibling Abuse as a Result of Childhood Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 20 from

Author: Melissa David

Melissa David is a mother based out of Minnesota. She has two young children, one of whom struggles with mental illness.The support and wisdom of other parents proved invaluable to her in raising both her children; and so she hopes to pay it forward to other parents via Life With Bob. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

May, 25 2024 at 9:50 am

Even though I feel your pain, and understand how hard it is. But coming from someone who’s younger brother has dmdd; the way you talked about the situation at times felt like you weren’t really concerned as much about your daughter but about yourself and your feelings. Also for anyone else that reads this please don’t ever think that group therapy like this (for this type of situation) is a good idea and is going to work out it’s just a recipe for more abuse.

October, 18 2022 at 3:00 pm

I am an adult (35) female. That seems so unreal to type. I have never felt my age, even the older I get. Not in a young at heart way, more in a stopped mentally developing kind of way. My brother is a year and a half older then me and was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder at 6. At 6 he was put into his first mental facility after trying to kill me by strangulation. I can not speak to his thoughts at the age of 6 only for his actions over the next long and painful 14 years. Some may know this but for you that don't ( I don't know about now) but back then a child can only be held for 72 hours. If their parent did not pick them up they would be charged with child neglect. Isn't that an interesting thought, don't leave the child who needs treatment but forget about the one at home. So at first I was told to call the cops when he attacked me. Two times. That's all it took for my parent's attitude to shift. They didn't say it but I knew. After that I never called the cops. The cops got called a handful of times by neighbors but never me. Over the years I was destroyed. Mentally, physically, emotionally. Teachers, fellow students, neighbors... everyone knew. In middle school I had one counselor who tried to help but that was over pretty quick. He was bipolar, what could they do. It only took a couple of times for a "friend" to come over and they wouldn't return. I will spare the details of all of the years but just know plenty of people saw it, plenty knew it. The one time that cemented in my head that I was not worth anything..... 5 guys sat on the couch and watched it. I don't blame them, they were scared. That day we ALL ran out of the house and down the street because he ran to get a shotgun. Fast forward a couple of years, alcohol ,self mutilation, drugs, rehab at 16, and an hour and a half move north. He wasn't there at first but of course then he was. My husband, boyfriend at the time, found us on the porch with my brothers hands wrapped around my neck. That was his go to the last couple of times he tried to kill me. He saved me, they fought, brother ran inside, I said we have to run, ran down the street as the cops get out and tazer brother bc he ran out of the house with a butchers knife. I moved in with boyfriend and mother. That was 15 years ago. My husband has been the one light I needed my entire life. I thought I was fixed by him doing one simple thing. Listening. I am by far healed. I am put in situations with my brother from time to time. And everytime it is violent, threatening and I am petrified. I tried to talk to my mom about it twice. She says that I already talked to her about it and shuts me down. It sounds like we are world's away doesn't it? No. We talk everyday. I knew I would always have issues with it but never did I think I would be where I am now. I am lost, useless and definitely suicidal. The laughable part? I could never take my own life because the guilt I feel for the people around me. So here I am stuck in a nothing existence where I am not good enough for anything and have no out. There are alot of after effects to my situation but I feel like I have brought this forum down enough. I wanted to tell you my story because I NEED you to know this, your daughter needs you to know this. Stand by her, keep telling her her feelings matter, never get annoyed or bothered if she wants to cry or just tell you how it is hurting her, make sure she knows that what is happening is not okay. You seem to be doing all of that and I promise you it matters. Don't let her be destroyed like I am.

July, 16 2021 at 11:12 am

Currently I am going through this, my little brother ( ik its odd because I'm the oldest, a 13 year old being abused by my 9 year old brother) my mom tries her best to give me a safe environment and also take care of my brother, I've been used to sitting in the backseat of her attention for a while she's usually pouring her attention into him and sometimes it's hard for me to watch. But deep down I know that he needs more help than I do but finally my mom is taking me to my doctor to help figure out my anxiety and other mental issues ( 9 year old has DmDD and I possibly have Multiple forms of Anxiety and possibly depression

Madison Kim
October, 5 2021 at 1:52 pm

I am living with an older sister she gaslights me constantly and insults me it interferes with all of my thoughts daily and it’s like walking on eggshells. My family just says to ignore her and don’t do much about it. Ive dealt with her abuse my entire life I’m nearly 21 years old and when you deal with something for that long it’s mentally and emotionally draining. She has OCD and depression but what excuse is that for hurting me so badly? No excuses. I’m sick of this sh*t

April, 2 2019 at 5:32 pm

While I feel like we are living the same life, I don't feel like your articles offer any sort of help or constructive ideas to help kids with DMDD.

This mama is tired
January, 23 2018 at 11:05 am

YES! YES! It's exhausting....but we have to keep going. We are living parallel lives...My daughter struggles with DMDD and her little brother feels the effects, but we do our best to keep them both safe and feel loved.

December, 21 2017 at 8:44 am

You are to be commended for recognizing your son's abuse of his sister and for trying to protect her from it. I really feel for your daughter as I was also abused by my brother. However, my parents did nothing to stop it and nothing to help me. As an adult I suffer from depression and chronic pain which I feel was triggered by the trauma. I wish my parents were as helpful and knowledgeable as you are. I know that you and your son are also suffering. Best of luck to you all.

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