When Does Sibling Rivalry Cross the Line and Become Bullying?
Growing up, I was the youngest of three boys, each one of us 3 years apart. We had our share of arguments, fights, and wrestling matches. My middle brother could be pretty mean to me—at times he took advantage of his size and age. I remember fantasizing about the day that I would take revenge! But of course, by the time I was old enough to protect myself better, I lost interest in beating him up.
I wasn’t always innocent either. I knew how to bait him, get him riled up, and then position myself so that he would get in trouble with our parents! All little brothers and sisters can be pretty adept at that maneuver.
So was this normal or not?
When does normal bickering and trading punches cross the line into plain, ugly bullying? Ordinary fights over the TV remote or time on the computer is one thing. But in some instances, older siblings can engage in chronic physical and verbal abuse towards their siblings. Behavior that parents wouldn’t tolerate on the playground between kids may be tolerated within the home, because it appears to be “normal” sibling rivalry.
A recent study by Corinna Jenkins Turner, in the journal Pediatrics described the results of telephone interviews with 3,600 parents and children. One third of the kids indicated that they had been the target of sibling bullying—including physical abuse, chronic name-calling, or having their possessions stolen or ruined by a brother or sister.
Furthermore, these children had a significantly more symptoms of depression and anxiety than children who did not experience sibling bullying. While these results were suggestive, the limitations of the study design made it difficult to pin point the exact causes of these symptoms.
Dr. Turner was quoted in the New York Times (June 17, 2013) as stating: “There appears to be different norms of acceptability. Peer aggression is unacceptable, but it is not the same for siblings. Aggression among siblings should be taken just as seriously as that among peers.”
Many clinicians feel that violence and abuse among siblings is underreported. Punches and slaps are seen as “horseplay” and it is common for parents to say to themselves—“Oh well, boys will be boys.”
Emotional abuse can be just as bad, maybe at times worse. Brothers and sisters know what to say that will hurt their siblings. Name-calling and negative remarks can take their toll on sensitive children. It can impact their self-esteem and their sense of self.
I do think that all parents struggle with these issues and try to minimize sibling rivalry and fighting between their kids. It’s one of the most difficult aspects of parenting. We are not always around when our kids fight.
So what can parents do?
Let your kids know that you won’t tolerate physical or emotional aggression. Arguing and wrestling is one thing, but assault is another. Be firm and consistent when it comes to punching, kicking, or verbal abuse. If your kids know that you won’t tolerate that behavior, they will get the message.
Read Adele Faber’s book—“Siblings without rivalry: How to help your children live together so you can live too.” I love her simple, down to earth, practical approach. Her books are easy to read and understand.
Get help. When sibling rivalry turns ugly and becomes a chronic problem, consult your pediatrician and get a referral to see a child mental health specialist. This kind of behavior can be a symptom of more serious mental health problems in children. Family therapy, where all of the members of a family meet with a child therapist, can also be extremely helpful in working these problems out.
What was it like for you growing up? Did you have a brother or sister who bullied you? How did it impact you?