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Sibling Bullying: What to do when bullying happens inside your own home

October 07, 2013

My older brother and his family were recently in town for a vacation. One afternoon, I sat with him, his wife, and my husband talking, while the kids played nearby. We talked and laughed about growing up, and my sister-in-law asked my brother and I, “Did you guys fight much as kids?”

We looked at each other, sort of laughed and shrugged at the same time, and both said, “sometimes.” I clearly remember throwing fits if my brother had a toy that I wanted (and of course, I only wanted that toy after he started playing with it). I remember finding out that he and his friend had read my diary. I remember name-calling, doors slamming, and teasing for what must have gone on for years. But fighting? I don’t know. I’m sure we did, but I can’t seem to really remember it.

What I remember the most are the good times - playing, laughing, secretly making fun of our parents to one another, and us sneaking into the living room late at night to watch David Letterman and Saturday Night Live. Going back to the question asked by my sister-in-law, I said, “I guess, but not really. He has always has been a great brother.”

I know that I am lucky to say that and mean it. I think that most parents hope that their children will grow up close, sharing private jokes and secrets, but the truth is, it’s not always like that for all families. Conflict between siblings is common, and often believed to be normal behavior and a rite of passage. But what happens when the fighting isn’t just fighting anymore? Is it possible for siblings to not only fight with each other, but to bully each other as well?

Taking a closer look at sibling bullying

A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics, states that not only does sibling bullying exist, but research is indicating that it has lasting, negative effects on both the sibling that is getting bullied, and the sibling who is doing the bullying. Specifically speaking, the bullied children and teens that participated in the study overall reported higher levels of depression, stress, and anger, compared to those who were not bullied.

What does it mean to be bullied by a sibling?

According to Corinna Jenkins Tucker, Ph.D., author of the study, bullying behaviors are defined as psychological bullying, property damage, physical fighting (with no weapons that resulted in no injuries), and more serious physical assault.

What about the sibling that is engaging in the bullying behaviors?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children who are the aggressors are more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs as they get older, engage in early sexual activity, and abuse their partners or children.

I only have one child.  However, all of my child’s friends have siblings, some older, some younger. As a parent, my radar goes up, not just for my son’s friends (and their siblings), but for kids everywhere. Looking back, I can recall many times as a kid where I watched my friends and neighbors get pushed around, threatened, and made fun of - all by their brothers and sisters.

But when is it too much, and when is it normal?

According to Amanda Nickerson, director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo, if a child’s aggression is aimed at intentionally hurting a sibling physically or psychologically, this is considered to be a red flag. However, if it’s the same old bickering over television shows, or arguing over privileges, then things are looking pretty typical. After all, there is a certain amount of annoying-ness that is unavoidable when you have more than one kid of similar age living under the same roof.

What to do when sibling bullying happens in your family

If you are thinking that this sounds all too familiar, and that some of these bullying behaviors are occurring around you, within your own family, here are some thoughts on how to tackle this tough issue:

Communicate with your kids. Various research studies have shown that bullies have often been bullied themselves. Is there a possibility that the sibling doing the bullying has endured being bullied themselves, either through school, family, neighborhood or elsewhere? If so, and it’s still going on, interventions may need to be done to ensure safety and security of the child being bullied.

Consider counseling. Family counseling provides an unequivocal opportunity to get together, as a family, with a mental health professional, and explore what is happening within the family unit and how it may contribute to these behaviors.

Support and love the bullied. And the bully. Continue to show consistent love to both parties. Showing any favoritism, or shaming one sibling in front of the other, can add fuel to the fire.

Parenting 101. Research and attend parenting classes in your area; or look for support groups and online communities where you can receive feedback, support, and encouragement. Being a parent is the hardest job any of us will ever do. And there’s no degree needed to be one! Seeking out education from an expert does not necessarily mean that you’re to blame for what’s going on with your kids. But it does mean that you are willing to do whatever is necessary to stop it.

None of us can deny that bullying is a problem. Cyber bullying, the infamous “mean girls” that seem to be in every middle and high school, and plain old making fun of someone who looks or acts different happens all the time. We’re all aware of the long lasting and sometimes heart breaking effects that bullying can have, and we’re all becoming more educated on what to do to stop it. Let’s use what we’re learning and put it to good use - for our kids, their friends, and their siblings.