Sibling Bullying Can Cause Damage. Here’s How to Spot It…and Stop It.
Is there bullying going on in your home? Given the recent focus on bullying in schools – and the awareness and prevention programs put in place – the idea of that kind of aggression under your own roof may seem absurd. But according to a study released this week in the journal Pediatrics, sibling bullying not only exists, but it may also be mistakenly overlooked as typical sibling squabbling.
The study found that although conflict between siblings is expected, an escalation to the point of bullying has often been viewed as "benign and normal and even beneficial" for the development of relational skills. But instead, the researchers reported, sibling bullying is linked to increased anger, anxiety and depression in kids who experience it. Worse yet, the effects apparently last. Many adults who were repeatedly humiliated by siblings struggle with self-esteem.
Of course, letting siblings work out their differences helps build their negotiation skills and may even bolster their empathy. But parents should get involved if certain patterns persist. Here’s what to look for when your kids are going at it:
Are the interactions one-sided? Generally, kids are pretty evenly matched when it comes to bad behavior like tossing grenade-level zingers, damaging toys or property, or resorting to hitting or kicking. But if one child is consistently the perpetrator while the other is the victim, this requires your attention – especially if there are differences in size or age that are being taken advantage of.
Is the behavior ongoing, or a one-time occurrence? While it’s developmentally appropriate for toddlers to struggle with impulse control – they may not have the words to express their feelings or have enough practice with alternative coping mechanisms – school-age kids and teens should be able to control themselves when it comes to physicality. Sure, kids can lose it in an unusually stressful situation, so if your son punches his brother, you lay down a consequence and talk it through. If the behavior stops, lesson learned. But if your child frequently punches, insults, plays mind games, violates personal space or has a blatant disregard for a sibling’s possessions, that’s bullying.
So what to do?
Get more information. Talk to your child’s teacher or camp counselor and see if the bullying behavior is happening in other settings – or if it’s happening to your child. Sometimes kids who are the victims of a bully at school express their anger and helplessness at being tormented by becoming the perpetrator at home.
Don’t unknowingly reward the bully. Bad or good, attention is attention, and often a bully’s bid for control and power is further fueled by the parental attention it gets. Teach your child other strategies for communicating with his or her sibling, and lay down what the consequence will be if that doesn’t happen. Then, if bullying occurs, there’s no big scene or back-and-forth power struggle: The consequence is invoked, and if your kid wants to avoid it, next time he or she will do things differently.
Understand the sibling dynamic. Try to find out what might be going on between your kids that’s causing the repeated conflict. Is one child envious of the other? Does one have more difficulty tolerating frustration than the other? Does one like to have more space than the other? Is it harder for one child to share? Is one child acting entitled or overbearing? Help your kids talk about their differences, and encourage them to come up with their own solutions and strategies that will work for both of them – whether that’s a chores chart, or a system for when they get to use certain items or be in each other’s room.
Give your kids positive power experiences. Kids inherently have less power than adults, but the more power they experience in a positive way, the less they’ll try to exert it in a negative way. Encourage activities in which your children feel competent and also get a much-needed energy release, like sports or dance. If your kid is into drama, commanding the stage might be a nice outlet. And be sure to include your children in age-appropriate family discussions of matters that affect them, so that they feel valued and listened to in a constructive way.