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Sibling-on-sibling bullying can do long-term damage


Ken Wilcox | CC BY ND 2.0

Zrinka Peters - published on 02/28/18

There are things parents can do when it gets beyond "normal childhood fighting."

Bullying among school-aged kids has been in the headlines a lot in recent years. Although there’s never been a time that kids haven’t picked on each other, maybe it hasn’t always been as bad as the “one in four’”or “one in three” ratio of school-aged kids that have reported being bullied in recent years. Bullying-prevention programs, combined with a greater awareness of and attention paid to bullying, seem to be helping somewhat, although the more recent phenomenon of cyberbullying has compounded the problem. Two steps forward, one step back.

But what about sibling-on-sibling bullying? All siblings fight sometimes. My own kids at times pick on each other so relentlessly that I’m convinced they are doing it not so much to annoy their sibling as to entertain themselves by watching me crack.

But when does a typical spat between brothers or sisters cross the line into bullying? And what are the effects if it does?


Read more:
Preventing bullying and isolation is easier than you think

Recent research set out to answer these questions. Bullying differs from typical sibling conflicts “by being repetitive, having purposeful, negative and hurtful intent, and reflecting a power differential between the person doing the bullying and the victim.” So, if little brother perceives that big sister is picking on him, repeatedly and hurtfully, and she is older or more powerful than him in some way, that behavior meets the definition of bullying.

Typical sibling conflict, in which brothers or sisters fight and then are laughing together again shortly after, are not normally a cause for concern, because of the basic underlying dynamic of warmth, trust and friendship that exists between them.

Sibling bullying, on the other hand, is a serious problem. In one study, almost 20 percent of participants said their siblings “always” or “frequently” bullied them. Apparently this problem is far from rare. And sibling bullying is associated with anxiety, depression and social stress even above and beyond peer bullying. Unfortunately, sibling bullying appears to be even more harmful than peer bullying, causing more severe psychological harm. The cliche that “those closest to us can hurt us the most” again proves true.

Other research shows that people who were bullied by their siblings as children are up to three times more likely to develop psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia in early adulthood, and the more frequent the bullying, the more likely the disorders are to occur. As one of the study authors points out, “Children spend substantial time with their siblings in the confinement of their family home and if bullied and excluded, this can lead to social defeat and self-blame and serious mental health disorder.” If a child is bullied at school and at home, it’s a double whammy; that child may not have any safe places left.

What can parents do if they sense that conflict between their children has moved beyond the normal childhood fighting and crossed over into an ugly, extended pattern of bullying? The sometimes-heard advice to “leave them alone and they’ll figure it out” falls flat in these cases. If there is a persistent problem then it is time for parents to get involved and not ignore it.

Christine K. Malecki, Ph.D., and Michelle K. Demaray, Ph.D, offer 5 tips to help parents navigate this rocky interpersonal terrain.

  1. Don’t ignore or diminish fighting among siblings.
  2. Model empathy for the sibling who has been hurt and encourage perspective taking.
  3. Provide extra supervision when you know there is an ongoing confrontation.
  4. Help the sibling that is often the target of bullying identify strategies to deal with their sibling.
  5. Create an overall environment in the home that does not condone or allow repeated acts of meanness toward each other.

Read more:
Pope: Bullying is the work of Satan, who has no compassion

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