It is not uncommon for brothers and sisters to fight. They bicker over the television, fight for the front seat of the car and even disagree over where to order dinner. But when the fighting and bickering evolves into physical or emotional abuse, it is bullying. And that is a problem.
In fact, violence between siblings is one of the most common types of family violence. It occurs four to five times as frequently as spousal or child abuse. What’s more, nearly half of all children have been punched, kicked or bitten by a sibling. And roughly 15% have been repeatedly attacked. But even the most severe incidents are often underreported. Too often, families dismiss the behavior as horseplay and kids being kids. Or worse yet, they ignore it as if it never even occurred.
But when one child intentionally hurts or humiliates a brother or sister it should not be ignored. It should be taken seriously and addressed. Left unaddressed sibling bullying can have the same dire consequences as peer bullying. And the child on the receiving end can suffer from a multitude of physical, emotional and academic issues.
Consequences of Sibling Bullying
Researchers report that aggression and bullying between siblings can harm victims in the same way as those who are threatened by peers on the playground. In fact, one study found that being bullied by a brother or sister was just as damaging and sometimes more so than bullying by peers. This type of bullying erodes the child’s identity and sense of self-esteem.
In fact, aggression between siblings can inflict psychological wounds that often continue into adulthood. For instance, some bullied siblings struggle with such significant emotional issues that they sabotage their lives, their careers and their relationships all because of the repeated humiliation they experienced as a child.
Identifying Sibling Bullying
One of the best ways to identify sibling bullying, is to have a clear grasp of the three components of bullying. These include a power imbalance, intentional actions and repeated behaviors. In other words, when one sibling is consistently the victim and the other is constantly the perpetrator, then that is sibling bullying.
While some rivalries with siblings encourage healthy competition, when the aggression is intended to cause harm or humiliation, then that is a major issue that must be addressed by family members. Additionally, it is important to note that not all sibling bullying involves physical bullying. Siblings often engage in relational aggression and name-calling, both of which can be just as harmful as physical bullying.
Sometimes parents can unknowingly play a role in the bullying by allowing children to continuously fight and confront each other in aggressive ways without intervening. They falsely believe that allowing kids to “fight it out” is always the best option. But kids need help learning how to problem-solve. If they are not taught how to collaborate and solve problems, they will often resort to unhealthy means of communication. And in some cases, may bully one another.
Parents also contribute to the bullying if they play favorites or label children as “the smart one,” “the athletic one,” "the dramatic one" or even the “the quiet one.” These labels lead to an unhealthy competitiveness between siblings that can develop into bullying.
Remember, the home is supposed to be a safe place where everyone is loved and treated equally. While it is normal for kids to feel jealous of one another and to have some type of sibling rivalry, you need to be sure that it does not get out of hand. To do that, you need to deal decisively with sibling bullying. Be sure to set limits and intervene if the bickering gets out of hand or is trending toward bullying. You also need to make sure that everyone in the family is loved, nurtured and treated with respect.