Sibling Bullying: When Your Anxious Child’s Bully Lives at Home

sibling bullyBullies are everywhere: in the classroom, at the bus stop, on the Internet – and maybe even in your home. While bullying from peers and classmates has gained plenty of attention as behavior that won’t be tolerated, similar behavior may be the norm when it comes to sibling interactions with each other.

“Historically, sibling aggression has been dismissed as normal,” HealthDay News quoted Corinna Jenkins Tucker, a University of New Hampshire family studies associate professor. “It’s been seen as benign, or even good for kids because it teaches them something about dealing with the world.” 

Jenkins Tucker led a study, however, that showed that it’s not benign, and certainly not a good thing.

Sibling Bullying Linked to Anxiety, Depression

The study, which was published in Pediatrics, discovered that sibling bullying may be just as detrimental as bullying from other sources. The study surveyed 3,600 children across the U.S. and found those who were physically or verbally pushed around by a brother or sister had higher levels of anxiety and depression.

Specifically, 33 percent of the children surveyed reported being the target of at least one type of sibling bullying that included:

  • Hitting or other physical abuse
  • Name-calling or other verbal abuse
  • Having things they owned stolen or purposely wrecked

While the study did not make it clear if the pushy sibling’s behavior led to the victim’s mental anguish, it did make it clear that a strong link exists. It also made the bottom line crystal clear, as pointed out by Duke University School of Medicine assistant professor and bullying scholar William Copeland:

“I think this shows us we need to address aggression no matter where it happens,” he said.

What ‘Counts’ as Sibling Bullying?

Extreme bullying which results in black eyes and trashed bedrooms can be totally obvious, but there may be more subtle behaviors that are tough to distinguish as bullying. Signs of bullying noted by KidsHealth include behavior so severe it results in:

  • Low self-esteem or mental anguish for any household member
  • Physical harm for a household member
  • Marital problems between the parents
  • Disruption of daily functioning in the household

The StopBullying website defines bullying as any unwanted, aggressive behavior from a child who appears to have power or prestige over a less powerful or prestigious child. Bullying is often repeated, or at least has the potential to be repeated, over an extended length of time.

Bullying is not only bad for the victim, but it can also leave the bully with “serious, lasting problems,” StopBullying says.

Potential Causes of Sibling Bullying

Brothers and sisters who bully their siblings are not necessarily evil children, as their bullying may stem from a need for attention, jealousy or competition. KidsHealth points out several reasons a child may start picking on his or her brother and sister: 

Children’s changing needs: Your children’s need change and grow as they do, with varied needs at different ages. They may not realize what their toddler sibling needs, such as extra attention, may not be the same treatment they get. Meanwhile, the need for teenagers to assert their independence may not fall into line with the babysitting duties you’re asking, a move that can lead to anger and resentment.

Children’s personalities: Not all types of personalities necessarily get along well with each other, and this holds true even with brothers and sisters. A loud, outspoken child may rankle a quite one while a studious child may rankle the free spirited one. Clingy, needy children can rankle any other sibling, particularly if the other sibling is not getting the same amount of attention. Even if personality clashes don’t lead to bullying, they can result in arguments or discord.

Children’s special issues: A cry for attention may again be behind a sibling’s bullying if one child has special needs or issues that normally take up a lot of family time and attention. Special needs or issues of one child can also induce fear in the other child, another factor that may lead to fights or disharmony.

Children mimicking what they see: If the relationships of the adults in the household are filled with intimidation, bickering and power struggles, children may think that is acceptable or even expected behavior. Change your habits to show them it’s not.

What Parents Can Do

Lay down the laws. Make it clear what behavior is NOT acceptable in your household and put bullying at the top of the list. If you promise consequences for bullying, make sure you follow through so your children know how serious you are about the issue. 

Know when to step in – or not. Sometimes an argument between siblings is just an argument between siblings, in which case stepping in may backfire. If you enter into every little dispute trying to find bullying where none exists, you may set the stage for resentment and teasing against the child you always seem to “rescue.”

It can also backfire by getting your children into the habit that you’ll always come along to fix even the most minor disagreements and they’ll never learn how to compromise on their own. You always want to step in if physical harm or repeated abuse of any sort is in the cards, but you may be able to let smaller, isolated disagreements pan out on their own.

Coach communication. If name-calling is more common around your home than, say, empty cookie jars, you may want to give your children a few lessons on communication. Offer examples of ways they can tell each other how they feel without lashing out verbally or physically. Point out that telling a brother or sister “I’m upset because…” can be a lot more effective for solving a problem than yelling out something like, “You butt-head!” 

Lead by example. Healthy behaviors in your own relationships can go a long way toward teaching your children what is and what is not acceptable. You can also set an example of harmony by making a point of scheduling fun activities for the entire family to enjoy. When everyone’s together, having fun and getting along, your children may quickly learn that they, too, can get along and have fun – instead of continuing on a bullying path that can lead to anguish and anxiety for them both.

Read our series on Bullying and Your Anxious Child for additional insight and information on bullying issues.


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