Bullying & Siblings
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common is sibling bullying?
Overcoming Sibling Resentment in Adulthood
How common is
Just how common is Kayla's sibling situation? According to research probably common than you think. In fact, research is showing sibling bullying is one of the most damaging types of bullying. By definition, it is an intentional act to hurt the other child. Sibling bullying can occur through name-calling, making negative remarks,and repeatedly putting-down the other sibling. The bombardment of negativity can be psychologically damaging and its effects can last well into adulthood. Aside from insults, sibling bullying can be brutally physical in nature; examples include:slapping, pinching, pushing, hitting, hair-pulling, scratching and kicking (to name a few).
Unfortunately, sibling bullying is often thought of as a normal part of growing up so up to now little research has been on it. However, research is beginning to show that this once overlooked phenomenon is a common occurrence that has detrimental effects on the child being bullied and adversely effects the siblings long-term relationship. In a study published last September by researchers from Clemson University, 75% of participants reported being bullied by a sibling and 85% reported bullying a sibling. As these statistics show sibling bullying is very problematic.
And rest assured, no one is unaffected by an unhealthy sibling relationship. Parents are stuck in the middle of their children in an unharmonious environment. If the bullying behavior is not rectified, the long-term sibling relationship can be adversely affected. Plus, psychologically, it can bear a toll on all of the children involved. One study found that sibling aggression was linked to poor mental health and was associated with an increase in depression, anxiety, and anger management issues.In some cases, the effects of sibling aggression on mental health were the same as those of peer aggression.
Is sibling bullying occurring in your home? Do your children fit into one or more of these scenarios?
1. I know you are, but what am I? Are your children repeatedly tearing each other apart with their words? Are more negative things flying out of their mouths than positives?
2. Sticks and stones. Do your children lash out at one another physically? Is one usually crying because of what another child has done? Do they leave physical marks after an altercation?
3. What's mine is mine and what's yours is mine too! Do the other child's things mysteriouly go missing or do you find them broken yet no one takes the blame?
4. Two is company and three is a crowd. Do two or more of your children try to exclude the other? Do they work together to make the third child feel like an outcast? Do they play unkind pranks and tricks on the other sibling, such as locking him in the bathroom or running off without him?
How many did you answer yes to? If you answered more "yes's" to the above questions than "no's" then you may have a case of sibling bullying. So what do you do? First, intervene and take action. Set stern no tolerance rules and implement consequences for bullying behavior. Set a time to discuss your expectations and rules independently with each child and then again together as a group. Also create a way that the child who is being bullied can speak with you privately about what is occuring. If these suggestions don't bring relief, you may need to look into counseling sessions with a skilled professional.
As a parent it's our job to protect our children, even if this protection has to take place in our own home. Sibling aggression should not be viewed as normal. If siblings fight and hit each other it is no different than if a peer hits them. How would we react if another child hit one of our children? Sibling aggression is the same. Our children should not resort to violence as a means of expression; even if it's with a brother or sister. Bottom line, sibling bullying is not normal, and it should be taken seriously.
Corinna Jenkins Tucker, David Finkelhor, Heather Turner, and Anne Shattuck.Association of Sibling Aggression With Child and Adolescent Mental Health.Pediatrics, June 17, 2013 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2012-3801 (link is external)
J. A. Skinner, R. M. Kowalski.
Profiles of Sibling Bullying. Journal of Interpersonal
Violence, 2013; 28 (8): 1726 DOI:
Bullying Effects and Consequences
In fact, violence between siblings is one of the most common types of family violence.
It occurs four to five times as often as spousal or child abuse. Whats more, nearly half of all children have been punched, kicked or bitten by a sibling. And roughly 15 percent have been repeatedly attacked. But even the most severe incidents go unreported.
Too often, families dismiss the behavior as horseplay or sibling rivalry. Or worse yet, they ignore it as if it never even occurred. But when one child intentionally hurts or humiliates another it should never be ignored. It should be addressed immediately.
Consequences of Sibling Bullying
Bullying between siblings can harm victims in the same ways as those who are bullied on the playground. In fact, one study found that being bullied by a brother or sister was just as damaging as bullying by peers. Sometimes sibling bullying is far worse. Not only does sibling bullying impact self-esteem but it also stays with the victim for years to come.
When sibling bullying occurs, it disrupts the one place a child is supposed to feel safe the home.
Some victims of sibling bullying struggle with emotional issues during their childhood. For instance, they may feel hopeless, alone and isolated. They also may struggle with anxiety, depression and identity issues.
Then later in life, they struggle with their careers and their relationships all because of the humiliation they experienced as a child. Victims of sibling bullying also can suffer physically and academically. Not only do their grades slip, but they also may experience headaches, stomachaches and other physical complaints.
Identifying Sibling Bullying
One of the best ways to identify sibling bullying is to know the three components of bullying. These include a power imbalance, intentional actions, and repetitive behaviors. In other words, when siblings regularly engage in name-calling, humiliation, intimidation, physical abuse and other forms of bullying, this is sibling bullying. This type of behavior is not normal. Siblings should never be victimized by other siblings.
Some people confuse sibling rivalry with sibling bullying. But there is a difference. Sibling rivalry encourages healthy competition. But when one child intends to harm or humiliate another, that is bullying and it must be addressed. In other words, the child who is bullying needs to be disciplined and appropriate boundaries should be set.
Remember too, 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 play a role in the bullying. For instance, allowing children to continuously fight without intervening is harmful to both kids. "Fighting it out" is never a good option. Kids need help learning how to problem-solve. If they are never taught how to work together and solve problems, they will resort to unhealthy actions to get what they want. And in some cases, may bully one another.
Parents also contribute to the bullying if they play favorites or label their kids 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 envy and sibling rivalry are normal, be sure that it
does not get out of hand. Deal decisively with sibling
bullying. Set limits and intervene if the bickering includes
rude remarks or name-calling. Require your children to treat
their siblings with respect. And step in quickly if
disagreements become physical. The goal is that everyone in
the family feels loved, nurtured and treated with
sibling bullying is doing to your children's health
The bully on the playground can cause lasting harm, both physical and psychological, to your children. But even more dangerous is the bully in the backyard, the one who shares your childs DNA.
Up to 40 percent of children are being bullied by their siblings, and the torment can have long-lasting consequences, including depression, anxiety, inflammation, obesity and self-harm, a recent study says. In fact, sibling bullying can be worse than bullying by peers because the child has no way to escape, experts say.
Yet parents often dismiss the behavior as natural and dont intervene, rationalizing that all siblings fight to some degree.
Conflict is normal and natural and necessary. But bullying is not something you resolve; its something you stop, said bullying expert Barbara Coloroso, author of The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander.
If allowed to continue, the abuse can harm the bullied child not only as it occurs, but long after she and her sibling are adults. One study in England found that the effects of childhood bullying persist into middle age.
Weve looked at mental health, inflammation, education, work, social relationships in adulthood and physical health, and across the board, we tend to see that victims have long-term effects of this early experience, said Dr. William Copeland, an associate professor at Duke University Medical Centers Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in Durham, N.C.
When bullying gets under the skin
About 75 percent of American children have at least one sibling, and when their relationship is healthy, it can become one of the most important relationships they have over a lifetime.
By middle childhood, children spend more time interacting with siblings than with parents, wrote Dieter Wolke, Neil Tippett and Slava Dantchev of the University of Warwick in a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry in October 2015.
When good-natured bickering becomes chronic torment, however, outcomes for both the bully and the bullied worsen, and the family home, which should be a safe haven, can resemble a torture chamber for the singled-out child.
Bullied children are more likely to suffer psychological distress, like anxiety disorders and depression, and to try to harm themselves. Some studies suggest that they are more likely to be bullied outside the home, and to have difficult relationships with peers.
And the effects are not just psychological: Even in adulthood, bullied children have higher levels of C-reactive protein, a key marker of chronic inflammation.
Short-term, or acute, inflammation helps us to recover from disease or injury. But chronic inflammation breaks the body down and can lead to heart disease and other conditions like diabetes. Persistant inflammation is also an indicator of toxic stress, unrelenting pressure that can interfere with a child's normal brain development.
Bullying literally gets under the skin, says Copeland, the researcher at Duke University.
Ironically, Copeland has found that inflammation levels of bullies seemed to be improved by their bad behavior since aggression may improve their social status and thus their psychological health.
But over the long term, bullies may suffer, too. Some research shows that they are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs than their peers, have criminal convictions and traffic violations, and have trouble staying employed. Like their victims, theyre more prone to anxiety and depression than their peers, and to have an eating disorder.
The worst outcomes, however, are for the person Copeland calls the bully-victim, someone who was bullied, but then does it to others.
The bully-victim is more likely to experience depression and suicidality, which includes suicide ideation, attempts and self-harm.
Its a distinct group that has much worse long-term outcomes than even the victims themselves, Copeland said.
The effects are also magnified in children who are bullied both at school and at home. They dont have any safe place or refuge from the experience, he said.
Siblings have been fighting since Eden, which is why parents are sometimes slow to realize that something more serious than bickering is occurring.
One way to discern whether its just normal conflict or bullying is to pay attention to the reactions of both children.
In conflict, theyre both upset. But in bullying, one is in pain and the other is getting pleasure from the pain. Theyre worlds apart, Coloroso said.
Rather than being temporarily angry or upset, bullies have persistent contempt for the sibling, she added.
Look for patterns of behavior, Copeland advises. Youre talking about repeated behavior, a person being singled out on a regular basis, and the bully being in a position of perceived authority or power. Those are the three ingredients we typically define as bullying.
Typically, bullies are older than their victims and theyre most often male, although sometimes the reverse is true. And sometimes two siblings can unite against another.
When the bully is older than the target, the behavior might be a result of unresolved anger at being displaced by a new baby.
The late psychiatrist David M. Levy, who coined the term sibling rivalry, found that young children presented with dolls representing a mother, a baby and an older child often said the older childs response would be to attack or hurt the baby. He concluded that feelings of hostility toward a baby are biological and universal.
But the expression of that anger, Coloroso said, is learned.
You have to be taught to be mean, she said. Parents of bullies need to ask themselves, How do we relate to one another in the family? How do we relate to people outside the family? Our children are watching.
This may be expressed in physical abuse, like shoving, or verbal bullying, such as taunting the target or calling them names. A common tactic among sibling bullies is to label the other person the aggressor.
When parents realize one of their children is bullying another, they should take care not to minimize or rationalize the behavior.
Reassure the bullied child that you realize what is happening and that you believe her. Dont tell her to avoid the bully. In a family setting, you cant avoid him, and it doesnt work anyway, the kid will find you.
And while it helps a childs confidence to learn some defensive moves, dont tell her to ignore the bullying (it eats internally at the targeted kid) or to stand her ground. Bullies are cowards. They pick on someone they know they could get to. If you tell the kid to fight back, theyll get pummeled, Coloroso said.
For the bully, family therapy may help, as will getting her in positive, energy-expending activities, such as running, swimming or basketball. Explain that the home should be a safe harbor for everyone in the family, and ask the child to think about how to make amends and how to keep the behavior from happening again.
Finally, give both children an opportunity to do good, whether helping with meal preparation or volunteering in the community.
grow up, and unless theyre stopped, theyll
continue, Coloroso said.
Could Have Mental Health Effects
By age 18, those who'd been either the victim or the bully several times a week or month were two to three times more likely to have a psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, researchers from the University of Warwick found.
"If the bullying occurs at home and at school, the risk for psychotic disorder is even higher," study first author Slava Dantchev said in a university news release. Their risk was four times higher, the researchers found.
"These adolescents have no safe place," Dantchev said.
The study included nearly 3,600 youngsters who completed a questionnaire about sibling bullying at age 12 and were assessed for psychotic symptoms at age 18.
When they were 12 years of age, 664 kids said they were bullied by siblings, 486 said they bullied their siblings, and 771 were both victim and bully. By 18 years of age, 55 kids had developed a psychotic disorder, the study authors said.
The more often 18-year-olds had been involved in sibling bullying at a younger age -- either as bully, victim or both -- the more likely they were to have a psychotic disorder, the findings showed.
However, Dantchev noted that although the researchers took into account "for many pre-existing mental health and social factors, it cannot be excluded that the social relationship problems may be early signs of developing serious mental health problems rather than their cause."
According to senior study author Dieter Wolke, "Bullying by siblings has been, until recently, widely ignored as a trauma that may lead to serious mental health problems, such as psychotic disorder."
Wolke, a psychology professor at the university, added that "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 -- as shown here for the first time."
Because sibling bullying can have long-term mental health effects, the researchers said, it's important that parents and health professionals find ways to reduce or prevent it.
The study was published online Feb. 12
in the journal Psychological Medicine.
There Is No Getting Away: The Grief of Sibling
Since time immemorial, siblings have pried their way under each others skin. Arguing and jockeying for position in the family are part of growing up. The problem is that sometimes parents misunderstand what they are witnessing in their children. What they view as sibling rivalry can actually be bullying. There is a simple way to tell the difference.
When two children are sparring, it is easy to observe that they are both upset and both engaged in the clash. Parents can intervene and set the rules of engagement, teach the value of mutual respect, and offer children templates for managing disagreements at home and with those they may face in the world outside the home. But when one sibling is bullying another, it is only the bully who is engaged and seeming to delight in the taunting. The bullied child is miserable. The only response for parents is to stop the bullying. Period. There is no false equivalency: they are not equally at fault. There is no need for mutual apology. There is only stopping the aggression and offering solace and protection to the victim.
Most sibling bullying takes the form of name-calling and insults, both of which are passive-aggressive behaviors the bully can deny when confronted. Shes taking it too seriously! She started it! If she werent such a brat, this would not have happened. It is never the bullys fault. The bully loves to play the role of victim. And the bully can be very convincing to parents who are too distracted or too exhausted to figure out what is really going on.
Meanwhile, the victimfor the purposes of this article, well use young girls as our examplesfeels unsafe in her own home. She returns from school with dread every day, emotionally defended and prepared for a shellacking by her sister, who can be older or younger than she is. She learns that her parents cannot or will not intervene on her behalf. She feels defenseless and begins to doubt her own perception. It is a form of gaslighting: the bully sibling makes the victim wonder whether she really is the nasty, incompetent, bratty person the bully is telling her she is.
The likely victim in sibling bullying is the child who is sensitive and thoughtful. The bully is likely to have problems which the parents do not see. These can be related to being bullied herself at school, for example, or they can be the result of transferring the effects of her own trauma onto someone else. Often in dysfunctional families where a child feels unsupported or ignored, that child will take it out on a sibling because for any number of reasons she fears that going directly at the parent would crash her own fragile world, regardless of how unpleasant it may be.
There are also other, less obvious, explanations for bullying a sibling. Children can have personality conditions, just as adults can. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) offers a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder to describe children under the age of 18 who exhibit behaviors devoid of compassion and empathy for others. The adult version of this is antisocial personality. This is a potentially serious problem.
It is a daunting situation for a parent to face the possibility that a child might need psychotherapeutic care. Sometimes, it is more than parents can bear to face. They feel ashamed, somehow responsible, for the behavior of their bullying child. Though bullies crop up more often in families with trauma, alcoholism, or other chronic dysfunction, these components are not always in place. Sometimes, with all the best of support and parental supervision, children need help from professionals. Bullies generally are not happy people, as children or as adults.
If youre a parent, closely monitor your childrens arguing. Be certain thats actually what you are seeing. If the playing field is not level and one child enjoys the other childs distress, you are not looking at normal sibling development. You are looking at bullying, and your role as a parent is to stop it immediately.
But there is plenty of material available to parents to help them disarm bullies. My concern here is with the victim. Often, it is the victim who is told by well-meaning parents either to ignore the bully or to fight back. Neither of these approaches feels possible to the typical victim child. And neither is effective, anyway: ignoring a bully is tantamount to goading her, and fighting back is unrealistic advice for a child whose temperament is neither adversarial nor combative.
She is at risk for low self-esteem, depression, and even self-harm as a result of being bullied by a sibling who renders the home an unsafe place. Where is the victim to go? Children have neither the means nor the power to remove themselves from an environment that is so painful. She is stuck enduring the grief until she can manage to leave home for college or move on to the workforce and her own apartment.
But she is insufficiently prepared. She might develop a sarcastic style, for example, which pushes people away from her when she most needs contact with others and trusted friends. She is deeply wounded. She rejects herself the way her bullying sibling rejected her for all those years. She does not feel lovable. She is deeply sad. And she doesnt understand why. These consequences can go on for a victims entire life. She can forever struggle with self-doubt and negative self-talk, taking over the belittling work of the bully long after both have left home.
A sensitive and talented child can remain hobbled if sibling bullying is left unaddressed. It is not unusual for bully and victim roles to continue well into adulthood. If the victim marries and has her own children, and then finally comes to see it is in her best interest to sever relations with her bullying sibling, her own children and family may condemn her for what they do not understand, and which she is unable to adequately explain.
If youre a parent, closely monitor your childrens arguing. Be certain thats actually what you are seeing. If the playing field is not level and one child enjoys the other childs distress, you are not looking at normal sibling development. You are looking at bullying, and your role as a parent is to stop it immediately. This is in the interest of both the victim and the bully.
If you are an adult struggling with the confusing long-term damage of having been bullied at home, supportive counseling can help you understand yourself better. You can address why you were unable to defend yourself as a child (likely because you didnt understand what was happening) and that it was your parents responsibility to intervene and protect you (which they didnt, for reasons unique to them). You can also unravel the roots of any current problems you may have with confidence and self-worth. Please dont be surprised if they derive from the way your sibling treated you as a child. And please be alert to the possibility this behavior may be continuing toward you in the present. Counseling can help you identify ongoing toxic relationships in your family of origin and guide you toward setting boundaries in order to stop behaviors that are harmful to you.
It is unlikely you can disarm a sibling who bullied you as a child and who is now an adult. Adult bullies tend to become ever more adept at the plausible deniability inherent in passive-aggressive behavior (Oh, thats not what I meant, for example, when you try, however cautiously, to hold them accountable for poor behavior). This isnt to say change isnt possible.
Finally, it is important to remember that no happy person would choose to bully another, regardless of their insistence that they are happy and you are the problem. Compassion you may feel for the bully can only take you so far, however. You must also take steps to guard yourself from the ongoing effects of their continued disrespect toward you.
Bowes, L., Wolke, D., Joinson, C.,
Lereya, S. T., & Lewis, G. (2014, September 8). Sibling
bullying and risk of depression, anxiety, and self-harm: A
prospective cohort study. Pediatrics. doi:
Conflicts among siblings are normal. But sometimes these disagreements can go too far. When normal conflict turns into bullying, parents need to step in. Allowing your kids to fight it out is not the best approach, especially if one child has more power than the other. If you discover that one of your kids is bullying the other, here are some things you can do to confront sibling bullying.
Put an End to Aggressive Behavior
If your children react to one another in aggressive ways including hitting and pushing and even name-calling, you need to intervene immediately. Tell them that aggressive and mean behavior will not be tolerated. Then, discipline your child for bullying. Teach your kids how to treat one another with respect even when they disagree. And show them how to relate with one another in healthy ways. When you do so, you are giving them the opportunity to practice healthy relationship skills in a safe environment with people that love them unconditionally.
Hold the Bully Responsible
It is essential that your kids know that the choice to bully is theirs, regardless of the reason behind it. Emphasize that bullying causes pain for their brothers and sisters and encourage them to take responsibility for their actions. To ensure that they understand this, be sure your children can repeat back what they did wrong.
Then implement appropriate consequences.
For instance, should your child be grounded? Is an apology needed? Should he lose a privilege? The answer will depend on the severity of the bullying incident and your parenting style. But the key is to do something to ensure that your child understands that bullying is unacceptable.
Although jealousy is a normal human emotion, it can be exacerbated if you dont praise your children equally. Be sure that each child receives recognition, love, and acceptance and avoid comparisons at all costs. You also should avoid labeling or categorizing your children. In other words, do not call them the athletic one, the smart one, and so on. Doing so only breeds envy and contempt.
Always point out your kids good characteristics. Mention concrete things that you saw or heard them do. Let them know you value their efforts as much as their siblings' efforts. Remember, when your kids receive compliments from you, what they experience is affection. The more compliments you give your children, the more affection they feel. They also will feel like they are being recognized and that their needs are being met. When this happens, there is less need to bully others.
Teach and Model Respect
The first step in teaching respect is for parents to model that behavior by acting supportively toward one another. Additionally, you should talk to your kids about what constitutes a healthy friendship and encourage them to take steps to be a good friend to their siblings. You also may want to adopt a family philosophy that encourages family members to help and support one another.
When a child feels empathy toward other people, this will go a long way in preventing bullying. Kids who are empathetic will be able to see that bullying hurts other people and will learn to refrain from it. In fact, empathy, along with emotional intelligence, are the cornerstones of bullying prevention.
Empower Them With Problem-Solving Skills
Kids do not automatically know how to problem-solve. Many times, they will default to unhealthy methods instead. Consequently, work on problem-solving techniques and stress collaboration. Give your kids situations to work out or create opportunities where they have to work together to get a job done.
Just be sure to supervise them to ensure one sibling is not taking advantage of another.
Prevent Future Bullying Incidents
Sometimes when bullying is caught
early, it wont happen again. But do not assume this is
always the case. Instead, continue to monitor the situation,
bullying or unkind behaviors
immediately. And remember if one sibling bullies the other,
this does not mean you are a bad parent. Kids are still
learning what is acceptable and what isnt. Be firm and
consistent. You and your kids will get through this and come
out stronger in the end.
Long-Term Effects of Adult Sibling Bullying
While some parents see bullying among their children as a normal form of sibling rivalry, few people realize that, in many families, it can continue well into adulthood.
So, what is it and why does it occur?
Sibling bullying can take many forms, but it is always done with the intention of shaming, belittling or excluding their victim. It can include name calling, threats, constant teasing and enlisting other siblings to join them in the bullying.
Bullying among siblings can occur because parents dont take it seriously, assuming it is just a phase or that it is natural for siblings to fight and squabble among themselves. More often than not, though, bullying takes root within families where abuse and bullying tactics are practiced by the parents.
Children are wired to imitate the behavior they see around them, so it is no surprise that a child who is being bullied by an abusive parent goes on to bully others. As is so often the case with bullies, it will be those even less powerful than they are, such as younger siblings or classmates, who end up being the target. The child may also resort to various forms of bullying as a way of venting the frustration they feel at their parents ill treatment of them, but which they are powerless to stop.
Relationship dynamics between the bully and the victim often remain unchanged from childhood into adulthood. The bully continues to victimize their sibling because having someone to pick on boosts their own fragile sense of self-worth. The victim, worn down by years of ill treatment at the hands of their sibling, may feel resentful, but may also be at a loss as to how to change the situation, thus allowing the abuse to continue.
The bully may have become so used to having a sibling who cant or wont defend themselves that they dont want the dynamic between them to change and become more healthy. Having someone to blame for their problems or take their frustration out on suits the bully and so they deliberately resist any attempts at sincere reconciliation.
After many attempts at trying to have a healthy relationship with the bullying sibling, most victims simply give up and accept the situation, however miserable it makes them. Some take the drastic, but necessary measure of avoiding contact with their sibling.
Estrangement between adult siblings is
not as uncommon as most people think, with a recent study at
Cornell University finding that one in ten adults have one
or more family members from whom they are estranged. For
many people in this situation, it is a last resort and one
they may grapple with for years before finally taking the
plunge. However, most report feeling a strong sense of
relief that they no longer have to endure their bullying
In humans, competition between siblings is a little subtler, but its still there. After all, theres only so much parental attention to go around. Any time mom and dad are focused on one of your siblings is a time theyre not focused on you.
Sometimes competition between brothers and sisters takes the form of healthy sibling rivalry. Other times, though, it can turn into a pattern where one or more siblings are not getting their emotional needs met and fall into unhealthy roles within the family.
One way this happens is if one sibling needs much more attention. Parents might not be able to distribute their attention equally if one child has a medical condition, for example, or simply if theres a significant age gap between siblings.
This situation can be painful for a child who sees so much parental attention going to another sibling and whose own needs become marginalized in the family. This kind of family dynamic can teach that child to adopt a role of putting other peoples feelings first.
Of course, then all the siblings grow up, the resentment fades, and everyone lives happily ever after. Right?
No. Just kidding. If anything, these feelings can harden into something destructive in adulthood. They can become an obstacle preventing family dynamics from evolving, relationships from growing.
Worse yet, siblings can go and act out their familial roles in other relationships too. A lot of how we relate to people is learned from our interactions with our family, so its easy for a pattern of not having ones needs met at home as a child to become a pattern of not having ones needs met across all kinds of relationships as an adult.
But theres good news: no one has to be stuck in these familial roles forever. Its possible to move beyond sibling resentment rooted in childhood and to break out of old patterns. It all starts with acknowledging the situation for what it is.
In this Ask the Therapist video, Marie Hartwell-Walker and Daniel J. Tomasulo respond to a letter about resentment between two siblings and look at ways of overcoming this kind of resentment in adulthood: www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnb1kiUQjCM
Ask parents who have two or more children, How do your kids get along with each other? and you will often hear, They have the normal sibling rivalry. They fight all the time.
Parents today become furious when schools fail to stop another kid from tormenting their child. But when it comes to their inability to make their own children stop tormenting to each other, they comfort themselves by telling themselves it is normal.
Parents who haven't studied psychology in depth can be forgiven for capitulating to the natural human urge to avoid cognitive dissonance by using this rationalization. We are thrilled that it is now acceptable to blame schools for failing to do with hundreds of kids what most of us fail to accomplish with our own couple of kids at home. What is less forgivable is that social scientists (link is external), whose duty is to uncover the truth regardless how disturbing their revelations may be, promote the idea that sibling rivalry is normal and even healthy while school bullying is abnormal and devastatingly destructive.
The reason it is so easy to fool ourselves into condemning bullying while accepting sibling rivalry is because the word normal has more than one meaning. In the statistical sense it means that it falls within the range of most members of a group. Another commonly used meaning of normal is psychologically healthy, as in, she is normal. Conversely, abnormal is used to mean someone who is psychologically unhealthy.
Statistically, sibling rivalry is indeed quite normal. It goes on in many or even most families with two or more children. It is the rare family in which the children are always nice to each other. It is also a stubborn problem. The harder parents try to get rid of it, the worse it tends to become. So they get the impression that it is not only normal but inevitable. All they need to do is read the stories of all the early families in the Bible to have their impression validated.
Because sibling rivalry is commonly called normalbecause statistically it ispeople also get the impression that it must be healthy, as implied by the other meaning of normal. However, there is nothing healthy about it. An entire society may be infested with lice. Having lice in such a society is normal, but it is hardly healthy.
Part of the problem comes from the choice of the word rivalry to describe the ongoing hostile relationship between siblings. Rivalry is not necessarily a bad thing. It often refers to the relationship between competitors, as between two sports teams. Each strives to be superior to the other, to the betterment of both. The rival teams dont want each other to disappear. There can be no game if there is no team to play against. They play by rules of fairness, and they tend to respect each other even as they try to defeat each other on the playing field.
This kind of rivalry hardly describes the situation we call sibling rivarly. It is not an ongoing saga of two siblings each trying to be better than the other. They are not playing fairly by any predetermined rules, and they dont respect each other. They are angry, jealous and vengeful, and use underhanded tactics to torment each other and get each other punished by their parents. They may even hate each other and wish the other were never born. Sometimes their hatred and resentment last a lifetime, as it is common to find adults who have completely cut off contact with their sibling, to the great anguish of their parents.
No, there is nothing healthy about the normal sibling rivalry. It is a dysfunctional relationship that causes unnecessary pain not only to the kids involved but to the parents as well. The fact that most parents, even those who are mental health professionals, don't know how to make it stop, does not make it healthy. There is little that grieves parents like seeing their own childrenthe people they love the most in the worldin a constant state of war.
Personally, if I had a choice, I would rather have my children be best of friends while having a classmate bully them in school than the other way around. Schoolmates come and go, but siblings are forever.
So please, lets stop the hypocritical
double standard. We have no business condemning bullying
among kids in school as abnormal while simultaneously
accepting sibling rivalry at home as normal.
The inevitable has happened. The anti-bullying psychology has finally established a solid bulwark in the home. News of a research study confirming the obviousthat sibling rivalry is an even more pervasive and destructive phenomenon than school bullyinghas hit all of the major news outlets, including the most revered of all, The New York Times (link is external).
Antibullyism has grown into the most influential field of psychology in history by incorporating more and more interpersonal problems into its domain and lobbying to have its paradigm and recommendations mandated by law. It has now redefined sibling rivalry as sibling bullying and is pressuring parents to put a stop to it at home.
Fourteen years ago I began warning that the anti-bullying psychology will make school bullying a more serious problem, and my predictions have been validated. I am now predicting that the expansion of anti-bullying psychology into sibling relationships will make home life intolerable (if it isn't already so).
I initially thought the publication of this new research was a terrible development. I realize now it has a silver lining. Anti-sibling-bullying policies will expedite the downfall of the anti-bullying movement as a whole.
I am aware that you, my dear reader, are probably outraged by my prediction, as you almost certainly are a proponent of the anti-bully ideology. However, I assure you its demise will be to everyones benefit, including your own.
The similarity between the self-esteem and anti-bullying movements
The oxymoronic anti-bullying psychology is bound to end up in the dustbin of history, along with other failed movements, such as the self-esteem movement, because it is built on a faulty foundation. The bigger it becomes, the more certain will be its collapse.
A few decades ago, researchers discovered that children with high self-esteem tended to have higher achievements than those with low self-esteem. They concluded that by raising childrens self-esteem, real-life achievements would follow. After years of intensive self-esteem enhancement, it became apparent that not only wasnt it improving students achievement, it was hurting them in various ways. The self-esteem movement failed because it put the cart before the horse. True self-esteem comes from real achievement, not the other way around.
Similarly, researchers discovered that many children are victims of bullying in school and that they suffer terribly. They concluded, therefore, that the way to stop kids from being bullied is to enlist all of society in a campaign against bullying. Unfortunately, while getting rid of bullying is wonderful goal, it cannot possibly be accomplished by waging war against bullying. The only reliable way is to teach kids how not to be victims.
Previous anti-sibling-bullying efforts
This is not the first time that bullying researchers have attempted to make sibling bullying a popular concern, but previous efforts failed. Many anti-bullying organizations and experts, such as Barbara Coloroso, author of the best-selling book on bullying, The Bully, The Bullied and the Bystander (link is external), have argued desperately that sibling rivalry is not bullying, despite the fact that few relationships fit the definition of bullying more accurately than sibling rivalry.
The modern academic definition of bullying (which is flawed but universally accepted) has three pillars: 1. An intention to cause distress or harm; 2. Repetitiveness; and 3. An imbalance of power.
What happens in sibling rivalry? Siblings torment each other repeatedly. With the possible exception of identical twins, there is always an imbalance of power. And boy do they want to hurt each other! Few situations exemplify bullying better than sibling rivalry.
Furthermore, far more children are victimized by siblings than by peers in school. Several years ago, I conducted a survey of four thousand mental health professionals and educators, the very professionals who are responsible for getting rid of bullying in schools. The survey found that their own children are four times more likely to be hit every day, and twice as likely to be insulted, by their own sibling than by another kid in school.
Why, then, have anti-bullying experts and organizations been focusing on bullying in schools while ignoring the more serious problem of bullying between siblings?
Its because humans cannot tolerate cognitive dissonance (link is external). How could parents demand that schools make hundreds of other kids to be nice to their children while being aware that they cant get their own two kids at home to be nice to each other? How could bullying experts insist that schools be held legally accountable for bullying between students when they cant get rid of bullying among their own kids at home? Simple! By declaring that sibling rivalry isnt bullying!
Triangulation-the major cause of hostility
ow did I know that the anti-bullying psychology was bound to fail? Because before Columbine put me on the mission to spread the true solution to bullying, I had been on a mission to eradicate sibling rivalry.
In my professional psychological training in the 1970s, I had learned that the most serious cause of hostility is triangulation (link is external). Thats when one person gets involved trying to save an apparent victim from their apparent persecutor. It creates what was defined by Karpman as The Drama Triangle (link is external). Without realizing how hes doing it, the rescuer causes the hostilities between the two parties to escalate, and at least one party becomes hostile to the rescuer as well. And the rescuer actually prevents them from solving their problems with each other.
I began closely observing family interactions and noticed that as soon as parents approached their children to intervene in an altercation, the kids would start screaming, desperately trying to get the parent on their side against their sibling. The child judged to be in the wrong (usually the older one, who should know better) would be furious with both his sibling and his parent, and would seek to create another fight to try to get the parent on his side. The winner (usually the younger or weaker one) would be thrilled, eager to create another fight to repeat their victory. In other words, the kids would be fighting constantly over their parents, the most important people in the world to both of them. The parents would go crazy trying to make the sibling rivalry stop, oblivious to the fact that they were creating it! (For a greatly detailed explanation of this phenomenon, read my free online manual, A Revolutionary Guide to Reducing Aggression between Children (link is external): http://bullies2buddies.com/Adult-s-Manual/chapter-one-what-do-we-really-... (link is external) )
The more I met with parents, the more obvious it became that sibling rivalry is their most exasperating problem. That sibling rivalry was the major problem in virtually all of the primordial families in the Bible is not accidental. In fact, in the Biblical allegory of the first siblings, one, Cain, killed the other, Abel.
Reading parenting books, I discovered that my observations about the dynamics of sibling rivalry had already been well established. The great Adlerian psychiatrist and parenting expert Rudolf Dreikurs beautifully explains the cause and solution to sibling rivalry in his classic book, Children: The Challenge (link is external). Dr. Jane Nelson, creator of the Positive Discipline (link is external) system, teaches it (link is external). Other respected books on sibling rivalry, such as Siblings Without Rivalry (link is external) by Mazlich and Faber, and Anthony Wolffs Mom! Jasons Breathing on Me! (link is external) also describe the counterproductive efforts of parents to protect their children from each other.
By the mid-1980s, I was gung ho on a mission to help parents reduce sibling rivalry, and was succeeding remarkably. I would explain to parents the hidden dynamics of sibling rivalry, and teach them how to stop playing judge and, instead, get their kids to solve their problems with each other directly. The situation improved in about 90% of the families I counseled, and parents were grateful to me for simplifying their lives.
In my spare time I worked on a book on sibling rivalry, and was looking for a literary agent when Columbine happened and made bullying (a problem that I also happened to learn how to solve) a worldwide emergency. But to my amazement, the bullying experts were telling schools that they needed to protect victims from bullies! They were insisting that the solution to bullying was to require everyone to play rescuer! The very action that creates the problem of sibling rivalry at home had become the psychologist-recommended solution to bullying in schools! It couldnt possibly work!
Now its 2013. After fourteen years of triangulation in schools, hostilities among students, parents, and administrators are at an all-time high. Schools are going crazy trying to comply with anti-bullying laws while expensive, time-and-energy-consuming lawsuits by parents against schools are proliferating, and revered bullying researchers such as Dorothy Espelage are banging their heads against the wall (link is external) trying to figure out why their triangulation programs arent working.
The myth of adult non-intervention
Thanks to the latest sibling bullying research, parents are now being warned that they shouldnt ignore bullying among their children (link is external). This warning is based on the naive assumption that parents have been idly sitting by while they observe their children battering each other.
If you are a parent, there is a very good chance that your children torment each other many times a day. If so, do you just calmly stand by while they beat the dickens out of each other? I bet you spend an awful lot of time and effort trying to stop them.
I have never observed a family in which the kids fight regularly and the parents act as though nothing were wrong. Of the hundreds of parents Ive counseled, not one ever told me, My kids constantly fight and I do nothing to stop them. On the other hand, I have heard countless parents say, I tell my kids not to come to me unless theres blood, and they get along beautifully. Theyre the best of friends. If you think about it, the families with no sibling rivalry are the ones that arent doing anything to stop itbecause there is nothing to stop. On the other hand, the families that are spending the most time stopping sibling rivalry are the ones with the most sibling rivalry going on. There might be a meaningful correlation there!
I have, though, heard many adults claim their siblings tormented them terribly when they were children and their parents did nothing to stop them. Its the same accusation thats often made about schools: My child is being bullied and the school is doing nothing to stop it!
These impressions of adult non-intervention are usually illusions resulting from our natural egocentricity. We were highly attuned to our own suffering at the hands of our siblings, but couldnt see that our siblings were furious with us for trying to get them in trouble, and that our parents were desperately trying to make us get along, to no avail. The same phenomenon is involved in the illusion that schools are doing nothing to make bullying stop. They are trying hard to stop it, but what theyre doing isnt working and even making the bullying worse.
Currently, bullying experts, armed with this new research on the devastating problem of sibling bullying, are putting siblings under the protective umbrella of the anti-bullying movement. Assuming that the anti-sibling-bullying crusade is here for good, and doesnt get hypocritically rationalized away as in the past, this is how it will lead to the demise of the anti-bullying movement.
Parents will now be required to implement in the home the following model sibling anti-bullying policy, derived from model school anti-bullying policies:
1. It is hereby declared that all children have a basic human right to a childhood free of fear of siblings.
2. Children and parents will be taught to recognize all the types of sibling bullying that are not to be tolerated. These acts include derogatory remarks, physical attacks, ignoring, social exclusion, nasty looks or gestures, gossip, and any other actions that can deprive them of a feeling of dignity.
3. Parents will be held legally responsible for all bullying that goes on between their children.
4. Parents must constantly monitor all areas of their childrens home and social environments (including cyberspace) to make sure no sibling bullying is occurring.
5. Parents must intervene immediately when they witness sibling bullying, or when a child complains of being bullied by a sibling.
6. Parents must conduct a thorough investigation into every act and complaint of sibling bullying, meeting separately with each child as well as with all witnesses. Parents will determine if bullying actually occurred, and which child is the victim and which is the bully.
7. Parents will consistently punish (administer consequences to) the bully, while comforting the victim that the incident was not their fault in any way. The punishments for the bully will be increasingly harsh, culminating with expulsion from the home.
8. Parents must produce a comprehensive written report on every bullying incident and complaint and file it with local government authorities. This is for the benefit of the parents as well, so they can prove that they were not negligent in addressing bullying.
9. If parents fail to make the bullying stop, their children are to report their parents to the appropriate government authorities, such as Child Protective Services or the Police Department.
10. It is understandable that many children and parents will be reluctant to report bullying to the authorities. Therefore, teachers and other school personnel, as well as everyone else in contact with children, will be instructed how to detect if a child is being bullied by a sibling at home and to inform the government authorities.
11. If these procedures fail to make the sibling bullying stop, the children and the government authorities may file a lawsuit against the parents.
In a matter of days those homes that arent already all-out war zones will become ones. Parents will be driven insane trying to enforce these policies. They will find that all their time is consumed with their kids fighting. Their enthusiasm for antibullyism will quickly go down the drain.
Psychologists, who also believed
antibullyism was wonderful before they became responsible
for implementing it at home, will question its rationality.
Realizing that it violates the most basic teachings of
psychology, they will reject this misguided branch of
psychology, and seek out and find what does work. Its
been out there for a very long time.
Versus Schoolyard Bullies
As a psychotherapist whose patient population includes many normal siblings of the mentally or physically dysfunctional, and who has written two books on sibling strife (The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling (link is external) and Cains Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Shame, Rage, Secrecy, and Regret (link is external)), this is certainly not news to me. Very few of my patients have escaped unscathed from their parents failure to protect them from harm. Many tell me they were actually blamed for their siblings attacks, or accused of overreacting. Girls can be every bit as vicious as boys, and age differences in either direction dont matter. Here are a few of the outrages they suffered:
Indelible is the word
these sibling use, sometimes fifty years after the fact, to
describe the impact of cruelty that was rationalized as
normal or that they were encouraged to excuse. Many of them
were relieved at the notice that their plight was finally
attractingthough they never complained about it,
because they had learned long ago to grin and bear
everythingbut also justifiably outraged at
societys blindness. Home is where the hurt starts, and
that is where we must look first if we are to ever stop