Siblings are going to fight. They’re going to poke at each other on long (or short) car rides. They’re going to push to be the first one out the door. They’re going to wrestle for control of the TV remote. After a while, it can start to sound like the regular background noise of a family with multiple children. But typical sibling rivalry or squabbles can morph into full-fledged bullying — and that’s not normal or ok.
Rivalry vs. bullying
Rivalry between siblings, at least at some point, is inevitable. They are sharing space, parents, pets, toys and electronics. A sense of competition in at least one area of their lives is normal and expected. However, when one sibling seeks to purposely harm or humiliate another sibling, they’ve crossed the line from “rivalry” into “bullying” territory.
Very Well Family explains the difference:
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 behaviours. In other words, when siblings regularly engage in name-calling, humiliation, intimidation, physical abuse and other forms of bullying, this is sibling bullying.
The bullying may be physical or it may be mental and emotional with relentless insults and name-calling. Both are bullying, the same way we’d consider it bullying it if was happening from a peer at school rather than a sibling at home. In fact, researchers with the U.S. National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence have found that sibling bullying causes mental distress for the victim, which can lead to higher rates of anger, depression and anxiety.
If you’re still not sure whether you’re witnessing an argument versus bullying, your kids’ reactions may offer the best clue. If both kids are upset and engaged in the disagreement, it’s probably a regular sibling fight. However, if the playing field isn’t level, and one child is upset and disengaged from the argument while the other seems to revel in their distress, you’re probably witnessing bullying.
Don’t add fuel to the fire
Parents, if they’re not careful, can actually make things worse. Psychotherapist Susan Swenson writes for GoodTherapy that parents often give their bullied children bad advice for how to deal with their sibling:
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.
Parents may also contribute to or encourage the bullying by putting their own labels on the kids — he’s the smart one, she’s the athletic one, he’s the outgoing one. Labels like these create an unhealthy sense of competition between siblings that can progress into bullying.
Treat it like any other bullying
The same way you would intervene if you knew your child was being bullied by a peer at school — or would expect teachers and administrators to intervene — you need to intervene when bullying happens in the home.
Very Well Family suggests a 7-step process to eliminate bullying at home:
1. Intervene immediately for aggressive behaviour. That goes for physically aggressive behaviour and aggressively mean language, such as name-calling.
2. Hold the bully responsible. The bullying child should be able to repeat back what they did wrong and they should face consequences. That could range from an apology to loss of privileges, depending on the circumstances.
3. Defuse jealousy. Each child should receive the same amount of attention, love and acceptance. Avoid comparisons like the plague that they are.
4. Model respect. No matter what we say, they’re more likely to follow what we do. A supportive, respectful and loving environment starts with parents.
5. Instill empathy. When a child can empathise with how bullying is hurtful for another child, they will be less likely to want to inflict that harm.
6. Teach them how to problem-solve. Create an environment of collaboration among siblings by seeking out opportunities for them to work together to get a job done.
7. Prevent future incidents. Once you’ve addressed the bullying, it may end — or it may not. Continue to stay tuned in to your kids’ interactions and be firm and consistent about what is and is not acceptable.
Remember, too, that your kids are still learning; just because a child is bullying a sibling now doesn’t mean they’re a bad kid. They may actually be dealing with their own internal stressors—maybe they’re being bullied at school or they feel unsupported or ignored in the home.
Intervening in the harmful behaviours at home will be helpful in getting to the root of any anxieties or distress the bullying child may feel, as well.