Part 1: Sibling Bullying: Twelve Strategies Every Parent Needs to Know

Sibling relationships have been described as conflictual and close. To think our children will always get along and always enjoy one another’s company is simply unrealistic. As parents, we expect and anticipate our children will fight, disagree and hurt one another with unkind words, occasional hostility and teasing. We also see our children having moments of closeness; playing together for hours, protecting one another at school and sharing details of their lives as friends and companions.

Parents have heard from their children and will continue to hear many of the following statements between and about siblings:

“That’s not fair!”                                           “Stop looking at me.”

“Mom, it was my turn to go first and she went!”

“He always gets to do things I can’t!”                                    “She took my stuff and broke it!”

“You love him more.”

“I wish she was in another family.”                  “I hate him. He’s never nice to me!”

Hopefully as parents, we set ground rules within our home for the behaviors and actions we expect from our children. When we hear of and witness unacceptable behaviors such as teasing, physical aggressions, and unkind words, we intervene and place consequences for unacceptable behaviors. Many pediatricians and therapists encourage parents to let siblings work out problems and only step in to mediate conflict when necessary. But what does necessary look like?

How do we know when sibling conflict crosses the line and becomes emotionally damaging to a child?

In June 2013, researchers from the University of New Hampshire, Drs. Jenkins-Tucker, Finkelhor and Turner, published a study titled, “Association of Sibling Aggression with Child and Adolescent Mental Health.” The researchers examined how being a victim of sibling aggression impacts children’s and adolescents’ mental health distress and added some significant findings to a limited body of research on sibling aggression.

In this study, the researchers explored the psychological impact of sibling aggression. The sample size included 3,599 children, ranging in age from 10 to 17 years old, having at least one sibling living in the home. Researchers conducted interviews with parents and children, including self-report tests called the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Young Children and Children. Aggressive behavior was categorized into three groups:

  • Physical assault. Any physical assault with or without causing injury.
  • Property victimization: The use of force to take something away from a sibling. Examples provided in the study include: forcibly taking something a child was wearing or carrying, stealing something from a child and never returning the object, and breaking or ruining a siblings possessions, favorite items and objects.
  • Psychological aggressions: This category described any emotional pain inflicted by a sibling resulting in feeling scared or bad and including name calling, saying unkind hurtful things including not wanting the sibling to be around.

The researchers demonstrated:

  1. Sibling aggression has an impact on children’s mental health and levels of emotional distress.
  2. Siblings who had experienced any type of sibling aggression, see above mentioned, reported higher levels of emotional distress compared to children who experienced no sibling aggression.
  3. Even one episode of sibling aggression showed an elevation of a child’s mental health distress for up to one year.
  4. Parents and caregivers should not dismiss forms of psychological, property and/or physical aggression between siblings as insignificant and simply “normal” sibling interactions.
  5. Compared to peer bullying, sibling bullying has the challenge of the aggression being chronic and more difficult to escape because of the family relationship.

So what can you do when to manage sibling bullying if it occurs in your home? Here are twelve ways to manage sibling bullying:

  1. Establish rules within your family of acceptable and expected behavior. For example, no yelling, hitting, punching, teasing, name-calling or other forms of aggression. Include family rules of positivity such as use kind words, be considerate and caring, always tell the truth and be helpful to other.
  2. Understand the Difference Between Sibling Conflict and Sibling Bullying. Conflict is a struggle for power, property, and attention. Conflict often occurs when siblings disagree, compete and struggle to have personal needs met and is a normal part of human interaction. How one deals with conflict is the key. Bullying is engaging in behaviors that are frightening, threatening, or harming (emotionally, physically or socially) as a way of managing conflict.
  3. Demonstrate healthy ways to solve the conflict. The goal of sibling relationships is not to eliminate conflict. Siblings will have disagreements and moments of not getting along. Teach your children how to resolve conflict. Initially, you may have to intervene more to show your children the skills to resolve conflict. 
  4. Allow your children to work through sibling conflict. I know this may sound contradictory to the whole context of this post, but allow your children to develop the skills to solve problems and conflicts with siblings on their own. Young children often get into the habit of tattling every injustice done to them. This is often developmentally appropriate for toddlers and preschoolers as they are looking for help to solve problems. For older children, tattling is less common; they have developed a sense of how to problem solve. Regarding older children, if you fix conflict for them every single time, several patterns can occur; your child begins to rely on you to solve problems, you may be reinforcing the attention of tattling, and your child may enjoy getting their sibling in trouble. Be cautious not to confuse tattling with reporting. Tattling is telling something wrong that another child has done, often as an attempt to get someone in trouble. Reporting is stating the facts to maintain emotional and physical safety. If your child comes to you reporting any type of aggression, gather information and then intervene. 
  5. Intervene when you see concerning aggression. When you witness name-calling, teasing, physical aggression or destruction of and taking of personal items, intervene and put a stop to it immediately.
  6. Watch for subtle changes in behavior. As children get older and are naturally less supervised compared to young children, be aware of the dynamics and tensions between siblings. Youmay not be witnessing the behaviors as they occur, so watch for behaviors that indicate tension with school age children, tweens and teenagers. Examples of obvious behaviors indicating tension include yelling, screaming, slamming doors, and tearfulness. Many children cope with pain through isolating and shutting down. Examples of subtle changes in behavior can include: not wanting to play or engage in activities once enjoyed, mumbling under their breath, making sarcastic comments when upset and statements indicating low-self esteem. Ask your child what is bothering them and if something happened. Encourage your child to talk and stay focused on getting the facts and supporting your child. 
  7. Be a role model in your home. Manage the above mentioned behaviors within your own actions. Children learn what is acceptable through what they see and live. If you solve problems and cope with stress and frustration through yelling, slamming doors, name calling or cursing, you are showing your children this is acceptable ways to manage stress, frustration and emotions. When conflict or upset occurs in your life, demonstrate healthy coping skills and manage the situation. 
  8. Create talkable moments. Many times when we are out and about, at the market, on the soccer field, at the playground or any place in public, we witness situations where conflict happens. A couple of months ago, I was at the zoo with my daughters. We saw a sister and brother, school age children, begin to argue about whose turn it was to choose where to go next. The sister began to yell at her brother, he responded by grabbing the map out of her hand and she retaliated by slapping his back as he walked in front of her. Later, I started a conversation with my children about what they saw. I asked them to tell me what they thought about the situation. I asked them to imagine what the sister and brother were thinking and feeling before, during and after the interaction. I asked them what would have been a kinder way to solve the problem. Observation can give us great examples of teaching and helping our children to make sense and learn from what they witness.
  9. Life is not always fair or equal. Children seem to be focused on what is fair and equal. Not only is it difficult for parents to be fair and equal at all times, it is also an impossible standard.  Children require varied support, time and attention based on personality, age, development and need. Help your children to understand that not everything is always fair and equal. Rather, as parents, you work to ensure children get what they need, and most of the time, things end up being pretty fair and balanced.
  10. Spend quality time with each of your children. Time is often a scarce resource in busy family life. Schedule time alone with each of your children where they do not have to compete with siblings for your attention. This means undivided attention; no computer or cell phone to distract you. Even small amounts of time add; fifteen minutes before bed, time spent waiting for the bus or when you are driving, doing errands together. Focus on your child and talk about what is important to them.
  11. Children of all ages express themselves through behaviors. As children develop, they become more able to identify, label and express thoughts, feelings and concerns. However, most children, even into adolescence, present with struggles and difficulties through changes in behavior. Be aware of patterns of isolating and withdrawing from friends and family, sleeping and eating problems, irritable and/or angry mood, outbursts, fears, worry and anxiety. Again, all of the mentioned symptoms can be experienced at some point by children. Look for patterns that are frequent, re-occurring and prolonged in several areas of a child’s life; school, home, neighborhood, teams, etc. The more frequent, intense and long-standing the issues over weeks and months could signal emotional distress; talk with your pediatrician or mental health care provider.
  12. Reinforce positive words, gestures and behaviors. Children love to hear what they are doing well and doing right. When you see your child being kind to their sibling, let them know. By doing so, you will be reinforcing the positive and desired behavior which is kindness. Your child feel encouraged to continue similar behaviors and your positive comments will reinforce how kind and compassionate ways of treating people, especially family, is an important value.

© Copyright Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2014

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