Brothers and sisters fight. It is a fact of life. They bicker over the television and jockey for the front seat of the car. They even disagree over where to order dinner. But when sibling disagreements become abusive, that is bullying. It is no longer a normal sibling behavior.
In fact, violence between siblings is one of the most common types of family violence.2 It occurs four to five times as often as child abuse. What’s more, about 30% of all children have been assaulted by a sibling.2 And anywhere between 10 to 40% of children have been repeatedly bullied by a sibling. But even the most severe incidents go unreported.
Too often, families dismiss bullying behavior as horseplay or sibling rivalry. Or worse yet, they ignore it. But when one child intentionally hurts or humiliates another, 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.3 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.3 For instance, they may feel hopeless, alone and isolated. They also may struggle with anxiety, depression and identity issues. Then later in life, they continue to struggle all because of the humiliation they experienced as a child.4 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.
The Long-Lasting Effects of Bullying
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.5 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 does not necessarily include any aggressive behavior, and in some cases may encourage healthy competition.6 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.7
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. In some cases, they 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 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.8 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 respect.