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Guest Columnist: Dr Missy, Feelings Helper

Siblings and Bullying


Sisters and brothers argue and then makeup. When is it sibling rivalry and when is it sibling bullying? What can parents do when it is found to be sibling bullying?


Sibling Rivalry


It is natural for siblings to bicker with each other at times, show some jealousy, and engage in some competition. Teasing each other is a part of growing up. Learning to play nice with our siblings is a blueprint for peer relationships. Communicating, negotiating, resolving conflict and solving problems with brothers and sisters will transfer to others outside the home. But when does sibling rivalry turn into bullying? When does teasing turn into taunting?


Sibling Bullying


When one sibling is continuously the victim and the other sibling is the dominator then bullying occurs. Does one sibling have to win every game or game over? Does one brother explode with anger when he does not get his way and the other brother backs down? Does one sister perceive the other sister to be inferior and call names such as ugly, fat, stupid? Does one child exclude the sibling during play activities with others? Does one sibling constantly humiliate or insult the others? Does one child frequently say, “I wish you would die!” or “I’ll kill you!”


The warning signs of sibling bullying include: consistent roles where one child is the perpetrator and the other child is the victim; a pattern of physical aggression; bickering that has escalated into verbal aggression with name-calling and arrogant voice tones.


Research on Sibling Bullying


Current research is exploring sibling bullying as one of the most damaging types of bullying. One study found that siblings who are the victims report increased symptoms of depression, anger, and anxiety. Bullying is damaging to a youth’s mental health.


Tucker and colleagues examined information from The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence Study which interviewed 3,600 children with at least one sibling and their parents. They found four markers of bullying: it is a conscious act that is deliberate aggression; the bully gains power by way of size, maturity, age, or being of a dominate ethnic group; the bully intends to harm the sibling; and he/she uses threats of future aggression and violence.


What can Parents do?


First, parents need to be proactive and prevent sibling bullying by teaching and role-modeling empathy, kindness, and fairness. The prevention of sibling bullying begins with the mother’s pregnancy; birth of the sister or brother; and continues during childhood. Some hospitals offer special programs to help siblings welcome the new baby to curb jealousy. Being aware of sibling rivalry, competition, and bullying is imperative.


A bully in the family can stress out the entire family unit. A child learns to control the family by throwing anger fits in public places and parents may stop vacations and outings. The bullying child tries to control the TV, video games, and the computer by crying, threatening, or breaking the items.


Parents need to calmly and firmly say, “There is no bullying in our house. No punching, slapping, kicking, pinching, throwing things at each other, or purposely breaking possessions.” Monitor activities in bedrooms when siblings are playing out of your sight. Does a sister threaten to harm her brother if he tells? Does a sibling threaten to not play unless she is in control of all games and play activities? Parents need to say, “Calling hurtful names and making cruel comments is not allowed in our house.”


John V. Caffaro, author of the book Sibling Abuse Trauma, states that parents can unknowingly promote sibling conflict by comparing children to each other and labeling them as “the smart one” or “the athlete.”


Please seek counseling with a child therapist if sibling bullying is found in your home.


Dr. Missy, Ph.D., is a feelings helper, child therapist, play therapist, and child trauma therapist. She provides therapeutic services at Affirmations, Columbus, Ohio.


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