Teen Angst

Helping adolescents deal with anger and other emotions effectively

Sibling Bullying

How common is sibling bullying?

Kayla sat in her room crying. Her arm was still red and welted from her sister's hard slap. The slap would soon turn to a bruise to match the ones on her legs; left from her sister a week before. Kayla didn't know why her sister Emily, despised her so much. She really loved and admired her sister, but she felt her sister thought she was her parents favorite. Kayla sniffed as a tears slid down her face like raindrops streaming down a window pane. The words Emily had repeatedly called her throughout the years echoed over and over again in her head... "Fat!" "Ugly!" "Stupid!" "Loser!" “Is this normal?” Kayla asked. Everyone told Kayla that most sisters don’t get along and fighting is normal, but something in Kayla’s gut told her that something was wrong.

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).

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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.

Upcoming blog: The importance of a strong and healthy sibling relationship.

Journal Reference:

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

J. A. Skinner, R. M. Kowalski. Profiles of Sibling BullyingJournal of Interpersonal Violence, 2013; 28 (8): 1726 DOI: 10.1177/0886260512468327

Raychelle Cassada Lohmann, M.S., L.P.C., is the author of The Anger Workbook for Teens.

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