By Christine K. Malecki, Ph.D., and Michelle K. Demaray, Ph.D., guest contributors
We do research on bullying in schools. Recently, during an elementary school class-wide presentation about bullying, students in two different classes approached us and asked, “What if it is your brother or sister who is bullying you?” These comments intrigued us, and we started thinking about the concept of being bullied by a sibling.
Sibling relationships are complex when we are young. Researchers have identified positive qualities, such as companionship, and negative qualities, such as quarreling and competition (Furman & Buhrmester, 1985). Overall, sibling relationships are often characterized by these two co-existing extremes: warmth and conflict (Dunn, 1983).
Although many have studied sibling relationships and many have studied peer bullying, our knowledge about sibling bullying is sparse. Is sibling bullying an actual phenomenon? How would it differ from typical sibling conflict?
A focus on peer bullying can help us answer these questions. Bullying differs from typical peer conflict by being repetitive, having purposeful, negative and hurtful intent, and reflecting a power differential between the person doing the bullying and the victim (Olweus, 1993). Thus, if a boy perceives his sister as being hurtful on purpose, over and over again, and she is older than him or more powerful than him in some way, it meets the definition of bullying.
So, this type of serious sibling “meanness” may meet the definition of bullying, but does it matter? Some may discount the importance of sibling bullying. How bad can it be if your sister is mean to you? If he is your brother, you will forgive each other and move on, right? Kids will be kids, and brothers and sisters fight. However, would research support the notion that such interactions are normal and not harmful?
Research would support that typical sibling conflict is not harmful when it is constructive and properly managed (Bedford, Volling, & Avioli, 2000), primarily because siblings also have high levels of warmth in their relationship. That is, they fight about something, and perhaps an hour later they are laughing together. When the conflict meets the definition of bullying (frequent and purposefully hurtful behavior from a more powerful sibling), there is less chance for quick recovery, and there is typically less warmth in the relationship.
Our research lab recently collected data on sibling bullying. We found, in a sample of more than 350 fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade students, that bullying by peers is related to anxiety, depression, and social stress, but that bullying by siblings predicted anxiety, depression, and social stress above and beyond peer bullying (Demaray & Malecki, 2014).
These data suggest that being targeted and bullied by your siblings may lead to more severe psychological harm than being bullied by peers alone, and that this type of bullying uniquely predicts these outcomes even when traditional peer bullying is taken into account. It appears that sibling bullying is cause for concern and is not just “kids being kids.”
Based on this information, is it really okay to think of these behaviors as a normal part of development? Probably not.
Aside from being linked to some significant psychological impairments, another alarming finding of this study was that almost 20 percent of students in our sample said that their siblings “always” or “frequently” bullied them. In sum, these do not seem to be isolated cases, and our research suggests that this behavior is all too common.
This is especially concerning given the outcomes that have been linked to this type of aggression. We do know the rates of sibling bullying differ with age, with sibling bullying starting when children are 6 to 9 years old and peaking in adolescence. Furthermore, in all cases, intensity in all aspects of the sibling relationship decreases with age (Tucker, Finkelhor, Shattuck, & Turner, 2013; Finkelhor, Turner, Ormrod, & Hamby, 2009).
So what can parents do about sibling rivalries and potential bullying? First, you need to recognize the problem. Here are five signs that might suggest sibling fighting may be a bullying problem:
1. The fighting among siblings seems more intense than what you’d normally expect.
2. There are patterns to the fighting. For example, the same child is tormenting the other about the same topic day after day.
3. During altercations, one sibling always appears more powerful in some way (i.e., older, bigger, more socially skilled).
4. The siblings don’t typically “make up” after a fight, or they fail to show warmth in their relationship at other times.
5. One child shows contempt for or a lack of empathy for one of their siblings.
And here are 5 tips for parents who feel their children’s fighting is entering bullying territory.
1. Don’t ignore or diminish fighting among siblings.
2. Model empathy for the sibling who has been hurt and encourage perspective taking.
3. Provide extra supervision when you know there is an ongoing confrontation.
4. Help the sibling that is often the target of bullying identify strategies to deal with their sibling.
5. Create an overall environment in the home that does not condone or allow repeated acts of meanness toward each other.
Professor Christine Malecki is Director of the School Psychology Program at Northern Illinois University. She studies social support and peer relationships in children and adolescents and helps schools make changes to help students be more successful.
Michelle K. Demaray is a Professor in the School Psychology Program at Northern Illinois University. She studies social support and bullying and victimization in schools, including cyberbullying and bystander behavior in bullying.
Note. A special thanks to our graduate students working on the Sibling Bullying Study: Samantha Coyle, Emily Gustafson, Ian Kahrilas, Jacqueline Klossing, and Jaclyn Tennant
Bedford V. H., Volling B. L., Avioli P.S. (2000) Positive consequences of sibling conflict in childhood and adulthood. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 51, 53–69.
Demaray, M. K. & Malecki, C. M. (2014). The relationship between traditional and sibling bullying and social-emotional adjustment (in preparation).
Dunn, J. (1983). Sibling relationships in early childhood. Child Development, 54, 787-811.
Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Ormrod, R., & Hamby, S. L. (2009). Violence, abuse, and crime exposure in a national sample of children and youth. Pediatrics, 124(5), 1411-1423.
Furman, W. & Buhrmester, D. (1985). Children’s perceptions of the qualities of sibling relationships. Child Development, 56, 448-461.
Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc.