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Sibling Bullying Research Can Destroy Anti-Bullying Movement

New research on sibling bullying is the greatest danger to antibullyism

Triangulation/ Illustration by Steve Ferchaud for Bullies to Buddies

The inevitable has happened. The anti-bullying psychology has finally established a solid bulwark in the home. News of a research study confirming the obvious–that sibling rivalry is an even more pervasive and destructive phenomenon than school bullying–has hit all of the major news outlets, including the most revered of all, The New York Times.

Antibullyism has grown into the most influential field of psychology in history by incorporating more and more interpersonal problems into its domain and lobbying to have its paradigm and recommendations mandated by law. It has now redefined sibling rivalry as sibling bullying and is pressuring parents to put a stop to it at home.

Fourteen years ago I began warning that the anti-bullying psychology will make school bullying a more serious problem, and my predictions have been validated. I am now predicting that the expansion of anti-bullying psychology into sibling relationships will make home life intolerable (if it isn't already so).

I initially thought the publication of this new research was a terrible development. I realize now it has a silver lining. Anti-sibling-bullying policies will expedite the downfall of the anti-bullying movement as a whole.

I am aware that you, my dear reader, are probably outraged by my prediction, as you almost certainly are a proponent of the anti-bully ideology. However, I assure you its demise will be to everyone’s benefit, including your own.

The similarity between the self-esteem and anti-bullying movements

The oxymoronic anti-bullying psychology is bound to end up in the dustbin of history, along with other failed movements, such as the self-esteem movement, because it is built on a faulty foundation. The bigger it becomes, the more certain will be its collapse.

A few decades ago, researchers discovered that children with high self-esteem tended to have higher achievements than those with low self-esteem. They concluded that by raising children’s self-esteem, real-life achievements would follow. After years of intensive self-esteem enhancement, it became apparent that not only wasn’t it improving students’ achievement, it was hurting them in various ways. The self-esteem movement failed because it put the cart before the horse. True self-esteem comes from real achievement, not the other way around.

Similarly, researchers discovered that many children are victims of bullying in school and that they suffer terribly. They concluded, therefore, that the way to stop kids from being bullied is to enlist all of society in a campaign against bullying. Unfortunately, while getting rid of bullying is wonderful goal, it cannot possibly be accomplished by waging war against bullying. The only reliable way is to teach kids how not to be victims.

Previous anti-sibling-bullying efforts

This is not the first time that bullying researchers have attempted to make sibling bullying a popular concern, but previous efforts failed. Many anti-bullying organizations and experts, such as Barbara Coloroso, author of the best-selling book on bullying, The Bully, The Bullied and the Bystander, have argued desperately that sibling rivalry is not bullying, despite the fact that few relationships fit the definition of bullying more accurately than sibling rivalry.

The modern academic definition of bullying (which is flawed but universally accepted) has three pillars: 1. An intention to cause distress or harm; 2. Repetitiveness; and 3. An imbalance of power.

What happens in sibling rivalry? Siblings torment each other repeatedly. With the possible exception of identical twins, there is always an imbalance of power. And boy do they want to hurt each other! Few situations exemplify bullying better than sibling rivalry.

Furthermore, far more children are victimized by siblings than by peers in school. Several years ago, I conducted a survey of four thousand mental health professionals and educators, the very professionals who are responsible for getting rid of bullying in schools. The survey found that their own children are four times more likely to be hit every day, and twice as likely to be insulted, by their own sibling than by another kid in school.

Why, then, have anti-bullying experts and organizations been focusing on bullying in schools while ignoring the more serious problem of bullying between siblings?

It’s because humans cannot tolerate cognitive dissonance. How could parents demand that schools make hundreds of other kids to be nice to their children while being aware that they can’t get their own two kids at home to be nice to each other? How could bullying experts insist that schools be held legally accountable for bullying between students when they can’t get rid of bullying among their own kids at home? Simple! By declaring that sibling rivalry isn’t bullying!

Triangulation-the major cause of hostility

How did I know that the anti-bullying psychology was bound to fail? Because before Columbine put me on the mission to spread the true solution to bullying, I had been on a mission to eradicate sibling rivalry.

In my professional psychological training in the 1970’s, I had learned that the most serious cause of hostility is triangulation. That’s when one person gets involved trying to save an apparent victim from their apparent persecutor. It creates what was defined by Karpman as The Drama Triangle. Without realizing how he’s doing it, the rescuer causes the hostilities between the two parties to escalate, and at least one party becomes hostile to the rescuer as well. And the rescuer actually prevents them from solving their problems with each other.

I began closely observing family interactions and noticed that as soon as parents approached their children to intervene in an altercation, the kids would start screaming, desperately trying to get the parent on their side against their sibling. The child judged to be in the wrong (usually the older one, who “should know better”) would be furious with both his sibling and his parent, and would seek to create another fight to try to get the parent on his side. The “winner” (usually the younger or weaker one) would be thrilled, eager to create another fight to repeat their victory. In other words, the kids would be fighting constantly over their parents, the most important people in the world to both of them. The parents would go crazy trying to make the sibling rivalry stop, oblivious to the fact that they were creating it! (For a greatly detailed explanation of this phenomenon, read my free online manual, A Revolutionary Guide to Reducing Aggression between Children:… )

The more I met with parents, the more obvious it became that sibling rivalry is their most exasperating problem. That sibling rivalry was the major problem in virtually all of the primordial families in the Bible is not accidental. In fact, in the Biblical allegory of the first siblings, one, Cain, killed the other, Abel.

Reading parenting books, I discovered that my observations about the dynamics of sibling rivalry had already been well established. The great Adlerian psychiatrist and parenting expert Rudolf Dreikurs beautifully explains the cause and solution to sibling rivalry in his classic book, Children: The Challenge. Dr. Jane Nelson, creator of the Positive Discipline system, teaches it. Other respected books on sibling rivalry, such as Siblings Without Rivalry by Mazlich and Faber, and Anthony Wolff’s “Mom! Jason’s Breathing on Me!” also describe the counterproductive efforts of parents’ to protect their children from each other.

By the mid-1980’s, I was gung ho on a mission to help parents reduce sibling rivalry, and was succeeding remarkably. I would explain to parents the hidden dynamics of sibling rivalry, and teach them how to stop playing judge and, instead, get their kids to solve their problems with each other directly. The situation improved in about 90% of the families I counseled, and parents were grateful to me for simplifying their lives.

In my spare time I worked on a book on sibling rivalry, and was looking for a literary agent when Columbine happened and made bullying (a problem that I also happened to learn how to solve) a worldwide emergency. But to my amazement, the bullying experts were telling schools that they needed to protect victims from bullies! They were insisting that the solution to bullying was to require everyone to play rescuer! The very action that creates the problem of sibling rivalry at home had become the psychologist-recommended solution to bullying in schools! It couldn’t possibly work!

Now it’s 2013. After fourteen years of triangulation in schools, hostilities among students, parents, and administrators are at an all-time high. Schools are going crazy trying to comply with anti-bullying laws while expensive, time-and-energy-consuming lawsuits by parents against schools are proliferating, and revered bullying researchers such as Dorothy Espelage are “banging their heads against the wall” trying to figure out why their triangulation programs aren’t working.

The myth of adult non-intervention

Thanks to the latest sibling bullying research, parents are now being warned that they shouldn’t ignore bullying among their children. This warning is based on the naive assumption that parents have been idly sitting by while they observe their children battering each other.

If you are a parent, there is a very good chance that your children torment each other many times a day. If so, do you just calmly stand by while they beat the dickens out of each other? I bet you spend an awful lot of time and effort trying to stop them.

I have never observed a family in which the kids fight regularly and the parents act as though nothing were wrong. Of the hundreds of parents I’ve counseled, not one ever told me, “My kids constantly fight and I do nothing to stop them.” On the other hand, I have heard countless parents say, “I tell my kids not to come to me unless there’s blood, and they get along beautifully. They’re the best of friends.” If you think about it, the families with no sibling rivalry are the ones that aren’t doing anything to stop it–because there is nothing to stop. On the other hand, the families that are spending the most time stopping sibling rivalry are the ones with the most sibling rivalry going on. There might be a meaningful correlation there!

I have, though, heard many adults claim their siblings tormented them terribly when they were children and their parents did nothing to stop them. It’s the same accusation that’s often made about schools: “My child is being bullied and the school is doing nothing to stop it!”

These impressions of adult non-intervention are usually illusions resulting from our natural egocentricity. We were highly attuned to our own suffering at the hands of our siblings, but couldn’t see that our siblings were furious with us for trying to get them in trouble, and that our parents were desperately trying to make us get along, to no avail. The same phenomenon is involved in the illusion that schools are doing nothing to make bullying stop. They are trying hard to stop it, but what they’re doing isn’t working and even making the bullying worse.

Currently, bullying experts, armed with this new research on the devastating problem of sibling bullying, are putting siblings under the protective umbrella of the anti-bullying movement. Assuming that the anti-sibling-bullying crusade is here for good, and doesn’t get hypocritically rationalized away as in the past, this is how it will lead to the demise of the anti-bullying movement.

Parents will now be required to implement in the home the following model sibling anti-bullying policy, derived from model school anti-bullying policies:

1. It is hereby declared that all children have a basic human right to a childhood free of fear of siblings.

2. Children and parents will be taught to recognize all the types of sibling bullying that are not to be tolerated. These acts include derogatory remarks, physical attacks, ignoring, social exclusion, nasty looks or gestures, gossip, and any other actions that can deprive them of a feeling of dignity.

3. Parents will be held legally responsible for all bullying that goes on between their children.

4. Parents must constantly monitor all areas of their children’s home and social environments (including cyberspace) to make sure no sibling bullying is occurring.

5. Parents must intervene immediately when they witness sibling bullying, or when a child complains of being bullied by a sibling.

6. Parents must conduct a thorough investigation into every act and complaint of sibling bullying, meeting separately with each child as well as with all witnesses. Parents will determine if bullying actually occurred, and which child is the victim and which is the bully.

7. Parents will consistently punish (“administer consequences to”) the bully, while comforting the victim that the incident was not their fault in any way. The punishments for the bully will be increasingly harsh, culminating with expulsion from the home.

8. Parents must produce a comprehensive written report on every bullying incident and complaint and file it with local government authorities. This is for the benefit of the parents as well, so they can prove that they were not negligent in addressing bullying.

9. If parents fail to make the bullying stop, their children are to report their parents to the appropriate government authorities, such as Child Protective Services or the Police Department.

10. It is understandable that many children and parents will be reluctant to report bullying to the authorities. Therefore, teachers and other school personnel, as well as everyone else in contact with children, will be instructed how to detect if a child is being bullied by a sibling at home and to inform the government authorities.

11. If these procedures fail to make the sibling bullying stop, the children and the government authorities may file a lawsuit against the parents.

In a matter of days those homes that aren’t already all-out war zones will become ones. Parents will be driven insane trying to enforce these policies. They will find that all their time is consumed with their kids’ fighting. Their enthusiasm for antibullyism will quickly go down the drain.

Psychologists, who also believed antibullyism was wonderful before they became responsible for implementing it at home, will question its rationality. Realizing that it violates the most basic teachings of psychology, they will reject this misguided branch of psychology, and seek out and find what does work. It’s been out there for a very long time.

Postscript: There are countless good sources for reducing aggression (bullying) at home and school. Most of them were developed before psychology was taken over by antibullyism. Here are some good ones. (There are many more; please forgive for my omissions. If you know of any, please submit them to me at and I will add them to this list):

Children: The Challenge by Rudolf Dreikurs

Discipline Without Tears: How to Reduce Conflict and Establish Cooperation in the Classroom by Rudolf Dreikurs

Siblings Without Rivalry by Mazlich and Faber

“Mom! Jason’s Breathing on Me!” by Anthony Wolff

Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson

Positive Discipline in the Classroom by Jane Nelson

The Practical Parent: ABCs of Child Discipline by Corsini and Painter

Parenting With Love And Logic by Cline and Fay

Parenting from the Heart program by Ty and Linda Hatfield

My own free website manuals:

Transparency Declaration: I declare that I do have a financial interest in a company that offers products and services that may be related to the content of my writings.

Author's Policies Regarding Comments: 1. I rarely respond to comments because I simply don't have the time. If I don't respond to your comment, please don't take it personally. 2. Psychology Today has a strict policy about nasty comments. I believe in free speech and rarely censor comments, no matter how nasty. Every nasty comment by adults––especially by ardent anti-bullying advocates––illustrates how irrational it is to expect kids to stop engaging in bullying.

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