“Oh sure. My brother and I fought a lot of the time. He always started them. He’d often call me stupid or ugly. And he sometimes slapped me on my head or held me down and pressed a knuckle into my chest. When I complained to my parents, they usually said that all brothers fought. I guess I started to believe that was true.”
The above statement was made by Ryan, a client who had endured ongoing sibling bullying throughout much of his childhood and early adolescence. Of course, he didn’t initially call it that. Earlier in treatment he had minimized the impact it had on him–and did not connect it with his predisposition for anger arousal as an adult. This tendency to ignore his feelings was fueled by his parents’ inability to recognize that such fights were not natural but rather reflective of sibling bullying.
As a child, Ryan had learned to minimize or even suppress his feelings about his brother’s aggression. Unfortunately, he had internalized his parents’ response, which only furthered his sense of feeling inadequate for making a big deal of his suffering. Even during adolescence, he had little awareness of how being bullied had contributed to his feelings of isolation and depression and his increasing tendency toward being angry. This is a situation that I have unfortunately heard numerous times throughout my clinical work involving anger management.
Sibling bullying is not an isolated moment of anger. Rather, it reflects an ongoing and pervasive pattern in a sibling relationship in which one may be emotionally or physically abusive toward another. It may take the form of denigrating, shaming, embarrassing, or threatening behavior as well as threats to or actual destruction of a sibling’s property.
Ryan's parents were not alone in downplaying the bullying and not recognizing its destructive potential. Most of my early professional education emphasized the potential negative impact that parents’ abuse or neglect might have on a child’s development. This focus neglected the critical contribution that sibling bullying can have on a child’s emotional well-being and, specifically, on that child’s difficulty in managing his(her) feelings, including anger.
The negative impact of sibling bullying
Ryan was like many of my clients who have minimized their suffering due to emotional or physical abuse or neglect from parents. Victims of sibling bullying may similarly minimize, suppress, or deny the emotional pain caused by their abuse–with regard to their anger, hurt, fear and anxiety associated with abuse by a sibling. They may similarly internalize their anger, viewing themselves as being at fault and consequently experience the shame associated with doing so.
A child who is the victim of sibling bullying develops a sense of helplessness and isolation, feeling he is on his own to deal with feeling confused, frustrated and powerless. It is no surprise then that when such suffering is ignored, a child does not feel safe within his(her) home. As such, a child whose pain is overlooked by a parent may further withdraw from seeking connection with them
Such silence can further a sense of isolation that may lead to bullying others outside of the family context. It is also no surprise than that this same lack of emotional connections may, for some, severely intensify a child’s longing for connection with others–or foster sufficient hurt and anger that then inhibit his desire for connection. It is unfortunate but all too often this longing may, in turn, lead to associating with peers who similarly feel isolated, angry and powerless–whether seeking affiliation with gangs, resorting to addiction, or even joining a hate group.
A recent study emphasizes that sibling bullying may be more common in large families, with the firstborn or older child most often the perpetrator (Dantchey & Wolke, 2019). Researchers reviewed a study of 6,838 British children born in either 1991 and 1992 and their mothers. Sibling bullying was defined by psychological abuse (saying nasty or hurtful things), physical abuse (hitting, kicking or pushing) or emotional abuse (ignoring one’s sibling, telling lies or spreading false rumors).
The mothers were questioned when the children were 5 years old regarding how often the children were victims or perpetrators of bullying in the family. The children were asked at age twelve if a sibling had bullied them or if they had bullied a sibling in the previous six months.
The researchers also collected data regarding the number of children living in the household, the mother’s marital status, parental conflicts, the family’s socioeconomic background, maternal mental health during and after pregnancy, the mother-child relations and domestic violence and abuse.
The study concluded that 28 percent of the children were involved in sibling bullying–with psychological abuse being most dominant. The researchers found that bullying can happen in larger families and suggested that resources such as parental affection or attention may be more limited in these families. Female children and younger children were more often the targets of such bullying and it was most prevalent in families with three or more children–with the eldest child or older brother most likely the perpetrator. It is interesting to note that sibling bullying occurred across all socioeconomic levels and in single-parent households as much as those that included two parents.
A previous study found sibling bullying was associated with the bullied child being at greater risk for depression, anxiety and self-harm (Bowes, et. al., 2014). This finding was based on a longitudinal study of the same 6,838 children described in the more recent study. This finding was based on the administration of the Clinical Interview Schedule-Revised when the participants were 18. Bullied children were twice as likely to have depression, to self-harm and to report anxiety. More specifically, the study suggested that 13% of depression and 19.3% of self-harm could be attributable to being bullied when being bullied appeared to be a causal factor. Additionally, this study found that the link between being bullied and later mental health disorders was similar for boys and girls.
Another study found that children ages 0 to 9 and youth ages 10-17, who were victims of sibling bullying, reported greater mental health distress (Tucker, et. al.,2013). The sample size was based on telephone interviews. The children ages 0 to 9 evidenced greater mental health distress than the youth aged 10 to 17 in the case of mild physical assault. However, they did not differ for the other types of sibling aggression. The authors of this research concluded that the impact of sibling bullying can be just as negative as bullying by someone outside of the family.
The Challenge for Parents
The first study emphasizes that a reduction of resources, especially with larger families, may contribute to the occurrence of sibling bullying. At the same time, the demands parents experience in making a living, their own emotional or physical challenges, as well as the special needs of another sibling may further reduce their capacity to observe sibling bullying or take it seriously when it occurs.
Additionally, such demands may further reduce the face-to-face presence that is essential to help children feel valued, connected and secure. Such presence is further undermined by our increased attention to screens, whether the computer, cell phones or television. Loss of such quality time may further exacerbate the internal stress of a child, which may lead to heightened competition and rivalry that contributes to sibling bullying.
The challenge in responding to sibling bullying is also rooted in our history, one that has minimized the emotional life of children and their suffering. And, as in Ryan’s case, parents may simply lack understanding of the impact of such bullying as well as the skills to help prevent it or address it when it occurs.
What parents can do to reduce sibling bullying
Following are some specific guidelines to help parents address prevent and respond to sibling bullying.
Regarding the children
- Be attentive to how siblings interact with each other. Closely monitor them if you suspect bullying is occurring.
- Try to be consistent in your interactions with each child.
- Privately address any concerns you have about a child, whether in regard to behavior, school performance, feelings, etc.
- Reward positive sibling interactions–including their working on a project together and sharing interests.
- Provide your children with specific guidelines for resolving conflicts. Teach them problem-solving skills that include clear and assertive communication, discussing–rather than acting out–their feelings, negotiating and compromise.
- Be attentive to suffering reported by children. Foster the discussion of feelings, including anger as well as the hurts behind it. Encourage forgiveness without rushing it.
- Do your best to avoid making comparisons.
- Find logical consequences for any form of bullying, clearly stating that it will not be tolerated.
- Create sufficient face-to-face time with each sibling and with your children as a group or dyad.
Regarding parent self-reflection
- Cultivate your capacity to be fully present with your child, truly attentive to them, without attending to other tasks.
- Recognize your own tendency to minimize or even deny feelings regarding your own experiences of parental abuse or neglect–or sibling bullying when you were a child. Your acceptance of such feelings will help you to be more validating and observant of your child’s suffering.
- Be alert to how your interactions with them, or with your spouse or partner, model bullying. Specifically, be alert to any discrepancy between what you say about bullying and behavior that may provide a different message.
- Identify different expectations you may have of your children, based on their intelligence, gender, physical qualities or any personality traits that lead you to show favoritism.
All of us have different points of view, key desires that motivate us, and ways of negotiating our needs. This may be especially challenging for children when they feel a weak sense of self. As such, it is natural to expect disagreements between siblings from time to time. By contrast, sibling bullying reflects a problematic and unhealthy resolution to these differences. Such was the case for Ryan, who, as an adult, was able to recognize his pain and to grieve and mourn what could have been.
Suggesting that sibling bullying is a to be expected as a part of having siblings, is a denial of the lasting harm it can have for a child. Rather, being alert to recognize it and call it what it is, reflects our deepest compassion for our children. Such compassion is essential to help promote a child’s emotional well-being and for providing him(her) with a constructive model for addressing their conflicts outside of the family.
Dantchey, S. and Wolke, T. (2019). Trouble in the nest: Antecedent of sibling bullying victimization and perpetration. Developmental Psychology, Vol. 55, No. 5, 1059-1071 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000700
Bowes, L., Wolke, D., Joinson, C., et. al. (2014). Sibling bullying and risk of depression, anxiety and self-harm: a prospective cohort study. Pediatrics, Vol. 134, No.4, 1032-1039.
Tucker, C., Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., et. al. (2013) Association of sibling aggression with child and adolescent mental health. Pediatris, Vol. 132, 79-84.