When Sibling Conflict Becomes Bullying

What is the difference between normal teasing and bullying?

Posted Jul 12, 2018

fasphotographic/Shutterstock
Source: fasphotographic/Shutterstock

All siblings disagree and bicker at some point. It would be nearly impossible for anyone to live within the same household as another person and always agree. This is especially true for children whose brains are not yet fully developed and for teens who are going through hormonal and physical changes related to adolescence. Solving ordinary disputes and learning to get along are healthy behaviors  and can create positive growth and development in children. Sibling behavior can go beyond normal bickering and become bullying in some families, however. When should a parent worry that one of their children is being bullied by another? How is a parent to know the difference?

First, we need to consider what the misbehavior looks like and if it matches the definition of bullying. Bullying is aggressive and harmful behavior that is done intentionally and repeatedly. It can be in the form of harassment, physical attacks, or verbal aggression. Bullying is often done by an older, larger, or more talented/abled sibling who wants power and status over a smaller, younger, less talented sibling. Siblings may also bully in order to exact revenge or to overcome feelings of inadequacy.  Because victims and bullies deal with long-term consequences related to these behaviors, parents must take bullying behaviors seriously and stop them from occurring.

While the definition of bullying helps parents understand just what bullying is, it does little to help parents know if bullying is actually happening in their own home. What signs may indicate a sibling is being bullied? According to stopbullying.gov, children who are bullying others often exhibit physical aggression, repeatedly tease and threaten others, have friends who also bully others, blame victims for their problems, and show increasing levels of aggression. Parents can, therefore, be on guard for behaviors that signal aggression, excessive teasing and harassment, the inability to take responsibility for personal actions, and scapegoating. Bullying may also occur through friends of the sibling bully who begin to model and replicate the bully's behavior themselves. The sibling victims of bullying may also show warning signs such as unexplained physical injuries, destroyed possessions, frequent head or stomach aches, changes in eating or sleeping habits, low self-esteem, and self-destructive behaviors.

Because bullying affects people into and even beyond middle adulthood, parents must respond immediately, consistently, and in a way that says these behaviors are not acceptable. It can be done so that the parent is not “taking sides” but, rather, shows non-acceptance of bad behavior. The parent might say, “What makes you think hitting your brother is a good thing to do? Hitting is never an acceptable action in this house.” This statement lets all children in the household know that aggressive or bullying behaviors are out of bounds. Friends of your children who bully siblings must also be stopped. Make it clear that bullying behavior is not tolerated by anyone in your home and that all are expected to treat one another with respect.  Most of all, parents should model nonaggressive behaviors so children see firsthand what is expected of them.