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Sibling Sadists Versus Schoolyard Bullies

Equal at last!

It’s official: a study of 3,600 children published in the journal Pediatrics and recently reported in the New York Times shows unequivocally that the emotional and physical tortures inflicted by your siblings, your closest relatives—often under the noses of your own parents—cause as much damage as bullying by classmates. Finally, there is scientific proof that the people you live with 24/7 during your entire childhood actually affect you! Although books like Emily Bazelon’s Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy have raised awareness about bullying at school, this study provides important scientific support for the fact that bullying at home can be just as toxic. Why didn’t anyone figure out until now that bullying starts at home, that the same kids who torment their classmates practice on their brothers and sisters?

As a psychotherapist whose patient population includes many “normal” siblings of the mentally or physically dysfunctional, and who has written two books on sibling strife (The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling and Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Shame, Rage, Secrecy, and Regret), this is certainly not news to me. Very few of my patients have escaped unscathed from their parents’ failure to protect them from harm. Many tell me they were actually blamed for their siblings’ attacks, or accused of overreacting. Girls can be every bit as vicious as boys, and age differences in either direction don’t matter. Here are a few of the outrages they suffered:

  • A girl of five was set on fire by her brother, who was three years older. When she told her parents, their only response was to make sure that there were no matches in the house thereafter, and to encourage her to spend time with him because he was friendless.

  • A boy of twelve was kicked in the head by his fourteen-year-old brother. His jaw was broken and he suffered a concussion. Their mother had no reaction whatsoever.

  • A preteen girl shared a room with her sister, who was two years older. The elder girl made a line down the middle of their room with masking tape, and forced her sister to ask permission to cross it; the bathroom and door were on the wrong side. Whenever the younger sister had to cross, she was punished by tickle-torture until she told her sister that she loved her. This went on for years. Where were their parents? “My father was protesting the Vietnam War, and my mother was in bed with migraines,” the victim explained.

  • A young teenage girl’s seriously disturbed brother urinated into her mouth. She didn’t even bother to tell her parents.

“Indelible” is the word these sibling use, sometimes fifty years after the fact, to describe the impact of cruelty that was rationalized as normal or that they were encouraged to excuse. Many of them were relieved at the notice that their plight was finally attracting—though they never complained about it, because they had learned long ago to grin and bear everything—but also justifiably outraged at society’s blindness. Home is where the hurt starts, and that is where we must look first if we are to ever stop it.