Sibling Rivalry or Sibling Bullying?  When Does it Cross the Line and What Can Be Done?

So much attention, rightfully so, has been paid to bullying in the schools. Yet family researchers have recently found that bullying inside the home can actually cause as much or even more damage to children’s mental well being—even into adulthood.  Behaviors often chalked up to sibling rivalry are now being seriously redefined. Writing this blog is particularly tender to my heart—from the stories I hear as a counselor, from being a mother of two, and most especially from my experience as the youngest growing up.  

Though recent research has shown how prevalent and mentally harmful sibling bullying truly is, it’s striking to see how limited the research has historically been on this topic. This certainly seems to align with findings in the research regarding the tendency for parents and other adults to downplay aggression between siblings. Nonetheless, studies have shown that bullied siblings show a greater likelihood for the following struggles:

Self doubt, self blame, self harm; Anger, anxiety, loneliness and depression; Feeling unlovable, rejecting oneself (just as s/he has been rejected); Relationship blockages; and in more serious cases, psychotic disorders were found to be more likely.

What Constitutes Sibling Bullying?

As part of The National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence conducted on children 10 to 17, the researchers defined bullying in 3 main categories:

  1. Physical assault (hitting or pushing around) 
  2. Property victimization (such as forcibly taking or destroying something belonging to the sibling) 
  3. Psychological aggression (verbal and relational violence such as name-calling, teasing, criticizing, ignoring, gaslighting, mocking, belittling or exclusion)

Overall, any perceived or observed imbalance of power makes a sibling relationship vulnerable to become a bullying one, especially to the degree that the sibling with greater power shows no warmth in general or accountability/remorse when hurtful behaviors occur. When taken collectively, the research shows that those in a multiple sibling family who are younger or youngest, with a sensitive and thoughtful disposition, female, with one or more older brothers — they are the most vulnerable. Well, that made me the perfect target! For sisters, the bullying is less determined by birth order than when the bully is a brother. 

What Can Be Done?  This Is For The Parents.

Those who have the greatest impact on creating healthy and balanced sibling interactions are without a doubt, the parents (or caregivers). But this hasn’t been made clear, for generations!  Most have thought that our kids need to “work it out for themselves.”  And yes, this is true… when the power is mutual, when they each have some basic conflict-resolution skills, and when there’s a generally loving and intimate relationship present between them. But when the imbalance of power is clear, and one is the continual target of bullying as defined above, this is when the action is unmistakable — parents need to outright stop the aggressive behavior and get more involved. Even if the bully complains, “You always take his/her side.” This is the time to take sides.

Here are some suggestions for parents:

  1. Build unity and openness in the family.  Research shows that positive family environments with greater cohesiveness have a significantly less likelihood of sibling bullying. Creating a close knit family requires a significant investment and doesn't tend to happen organically, though much of society expects that to be the case. Here are some ideas for building a cohesive family:  1) Include children on family problem solving and goal setting to create a more empowered sense of togetherness; 2) Have family meetings, for planning fun together and also to address feelings and problems; 3) Create structured, protected family time — even when the teenagers complain e.g., dinner, movies, games, vacations, even collaborating with chores; 4) Rally the family to celebrate each other’s birthdays, involve siblings in the trials and triumphs of one another's lives; 6) Seek help from family counselors or parenting coaches (more in #8). 
  2. Pour on the parental warmth.  When there’s great love and enough to go around, siblings are less likely to bully.  Parents should also look out for showing warmth unevenly.
  3.  Set boundaries by natural consequences.  Equally essential as love and warmth, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of setting clear and firm boundaries with our children.  They help each child feel safe and whole, within themselves and within the family structure.  I learned from the wisdom of kabbalah the powerful impact of teaching our children cause and effect. That is, disciplining not out of anger or frustration, but rather out of love and the desire to teach them about life's natural consequences — firmly yes, but more gently than the outside world tends to do. Don't let your own fears of the aggressive child, or of their rejection, get in the way of taking control when it's needed.  For example, when a child is being unkind and hurtful (aka bullying), not only does this mean something is emotionally troubling him or her (see #5 below), but s/he is inviting some kind of unkindness, negativity to mirror back to him. Furthermore, children can awaken a deep inner shame when they behave defiantly or cruelly.  Practical example: If parents see or hear about bullying behavior, they can take away an upcoming social privilege(s). Why? Because naturally, s/he will now need to invest time and effort in order to make it right, some way of showing kindness and appreciation to that child, and maybe others too. It's important to make it clear that the consequence is based on love (even show empathy for the loss of privilege) and a desire to prepare the child for what will bring him or her life blessings, inside and out. When a privilege is lost, and it's tied directly to the lesson we are trying to teach, the logic and love in the boundary more likely comes through. 
  4. Teach communication and conflict resolution skills.  As discussed in #1 above, this could mean taking parenting classes or going to individual or family counseling to learn better methods yourself.  We can teach our children by how we model working through conflicts authentically and without blame or reactivity. Also, sitting down with our children, when things are neutral goes a long way. In this forum, we can calmly, and with conviction, discuss options for expressing anger, frustration, hurt, etc., in ways that don’t threaten the human dignity of others. 
  5. Learn more about why s/he bullies. Aggressive behavior is typically a cover for pain underneath. Often, we find a marshmallow underneath that hard chocolate shell of a bully— whether that’s insecurity, not feeling in control or accepted, or any number of painful emotions stemming from inside or outside the home. We must take great caution in not shaming the aggressive child as a whole, and make it clear that it's his or her behavior that is unacceptable, not the child himself. Please note that sometimes even in the most positive home environments some children have behavioral or personality challenges that can show up as bullying. Some bullying behaviors stem from a learning disability, which can include difficulty in social interactions and reading cues. Violence and verbal abuse can replace the social skills they lack. This is why seeking outside help is often recommended (more in #8). 
  6. Coach assertiveness and self defense.  A child setting boundaries isn’t always enough, but it’s an important skill and ingredient to develop.  We once told our son, who is the youngest, that he wouldn’t get in trouble if he hit his sister back.  All it took was one punch and his sister gained a new respect for his power.  Now their issues were never severe, and I’m certainly not condoning violence.  If the pattern didn't stop, I would not have expected the younger or less powerful child in this case to be able to handle the situation alone! But we also realized that for our son, strengthening his courage, and learning to stick up for himself, was part of his life lesson we wanted to support. 
  7. Spend one on one time, and LISTEN.  Making sure each child has some one on one time helps each child feel special and unique to you, and also gives you a chance to get to know them even better. Resist the urge to pretend everything is okay, out of fear of being judged as a parent.  Especially important, one on one time creates a safe, non reactive opening to discuss problems they’re having in the family, for parents to understand their vantage point.  One on one time also gives parents a chance to coach and teach the core values they deem important in family and all human interactions.
  8. Seek outside help. Whether it's help with parenting or dealing with a challenging child, we have everything to gain by letting go of the "I've got this" or "I SHOULD be able to get this" mentality.  It's normative to need help with parenting and creating a balanced family, no matter if the issues are big or small.

What Can Be Done?  This Is For The Bullied Sibling

I believe we all have a resilient authentic core.  This part of us knows the wonder of life, that we’re here for a purpose, that our happiness and power come from within. This essence is not afraid of anyone or anything external and can never be permanently damaged. And yet, residing around the outer aspect of that authentic core is a vulnerable inner child who absorbs the emotional traumas we face, big and small, in our bodies and our belief systems— typically without even realizing it. To actualize our authentic core, our true purpose, we have work to do and much of that can come in the form of healing and transforming wounds within the inner child awaiting our attention. 

To empower that authentic core and heal the wounded child, here are some suggestions for a healing path, especially if the bullying behavior continues into adulthood:

  1. Proactive Awareness is essential. Without understanding oneself and the impact of bullying behavior, then we are at great risk for unconsciously continuing to internalize the shame and blame, the powerlessness, anger and sadness that we once felt deep inside.  I include "proactive" because the purpose of awareness is not to feed our ego's tendency for victim consciousness. However, we liberate and empower ourselves when we begin the process of understanding our truth and connecting dots with compassion regarding what we have endured or might be continuing to endure. Learn about betrayal bonding to see why you might still seek the bully's or others' approval and attention.
  2. Seek counseling to heal the emotional storm— body and mind. Fabulous and gentle healing modalities have come into practice in recent years that empower us to release fear, anger, sadness, powerlessness, shame, etc., and heal that child within. Some approaches emphasize how pain gets stuck in the body. We have a remarkable capacity to re-parent ourselves, with help. I personally have great respect for Somatic Experiencing, EMDR and Sensorimotor psychotherapy.  I also find great power in approaches that help to heal the child within along with transforming our limited and negative belief systems, particularly about oneself (e.g., inner child work, Internal Family Systems).
  3. Take your power back — set boundaries now. Especially if the bullying behavior continues, we can stay stuck in the emotions, limited belief systems, and life patterns that were originally formed in the exploitive relationship.  I remember when Monica Berg, spiritual teacher and friend, brought it to my attention when she noticed me repeating old behaviors with one of my brothers. She helped me understand, on a deep level, that to the extent I allow old patterns to continue, I myself will remain stuck in that old movie.  The power is within us. Look out for ways you might be tolerating behavior yourself that you would never want someone you care about to tolerate. Notice your resistance to calling out your sibling, trying to please him or her, keeping your truth under raps out of fear of family disapproval.  These only keep the powerful part of you locked away.  We can very clearly and firmly set boundaries for how we like to be treated, and do so with kindness.  This is our human right and responsibility.
  4. Understand the truth about the bully.  Those who bully are hurting, and they are not powerful at all.  Not the real kind of power.  It’s not easy to do, because violent behaviors and communications can feel scary. The truth is that a bully's behavior does not mean he or she is a bad person.  Compassion can be an important step to healing (but not necessarily enough).  Realize that it's the ego limiting your consciousness when giving power to someone who is certainly not a role model and likely not happy. 
  5. Deepen (or seek) your spiritual path.  If this is something that is important or curious to you, connecting to the bigger picture serves as one of the fastest methods for drawing healing Light. Please know that bringing in my own experience to this blog, doesn’t mean I perceive myself as a victim— particularly the true and resilient core of me.  I trust that for a better and higher reason than I might be able to comprehend, I was meant to experience what I did growing up. It was perfect for the experiences meant to come with me in my suitcase of adulthood. And it's important not to overlook,  the tremendous good I was given as well.  Every day, I hope to use my journey for the sake of fulfilling what I am here to fulfill.
  6. How can you use your experiences for the good? What steps do you want to take in your life to turn any darkness into Light, to manifest what is good and beautiful and loving within you? What gifts do you feel your painful experiences have brought you, as a person and in your path? Where do you feel you can move deeper into your true power, the strength that is your birthright?