Sibling Struggles: When Conflict Turns into Bullying

Boy is caught by sister and is now in trouble and making a funny face
Carolyn Ievers Landis, PhD
Jerri Rose, MD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist, UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital

Professor,
Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

Squabbling with siblings is part of growing up – but there is a point when it can go too far.

While parents might think of bullying as something that happens among classmates, sibling bullying has many of the same qualities.

“While arguments and teasing happen with even the friendliest of siblings, bullying involves power and control," says Carolyn Ievers Landis, PhD, a professor of Pediatrics and licensed clinical psychologist at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospitals. 

Like regular bullying, sibling bullying is aggressive behavior intended to cause harm by a child or teen who has more power over the other child, and these behaviors are repeated over time even when the child is told to stop.

Bullying often happens in front of other children and away from the eyes of adults," Dr. Ivers Landis says. "It’s something that occurs again and again.”

Sibling bullying may show itself as:

  • Frequently saying mean and hurtful things with the aim of upsetting a sibling
  • Hitting, kicking, pushing or shoving
  • Leaving a sibling out of activities with other siblings or other kids
  • Telling lies or making up false rumors about a sibling – this could include cyberbullying, posting or texting inaccurate statements, or posting pictures on social media without a sibling’s permission

Victims are more likely to be females bullied by an older sibling, particularly an older brother, says a study published in the journal Pediatrics. They’re also more likely to live in families with at least three children.

A Parent’s Role

Managing the relationship between your kids isn’t always an easy task. These tips from Dr. Ievers Landis can foster healthy relationships:

The No. 1 recommendation is to supervise your children carefully, particularly if you have concerns that one may be treating another unkindly.

If you have any concerns, do not leave the children alone at home together without a trusted adult. Even if children are together in another room or outside, make frequent, unannounced checks to make sure everyone is safe and being treated well.

  • Avoid making comparisons of your children in front of each other. Instead, let each child know that he or she is special in his or her own way. Be consistent and fair in your treatment of each child.
  • Address behavioral or other concerns (e.g., academic) privately. Talk to the child about any concerns away from siblings.
  • Hold family meetings about any continuing areas of conflict between family members. This can help get all children talking in a way that’s constructive and lets them know they’re being heard.
  • Teach your kids how to solve problems and have perspective on a situation. Make sure they understand how to manage conflict by using positive strategies such as calmly discussing emotions, setting ground rules, reasoning, negotiating and agreeing to a compromise.

“If you suspect bullying might be a problem, talking with your children’s health care provider is a good idea,” Dr. Ievers Landis says. “Take these concerns seriously and do not give up improving them until the bullying situation is under control. You will probably need to continue to monitor your children’s relationships to make certain that the bullying does not re-emerge.”

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