Sibling Torment: “In-House” Bullying

By Richard Selznick, PhD

Parents regularly come in to my office reporting about the challenges they have in dealing with their children’s behavior. When asked about how the siblings are getting along with each other, an inevitable response is something like, “You know, typical stuff…bickering, fighting, arguing, hitting, grabbing.” Rarely does a parent say that one sibling is “bullying” another.

The accepted definition of bullying involves a power imbalance conducted repeatedly over time, with clear enjoyment on the part of the aggressor. More evidence is showing that bullying can be a part of a sibling relationship.

Let’s look at Mason, age 9, who has been unhappy with his sister Olivia, age 6, since the day she arrived. Every chance Mason gets, he tries to upset her. Continually hurling pointed insults at Olivia (Olivia is mildly overweight with some learning problems). Mason will call her “ugly,” “fat” and “stupid.” When Olivia is brought for tutoring, Mason always mocks her, snickering and cackling about the fact that she doesn’t read well. Mason reminds Olivia that no one in school likes her (even though it is not the case). Mason will find ways to break some of her favored doll figures, which Mason calls “babyish, idiotic and stupid.”

Olivia is brought to tears by her brother frequently and she feels helpless and defenseless against him. She wonders why her parents use terms like “sibling rivalry,” which she does not understand.

Sibling rivalry does not have the elements of bullying described in the Mason and Olivia scenario. Even with age differences, the power imbalance and the delight in seeing someone hurt is not a part of typical sibling interaction.

As parents you need to be vigilant for the line being crossed. Is there a clear power imbalance? Is the aggressive child relentlessly lording over the other sibling? Is there a tone of cruelty often present?

If the answer to those questions is “yes,” then you may have a case of in-house sibling bullying. There are no easy fixes, but the first step is recognizing the problem for what it is and not dismissing it as “normal.” You must let your children know that you are taking the problem extremely seriously. Setting your rules of the house clearly is a good beginning point. In addition, you may need to seek professional counseling to address the issue.

Richard Selznick, Ph.D., is a psychologist and the Director of the Cooper Learning Center, Department of Pediatrics, Cooper University Health Care.

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