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Sibling Rivalry Versus Sibling Bullying

A recent study published in Pediatrics found that kids and teens exposed to an aggressive rivalry with their siblings tend to report more depression, anxiety, and anger than other kids. MassGeneral for Children Psychologist Ellen Braaten, PhD, Director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program, explains the findings and shares tips to recognize and deal with the situation.

What were the findings of this study?

This study surveyed 3,500 children and teens and asked them about the range and extent of sibling aggression experienced by the children. Aggression included instances of physical assault, stealing something, breaking sibling’s things on purpose and saying things to make the child feel bad, scared or not wanted. The results showed that all types of sibling aggression in the preceding year were associated with significantly worse mental health for both children and adolescents. When the researchers compared sibling versus peer aggression, they found that both types of bullying predicted greater mental distress. Even mild sibling aggression was associated with significant distress.

So how can parents prevent their kids from being victims of sibling bullying?

Parents shouldn’t ignore the problem. Many times parents make the mistake of thinking that siblings can work it out on their own, but kids may actually need your guidance. This is particularly true if your children are angry and emotional about a particular situation. 

Parents often make mistakes when handling sibling rivalry such as blaming the older child or thinking that a certain amount of sibling aggression is normal. The first step in stopping bullying at home is to acknowledge that it is wrong. 

Why do kids fight?

Many different things can cause siblings to fight as their needs, anxieties, and age affects how they relate to one another.  School-age kids have a strong concept of fairness and equality, so they might not understand why siblings of other ages are getting what they see as preferential treatment. Adolescents are developing a sense of individuality and separateness and might resent having to take care of younger siblings. Children of all ages generally dislike it when their siblings get into their “stuff” and that is also a frequent cause of fights. Sometimes a child’s special needs due to illness or emotional issues may require more parental time and other children in the family may act out to get attention. 

What should I do when my kids start to fight?

Separate the kids until they are calm. When siblings start to fight, it’s often best to give them space for a while. Once they’ve calmed down, spend time talking to them about how to resolve the conflict in a way that is respectful and productive. Don’t spend too much time figuring out who is to blame.  Spend time figuring out how they can work together. 

What are the steps that parents can take to better handle this issue?

  • Set ground rules for acceptable behavior, such as no hitting, no name calling, and no yelling.  Solicit their input on the rules and the consequences if they break the rules.
  • Don’t give your kids the impression that everything has to always be fair and equal – sometimes it’s not and one child needs more than the other.
  • Be willing to acknowledge there could be a problem.  Know the difference between healthy competition and abuse.
  • Respond quickly when you witness verbal abuse, name-calling, teasing and physical aggression.
  • Take a proactive stance in responding to sibling bullying.  Teach them how to start a dialogue, handle new and challenging situations, and identify why they are doing what they are doing and how exactly they feel.
  • Sometimes the root of sibling bullying starts with kids feeling left out.  Spend quality, separate time with each of your children. 
  • Similarly, make sure your kids have their own space and time to do their own thing – without their siblings around.
  • Be aware of more significant symptoms of problems in your children.  If your child begins to withdraw, exhibits signs of depression, anxiety, or anger after sibling fights, the problem may be significant. 
  • If a bullied child’s grades begin slipping or they begin acting vastly different – more aggressive, anxious, or depressed – it is time to see a mental health professional. 

What are the warning signs that sibling conflict is worrisome and worthy of profession help?

  • Problems between the siblings are causing problems within your own marriage
  • You are concerned about physical harm to a family member
  • The sibling conflict is causing damage to the self-esteem of the child or the health of the entire family system
  • The problem may be related to mental health concerns such as depression – in either the bullied child or the child doing the bullying. 

This content provided with permission from MGH Psychiatry

For more information or to discuss parenting concerns please contact Partners Employee Assistance Program at 1-866-724-4EAP.

In case of emergency, please call 911 or your local hospital emergency service.


This content was last modified on: 07/30/2013

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