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July 06, 2013

Bully in the house

By Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor


“Don’t touch that!”

“But— “

“Get out of my—“

“Ooooow!” A yelp punctuated by a crash followed by a long burble of sobbing.


This happens in my house too many times a week to count. The 13-year-old martial arts devotee fiercely protects her privacy and her property. The 9-year-old practices boundary testing in the form of intrusive questions and uninvited hugs.  Both girls, in school, are models of temperance. At home they are a perfect storm of stereotypical sibling warfare.

If this sounds familiar, you know that it’s supposed to be “normal.” You know that it’s just nature taking its course, allowing the survival of the fittest to work its logic via the Bratz dolls.

But sometimes you worry. At least I worry. Not just because my girls fight enough to drive my husband and me to spittle-flying stupidity. “You want to go to that fancy high school,” I sputtered during what should have been a perfectly idyllic berry-picking outing, but was peppered by mean girl fuselage. “How ‘bout you learn how to treat your sister with respect?”

I know how long these scars can last. I recall my mother – all grown up with three children of her own – talking vaguely about how she had to “get away” from her elder sister … by moving to another continent. I’ve listened as my younger brother – then in his 40s – explain why even as an adult he had to do certain things to avoid my older brother getting “mad” at him. (As the youngest child, separated by eight years, I got special amnesty from sibling conflict.) Somehow, the things that happened in childhood didn’t evaporate in the clear air of adulthood.  They burned on. 

So when a new study about the long-term reverberations of sibling aggression shot over the transom, it was like a train wreck: I couldn’t look the other way. Though our society has largely stopped explaining bullying as a healthy way for kids to learn about the real world, the sibling battlefield still has its proponents.

"If siblings hit each other, there's a much different reaction than if that happened between peers," explains associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire Corinna Jenkins Tucker. "It's often dismissed, seen as something that's normal or harmless. Some parents even think it's beneficial, as good training for dealing with conflict and aggression in other relationships."

But if Tucker's work has any effect, those days are numbered.  According to a new study led by Tucker, sibling aggression leads to significantly worse mental health outcomes in children and adolescents. In fact, there are instances in which the effects of sibling aggression are as powerful as those of peer aggression – i.e. bullying.

The study analyzed a national sample of 3,599 children, ages one month through 17 years, from the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV), tracking the incidences of physical assault (with and without a weapon or injury), stealing or breaking into a sibling’s possessions, as well as verbal aggression, including disparaging remarks and insults. The research, which appears in the July 2013 issue of Pediatrics, showed that children who suffered property and psychological aggression – such as stealing things or verbal abuse – at the hands of their siblings showed the same level of increased depression, anger, and anxiety as those children subject to similar kinds of aggression from peers.

In other words, sibling aggression can be as damaging as peer bullying – no matter what we call it. It's not a new idea -- parenting guru Christine Carter argues the same in a GreatSchools’ video interview -- but it's the first time the effects of such sibling aggression have been subjected to such scientific scrutiny.

Tucker argues that the findings should trigger a change in parental and educational attitudes. “The aggression among siblings should be taken just as seriously as that among peers,” she told the New York Times, adding that programs that address bullying in schools should add a focus on sibling abuse as well.

The problem for parents? Seeing clearly what is right before our eyes. They are our beloved children, after all. Our very gaze casts the gauzy light of bias. How do we know in the moment, is a particular struggle between our children harmless acts of competition and conflict – or are they incidences of sibuse?  

According to experts, the distinction comes from the power differential. If one child remains consistently the victim of the other’s physical or verbal aggression – even if it’s only name-calling – it’s abuse. It sounds very clear, but that's easier said than discerned. Sometimes I know I over react, othertimes I fear I under react – in the middle of the conflict, I rarely know who to believe.  Sometimes when I think my elder has crossed a line by lashing out, and I lay down the line with her, the younger one comes to her rescue and explains that she was actually exaggerating and pretending to be hurt. It’s an ever changing Roshomon tale of slammed doors and innuendo and stolen cookies. 

How do you deal with sibling rivalry?  I’d love to hear your stories and your struggles.  Have your ideas changed as your children grow older?  Does your own childhood experience influence your approach as a parent?   


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This happen at my home all times I really need help , I don't know how to stop it. I am very frustrated.

Respect begins at home. Do not tolerate abusive behavior toward a sibling or friend. Your family and friends deserve the best of you and not the worst - for they will be there for you through thick and thin.
A long time out for them! to think about how to discuss differences - rather than yell ugly names or hit. Praise positive change in attitude and behaviors.
Be consistent and demanding civil behaviors.

it will be use full in spanish language

I don't know how to deal with it. My boys are literally driving me crazy. I have an eye twitch and have to take pills for my nerves now. And, they're only 4 and 8! I've tried everything. Parenting classes, time outs, positive reinforcement, counseling, etc. NOTHING has worked. My older one just hates my younger one.

Oh... can I ever relate to that. Both my brother (there're just the 2 of us) and I feel that the other is our parents' favorite. Of course, I'm right :)

I got all the lectures, even as a young child, even though he's older. Classic case of the kid who punches back gets caught. In our case it wasn't punching, but he'd call me names or even sit on me. If I said or did anything - sometimes even try to shove him off me, I'd get it for whatever I did (including "pushing" him).

We don't have a relationship to speak of, so I'm thinking it didn't go terribly well over time.

According to one parent, I bullied my brother by being smart (???). Given that I'm a tiny gal and he's a husky-built medium sized guy (and we've both always been that way), I wasn't ever going to get my way in a physical confrontation, but I guess I was supposed to be walked all over. Even as early as kindergarten, I made it a point to learn everything he was learning, just so he couldn't do things like try to get me to write "I am dumb" or otherwise take advantage of me (yes, it happened). I don't blame my parents, they hardly ever saw what he did. BUT... maybe they could have believed me or considered that maybe I had a reason?

To me, that's the ticket. LISTEN to both sides so at least they don't feel "ganged up on" or dismissed. Maybe there's a misunderstanding. Maybe not. BUT, at least then we can say, "so, how could you each have handled t his better?"

My brother the eldest, was always making sure to beat us at everything and made sure we knew it. Of course he was able to beat us, he was older! He never had a good thing to say and beat us down constantly with his verbal abuse about how lame or stupid or ugly we were.
Yes, the damage lasts forever. I hated him growing up, and although I don't hate him any longer, I wouldn't say I like him either. I've learned to forgive his behavior, because I now understand that he probably did it out of his own insecurity, but I will probably never have a close relationship with him because I really don't respect people who pick on others who are smaller or at a disadvantage. It doesn't excuse their behavior - it only explains it. It is cowardly. I am a person who watches out for those less able than myself.
The only good thing that came of it for me, was that it made me try harder and I ended up doing better than he did. I never brag about it, but it makes me feel good. My childhood was terrible, but it doesn't mean my adulthood has to be. I am very choosy about those I let into my inner circle. I don't tolerate anyone who isn't supportive because I am a very supportive friend.

Good for you, Gigi! What an extremely healthy, aware approach to dealing with your situation and learning from it as you go through life! I wish you the best!

When our children were young...we had five... our rule was simple. If you hurt another (sibling) in any way you had to give the other a hug and kiss. If there was an aggression, you had to do something nice for the other. It is very hard to do that when there is still meannest in your heart. So I would wait until I saw the two making up. I did not take sides ... admit you can not decide who is right and who is wrong, you only know that these actions will not be tolerated in your family. You love both equally.

Eventually the hug would come and then the "I'm sorry" and shortly after the two would be laughing at how silly they felt trying to give the other a kiss and peace was restored.
I would not tolerate hurting one another. Today, as adults, the five are best of friends and I can rest knowing they are there for one another.

The secret is to treat your children as you treat your best friends. Sometimes I see parents as bullies to there own children... how could the kids not react in the similar way.

Jay Bee, I'm glad that approach worked for your family, and I think with normal kids it is a great way to handle it. However, I believe there are also situations when a parent MUST take sides to stop abuse.

My brother is a sociopath who tormented his three younger siblings endlessly. He would play with us like dolls, ignoring our screams and pleas. We are now middle-aged and still scarred by social phobia from this abuse. I hate my brother and hope I will never see him again.

When our parents saw him abusing us and intervened they just tried to talk through everyone's feelings. I am sure if he were told to give us a hug and kiss he would have done it happily -- and gone right on with abusing us afterwards. What was needed, I think, was firm and absolute boundaries enforced with meaningful consequences, to teach him that he simply had to respect others. He never got that, and has remained an abuser throughout his life.

I was abused by my sister for as far back as I can remember. Both physically and mentally. Even though I tried everything I could to bond with her, she made me feel unwanted and unloved. I don't know what it's like to have a sisterly bond, so when people say that they're sister is their best friend. I can't grasp it. I've had anxiety since I was very young. I now have severe anxiety and depression because of things that she has be doing to me, my mom and my family, because of jealousy. I told her that she would lose me and she didn't care. She continued to spread her lies to friends and family that I am doing things to her and that has caused them to not speak to me. I have been taking care of my mom for over 13 years and my dad for the first 3 of those, until he passed, without any help from her at all. My only option is to move out of state when my mom passes. I am fearful for my future. What is around the next corner? Will she be waiting with more trumped up charges and Adult Protective Services again? Yeah, that's only part of it. My health is declining because of all the stress. I live with physical and mental pain now. I love my mom and we are very close, something that is not true for my sister. I'm proud to be able to take care of my mom so that she can stay in her home. I promised my dad, on his deathbed, that I would not leave her. I mourn for the sister that I could have had, that I never had. But I have my family, my mom, my husband and my children. I trust that god will give me the peace that I long for in my retirement.

the funny thing, I was the oldest and the middle one was the aggressive bully! she got EVERYTHING because mom was the middle child and she didn't want their middle child to suffer the same fate.

no, I suffer from middle child syndrome.

i have noticed that my older child treats people the way she sees them be treated and uses her little sister as the test dummy (for lack of a better term) i.e. when her dad is with us and being temper-mental she is her most abrasive. when he is at work she is extra patient as well as agreeable. she has always been eager to please and she has confidence in my love for her so when seeking approval or attention from her dad my feelings are more expendable to her. children mimic what they see! so if you want respect you must show them as well as everyone else respect. treat everyone how you expect them to treat you!

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