Sibling Rivalry…Or Bullying?

Fighting with siblings is a normal part of development, from healthy competition pushing each other to do better, to developing communication and relationship skills in a unique way. Constructive arguments can help young people understand the dynamics of the family and work out their place inside it.

When kids tell their caregivers that they’re being bullied at school, the adults rarely think twice about stepping in and intervening. But when the family fights start having deeper undertones and the bullying happens in the home, parents are less likely to recognize it and do something about it.

The line between sibling rivalry and bullying is not always clear, but there are some markers to watch out for that can indicate unhealthy behavior and can help you and your adults recognize when it goes too far.

  • The actions and words are repetitive
  • The fighting is of a higher intensity than what one would expect
  • There is purposeful, negative or harmful intent
  • There is a power imbalance in that one sibling is bigger in size, older, or more socially skilled than the other
  • After the conflict, siblings do not recover and makeup
  • There is a general lack of warmth towards each other
  • One sibling holds contempt or has a lack of empathy for the other

If you can no longer brush your sibling’s behavior off as normal sibling fighting, and think things are crossing over into bullying territory, the best things you can do are to:

  • Vocalize. Voice to your caregivers that you do not want them to condone repeated acts of meanness. Discuss what behavior is “crossing the line” and should not be tolerated.
  • Empathize. Do your best to take perspective. Remember that people bully others because they lack the social skills to get what they want, or because they do not know how to cope with stress and feelings of inadequacy. While it may be difficult, try to react with compassion for your sibling’s struggles.
  • Affirm Yourself. Have confidence in your individual identity and abilities. You self-worth is not dependent on what anyone has to say, and anyway your sibling’s bullying is much more about the feelings they have with themselves than it is about you. You are strong, capable, talented, and intelligent. Don’t forget it!
  • Rest and Recharge. In a fight, walk away and do not fight back. Although it is harder to do this when you share a living space, find a place where you can safely relax and recharge. This can be a parent’s office or study room, the balcony or back porch, or your room. Taking 15 minutes to make a lap or two around the block can help, too.
  • Name It To Tame It. Bullying takes a toll on your mind and body. After your sibling’s episode, sit down and think of a word that most accurately reflects how you’re feeling. The closer the word matches your experience, the less “mixed up”, hysterical, stressed, etc. you’ll feel. What’s happening in the brain is that naming your emotion gives your body time to breathe and, kicking the frontal lobe into gear, space to process.

At the end of the day, a healthy sibling relationship is one where, above all, there is a mutual respect for each other, and where kindness and concern for others’ feelings are prioritized. Understand that this period in your sibling’s life is a difficult one, but that you shouldn’t have to suffer because of it. Take care of yourself, and one day, you’ll both come out stronger.

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