By Michelle Silver
We are always taught that violence against others (peers, partners, the elderly, etc.) is completely unacceptable. Parents who are violent towards their children are considered to be serious offenders, so how did sibling violence become a tolerated norm? Parents are often told that sibling rivalries and aggressive behavior are normal and can even be beneficial to help kids develop problem solving and competition skills. But in fact, sibling name calling, physical fighting, and bullying can have long-term negative effects on a child’s mental health. Studies have shown that youth who are consistently bullied by their siblings exhibit higher levels of anxiety, depression, and anger. Victims of sibling bullying are also more likely to experience bullying at school (Skinner & Kowalski, 2013). The effects sibling bullying can have on the victim can even continue into adulthood and lead to long-term lower levels of self-esteem and self-worth.
Prior to reading this NY Times article, I hadn’t given much thought to sibling bullying. Most people in my generation consider a little bit of sibling rivalry and playful fighting to be part of normal life and everyday fun. But how much is too much? The answer to this question certainly depends on the individual, their mental state, age, and how often and serious the sibling bullying is. If one sibling is constantly belittling the other, or if parents are unaware or subconsciously choose a favorite child and treat him/her differently, that is when sibling rivalries can have negative effects.
It remains surprising that sibling bullying is so rarely studied despite the fact that it is much more common than peer bullying. What can we do to increase parental awareness about sibling bullying? Firstly, parents must be aware of the negative effects that siblings can have on each other in certain circumstances. The more openly they engage in family conversations and establish what is and isn’t acceptable, the better off the family will be. Parents must also set positive examples for children by not calling their spouse or children derogatory names or engaging in any form of physical aggression. They must try as often as possible not to favor one child over the other or take sides in conflicts, but rather serve as the mediator for talking through problems. Parental monitoring and strong relationships with children will likely contribute to lower levels of sibling bullying, since usually problems occur when parents are not around. When siblings begin bullying behavior, parents must try to intervene as early as possible, especially for younger siblings.
It is critical that we begin to address the issue of sibling bullying, something that has sadly become both accepted and expected in our society (Skinner & Kowalski, 2013). Sibling bullying is different from traditional peer bullying, since typically siblings are both the victims and perpetrators in different situations. While few interventions have targeted sibling bullying, the interpersonal level (families, friends, and social networks) of the socio-ecological model would likely be a good place to start intervening. Even something as simple as parental workshops about sibling bullying could begin to put this widespread problem on their radar.