Siblings fight. Fighting with siblings is a natural part of our childhood. But when disagreements turn into violence, it can quickly turn into sibling abuse and bullying.
“Siblings: your only enemy you can’t live without.” – Anonymous
Sibling bullying can have severe psychological and emotional impact on children and can be highly traumatic and stressful. In fact, around 40% of children experience sibling bullying and abuse every week. Moreover, about 50% of children have been physically attacked by a sibling and 15% have been physically assaulted repeatedly. It has also been reported that around 32% of children have experienced some form of intrafamilial aggression from their siblings. However, most of these events go unreported.
The truth is sibling bullying is a hidden epidemic that can adversely affect the development of children. Studies have found that sibling bullying can lead to a number of long term mental health issues in children like anxiety, depression, self-harm and obesity, when parents do not address it.
What is sibling bullying?
Can we call it abuse if a brother calls his sister an “idiot”?
Can we call it bullying if an older sister wants her younger brother to stay away when her friends are over?
Can we call it abuse if 2 siblings fight over the TV remote?
Can we call it bullying if the dominant sibling says “It’s his fault. He started it.”
When it comes to children, it becomes very difficult to define abuse and bullying. Generally, bullying refers to deliberate, repeated and severe efforts to harm a person. As there is a difference in power, the victim feels helpless to defend or protect themselves. Abuse is when a person causes distress or harm to someone. Sibling abuse is the physical, emotional, and sometimes even sexual, abuse by one sibling on the other. Most of the time it is mild aggression like shoving, pushing or hitting on the head, however, it can also include extremely violent behavior. Whereas, sibling bullying refers to repeated incidents which are more than teasing. The dominant sibling usually physically or verbally abuses the victim several times a week.
According to a study by the University of Warwick and published in The Lancet Psychiatry, sibling bullying may be defined as –
“Any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by a sibling that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated; bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted sibling including physical, psychological, or social harm. It encompasses two modes of bullying (direct and indirect) as well as four types of bullying (physical, verbal, relational, and damage to property).”
So sibling bullying and abuse may be described as a repeated physical aggression and assault with an intention to hurt or harm another sibling with the motivations of establishing control and power. One of the children, mostly the younger one, is always the victim and loser. It is a growing aggressive pattern that parents can have a hard time to cope with if they don’t intervene from the beginning.
What sibling abuse & bullying looks like
Every disagreement and conflict between siblings cannot be considered as bullying. However, when it becomes repetitive and severe, parents need to take notice. If a 5 year old brother hits her 3 year old sister for a toy, then it is a natural sibling rivalry. However, when a 14 year old brother repeatedly hits and abuses his 10 year old sister for the remote or the video game, then it counts as bullying.
Usually, the older child is the dominant one and tends to act as the bully or the aggressor. The dominant child will keep escalating the aggression while the victimized child will always be the loser in these ‘arguments’. Bullying among siblings may take different forms. However, it will always focus on humiliating, insulting, shaming or excluding the victimized sibling. It may also comprise of constant threats, teasing, name calling and taking help of other siblings to belittle the target sibling.
What makes children abusive?
It has been observed that bullying mostly originates in families with a history of abuse, where bullying strategies are openly practiced by abusive parents. As children learn from their parents, it is likely that an abused child will become a bully and an abuser themselves. They usually target victims who are less powerful than them, like a younger sibling, and will use various strategies to bully their target. It is primarily a coping mechanism for them which allows the aggressor to release their frustration that has resulted from ill treatment from their parents.