Is it sibling bullying? How to tell when the fighting has gone too far

Fighting with siblings is a childhood rite of passage, but sometimes it goes too far.
Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Calgary mom Jessica Shunga* vividly remembers the terror she felt as a kid when her sister, who is three years older than her, unleashed her fury, physically and emotionally tormenting her. “Anything could set her off,” recalls the 37-year-old. “I can still feel the panic and fear.” From early elementary school on, her sister would call her ugly and fat, and would pin her down and intimidate her. Shunga got punched in the face and dragged by her hair. In one particularly cruel instance, her sister kicked her in the face after she had her wisdom teeth removed.

This type of abuse might sound extreme, but Shunga is not alone. In a 2013 study of 3,600 kids aged two to 17, published in the journal Pediatrics, nearly 38 percent experienced aggression from a sibling (categorized as physical or verbal abuse and intimidation, and taking or vandalizing property) in the previous year. The incidence peaked in the younger ages: 45 percent of two- to five-year-olds and 46 percent of six- to nine-year-olds were subjected to things like hitting or biting, having their toys broken or stolen and being made to feel left out or unwanted by their siblings in the previous year. And yet, while bullying outside the home is typically met with zero tolerance, sibling fighting is often shrugged off as a normal part of growing up.

But is it?

It depends on the extent and type of the quarrelling, say the experts. While any two or more kids living under the same roof will argue, “normal conflict has amicable solutions,” says Judy Arnall, Calgary author of Parenting With Patience. She gives the example of two children fighting over a coveted toy: They both need or want something in short supply, but the conflict can eventually be resolved by taking turns. Bullying, however, is repeated, targeted, unrelenting torment directed at one person.” There is no quick fix.

Jennifer Gordon, a mom of two in Bragg Creek, Alta., is worried she might be witnessing the early stages of a bullying relationship between her daughters, six-year-old Maggie and four-year-old Tessa. “Maggie will get mad so quickly if Tessa doesn’t listen to her or do what she wants. She’ll hit her and grab her,” says Gordon. “She’ll also say things like, ‘I’m never going to play with you again.’”

Debra Pepler, scientific co-director at PREVNet, a Canadian resource for bullying prevention, says young children who are still learning the social skills to handle emotions and conflict will often hit or bite, call someone names or exclude others. While these incidents don’t necessarily amount to bullying, the way parents deal with these sibling squabbles when their kids are young can prevent future bullying—or fuel it. “In many cases, how parents handle the conflict can lead to the bullying,” says Arnall. So, what’s a parent to do when kids are quarreling?

Younger kids
When you’ve got toddlers and preschoolers shrieking, “it’s mine!” and siblings pulling hair in retaliation for not getting the last cookie, it’s important to intervene — but in the right way, says Alyson Schafer, a Toronto family therapist and author. Young kids, Schafer says, need to learn problem-solving skills from their parents: how to share, how to ask instead of grab, and how to identify feelings and appropriately let out frustrations. But when you’re getting involved in the conflict, the key is not to take sides. Listen to what both kids have to say and validate their feelings. Instead of, “Why are you always picking on your sister?” say, “Wow, you must be really angry to want to hurt her. Tell me what’s going on.” Don’t lay blame, as this will just pit your kids against each other more, and don’t make assumptions about what happened during their interaction. “Parents may watch for aggressive behaviour more from the child they perceive to be the aggressor when, in reality, the ‘victim’ should stop coughing in her brother’s face,” says Schafer. “If we cast our kids in the roles of aggressor and victim, they get stuck in them.”

Any weary parent will be tempted to let their kids work it out on their own if they’re busy making dinner or simply exhausted from playing referee, but Arnall advises against it. “When young kids are left to sort things out on their own, they hit, push, bite, name-call and break things. Many times, one kid consistently wins, usually the older or more assertive one, and that’s what breeds the bullying.”

Older kids
While it’s important to get involved when sibling fighting involves a young kid, like a toddler, who hasn’t learned to problem solve on his own, Schafer suggests that once your kids have learned the skills to work things out on their own, it’s time to back out of all of their fights. “Look for evidence your kids do know how to get along,” she says. “Many times kids do have the skills but choose not to use them.” Keep in mind, too, that even though they might squabble, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is bullying going on. If one moment they’re fighting over the remote control and the next they’re laughing at a sitcom together, it’s unlikely one is being bullied.

Corinna Jenkins Tucker, lead author of the 2013 study and a professor at the University of New Hampshire, suggests that when kids are getting at each other’s throats, parents should watch for whether the interaction is focused on one issue, involves negotiation and comes to a mutually agreeable solution: That’s just a fight (or, as Tucker calls it, “constructive conflict”). But if one kid is consistently dominating the other and there’s always a clear winner, bullying may be occurring. “Also, a child may be reluctant to play or interact with their sibling if they are being bullied,” says Tucker.

True bullying is about power. “It’s about one individual using his or her power over another to control or distress that person,” explains Pepler. If you think bullying is happening in your house, it’s important to seek outside help, like a family counsellor, says Schafer. “An outside perspective can be invaluable.”

And there’s a good reason to try to mend the relationship between your kids. In her study, Tucker found that aggression between siblings can cause psychological damage that’s just as harmful as that from school bullies, and that children who experienced even one form of victimization by a sibling, such as physical or verbal abuse, intimidation, or taking or vandalizing property, had worse mental health—more anxiety, depression and anger—than those who didn’t.

Gordon is aware of the damage that sibling bullying can do and is trying her best to nip things in the bud. She talks to Maggie about being empathetic and about how bullying can be hurtful. “It’s not just physical; it’s about hurt feelings, too,” says Gordon. “I remind her that she’s a wonderful girl and that she doesn’t have to behave this way. There’s nothing that justifies hurting each other. I’ve been trying to let her get her frustrations out physically by throwing a bean bag or punching the couch; to understand the difference between taking out frustrations on a thing and not a person.”

In Shunga’s case, her sister’s bullying went unchecked, and it continued into adulthood (although her sister is now repentant.) “It’s negatively affected so much of my self-image and self-esteem,” says Shunga, who also suffers from anxiety. “Parents need to know how much damage sibling bullying can do. Now, as a mom, I don’t tolerate any kind of bullying or disrespect between my kids. I know how much it can hurt.”

* name has been changed

A version of this article appeared in our November 2015 issue with the headline, “My Sister, My Bully,” p.40-41.

Read more:
What to do when your kid’s the bully>
Forget kids – parents need to stop bullying each other>
Siblings: Who’s really in charge?>

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