Maybe there is an increase of bullying in our society. Maybe there is an increase in awareness. Either way, it is getting a lot of attention these days. Teachers and parents are sensitized to the signs of bullying and are becoming more skilled at breaking the cycle and protecting bullied children. But what happens when the bully is not a classmate or a teammate or a neighbor? What happens when the bully is in the victim’s own home? Recent research in Great Britain suggests the effects are severe and long-term.
Since time immemorial, siblings have pried their way under each other’s skin. Arguing and jockeying for position in the family are part of growing up. The problem is that sometimes parents misunderstand what they are witnessing in their children. What they view as sibling rivalry can actually be bullying. There is a simple way to tell the difference.
When two children are sparring, it is easy to observe that they are both upset and both engaged in the clash. Parents can intervene and set the rules of engagement, teach the value of mutual respect, and offer children templates for managing disagreements at home and with those they may face in the world outside the home. But when one sibling is bullying another, it is only the bully who is engaged and seeming to delight in the taunting. The bullied child is miserable. The only response for parents is to stop the bullying. Period. There is no false equivalency: they are not equally at fault. There is no need for mutual apology. There is only stopping the aggression and offering solace and protection to the victim.
Most sibling bullying takes the form of name-calling and insults, both of which are passive-aggressive behaviors the bully can deny when confronted. “She’s taking it too seriously!” “She started it!” “If she weren’t such a brat, this would not have happened.” It is never the bully’s fault. The bully loves to play the role of victim. And the bully can be very convincing to parents who are too distracted or too exhausted to figure out what is really going on.
Meanwhile, the victim—for the purposes of this article, we’ll use young girls as our examples—feels unsafe in her own home. She returns from school with dread every day, emotionally defended and prepared for a shellacking by her sister, who can be older or younger than she is. She learns that her parents cannot or will not intervene on her behalf. She feels defenseless and begins to doubt her own perception. It is a form of gaslighting: the bully sibling makes the victim wonder whether she really is the nasty, incompetent, bratty person the bully is telling her she is.
The likely victim in sibling bullying is the child who is sensitive and thoughtful. The bully is likely to have problems which the parents do not see. These can be related to being bullied herself at school, for example, or they can be the result of transferring the effects of her own trauma onto someone else. Often in dysfunctional families where a child feels unsupported or ignored, that child will take it out on a sibling because for any number of reasons she fears that going directly at the parent would crash her own fragile world, regardless of how unpleasant it may be.
There are also other, less obvious, explanations for bullying a sibling. Children can have personality conditions, just as adults can. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) offers a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder to describe children under the age of 18 who exhibit behaviors devoid of compassion and empathy for others. The adult version of this is antisocial personality. This is a potentially serious problem.
It is a daunting situation for a parent to face the possibility that a child might need psychotherapeutic care. Sometimes, it is more than parents can bear to face. They feel ashamed, somehow responsible, for the behavior of their bullying child. Though bullies crop up more often in families with trauma, alcoholism, or other chronic dysfunction, these components are not always in place. Sometimes, with all the best of support and parental supervision, children need help from professionals. Bullies generally are not happy people, as children or as adults.
If you’re a parent, closely monitor your children’s arguing. Be certain that’s actually what you are seeing. If the playing field is not level and one child enjoys the other child’s distress, you are not looking at normal sibling development. You are looking at bullying, and your role as a parent is to stop it immediately.
But there is plenty of material available to parents to help them disarm bullies. My concern here is with the victim. Often, it is the victim who is told by well-meaning parents either to ignore the bully or to fight back. Neither of these approaches feels possible to the typical victim child. And neither is effective, anyway: ignoring a bully is tantamount to goading her, and fighting back is unrealistic advice for a child whose temperament is neither adversarial nor combative.
She is at risk for low self-esteem, depression, and even self-harm as a result of being bullied by a sibling who renders the home an unsafe place. Where is the victim to go? Children have neither the means nor the power to remove themselves from an environment that is so painful. She is stuck enduring the grief until she can manage to leave home for college or move on to the workforce and her own apartment.
But she is insufficiently prepared. She might develop a sarcastic style, for example, which pushes people away from her when she most needs contact with others and trusted friends. She is deeply wounded. She rejects herself the way her bullying sibling rejected her for all those years. She does not feel lovable. She is deeply sad. And she doesn’t understand why. These consequences can go on for a victim’s entire life. She can forever struggle with self-doubt and negative self-talk, taking over the belittling work of the bully long after both have left home.
A sensitive and talented child can remain hobbled if sibling bullying is left unaddressed. It is not unusual for bully and victim roles to continue well into adulthood. If the victim marries and has her own children, and then finally comes to see it is in her best interest to sever relations with her bullying sibling, her own children and family may condemn her for what they do not understand, and which she is unable to adequately explain.
If you’re a parent, closely monitor your children’s arguing. Be certain that’s actually what you are seeing. If the playing field is not level and one child enjoys the other child’s distress, you are not looking at normal sibling development. You are looking at bullying, and your role as a parent is to stop it immediately. This is in the interest of both the victim and the bully.
If you are an adult struggling with the confusing long-term damage of having been bullied at home, supportive counseling can help you understand yourself better. You can address why you were unable to defend yourself as a child (likely because you didn’t understand what was happening) and that it was your parents’ responsibility to intervene and protect you (which they didn’t, for reasons unique to them). You can also unravel the roots of any current problems you may have with confidence and self-worth. Please don’t be surprised if they derive from the way your sibling treated you as a child. And please be alert to the possibility this behavior may be continuing toward you in the present. Counseling can help you identify ongoing toxic relationships in your family of origin and guide you toward setting boundaries in order to stop behaviors that are harmful to you.
It is unlikely you can disarm a sibling who bullied you as a child and who is now an adult. Adult bullies tend to become ever more adept at the plausible deniability inherent in passive-aggressive behavior (“Oh, that’s not what I meant,” for example, when you try, however cautiously, to hold them accountable for poor behavior). This isn’t to say change isn’t possible.
Finally, it is important to remember that no happy person would choose to bully another, regardless of their insistence that they are happy and you are the problem. Compassion you may feel for the bully can only take you so far, however. You must also take steps to guard yourself from the ongoing effects of their continued disrespect toward you.
Bowes, L., Wolke, D., Joinson, C., Lereya, S. T., & Lewis, G. (2014, September 8). Sibling bullying and risk of depression, anxiety, and self-harm: A prospective cohort study. Pediatrics. doi: 10.1542/peds.2014-0832
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