How many times have you heard “MUM! He hit me!”.. or “Dad, tell her to give it back!”? When it comes to sibling relationships, sometimes there is no love lost. And for those in the firing line, it can be hard to take.
Is sibling rivalry ok?
So where does this behaviour cross the line from sibling rivalry to sibling bullying? And can it affect us later in life?
In the past few weeks a study has found that one third of children and teenagers have been affected by sibling aggression and bullying in the past 12 months – with some important and disturbing consequences.
The study, published in the prestigious Pediatrics involved nearly 3600 children. Those older than 10 were interviewed by the researchers in relation to minor and major physical assault (such as whether a weapon was used or injuries occurred), property aggression (where things were broken or stolen), and psychological aggression (where a sibling was frightened or threatened or excluded by a sibling). Rather than interviewing children under 10, parents of younger children were interviewed.
The researchers discovered that acts of bullying and aggression from siblings towards other siblings was linked with anger, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. Younger children showed significantly more mental health distress when siblings hit them and hurt them, when compared to older children’s responses to that type of behaviour. But beyond that, both groups fared equally poorly in relation to other forms of bullying.
Based on the evidence from this study, the idea that ‘it’s good for them because they’ll learn how to deal with difficult people’ seems to be misplaced at best, and harmful at worst.
Comparing Sibling Rivalry with Sibling Bullying and Aggression
What is the difference between normal children’s rivalry and something more serious? Does this study mean we need to quell any and all conflict in our homes?
Sibling rivalry is fairly normal in most homes. Kids are generally driven by self-interest. They struggle to regulate their emotions and behaviours, particularly when they’re hungry or tired (or bored). It’s normal that kids will argue over who gets the cake, what tv show to watch, whether someone’s allowed in ‘my’ seat’, or who can and can’t play with a particular toy.
That’s not to say we should encourage this rivalry and antagonism. Clearly it’s frustrating, and leads to anger, frustration, and sadness.
But this typical rivalry and bickering is quite different to the kinds of behaviour that were generally described in this study To distinguish between sibling rivalry and bullying it can help to consider these questions:
1. Is it all one way?
When a child is consistently hurting, manipulating, stealing from, or excluding, teasing, and threatening another we are likely dealing with a bullying issue, particularly when the other child isn’t creating the problem with teasing of his or her own.
2. What’s the motive?
When kids are fighting about ‘normal’ stuff out of self-interest, (like “he’s breathing my air”, or “she’s using my spoon”) it’s unlikely to be bullying. But if one sibling is motivated to hurt or humiliate then bullying may be the root and action is needed.
3. How old are the kids?
It’s developmentally appropriate that children will behave in immature ways when dealing with conflict. It’s our job to teach them how to deal with challenges in good ways. For example, toddlers can learn hitting and stealing is wrong, but they don’t have the same understanding of how and why that 6 or 10 year-olds do. It’s unusual that a 2-3 year-old will be a ‘bully’ so much as older kids (although it can happen).
What happens if the children carry this aggressive relationship into their adulthood?
The research isn’t clear on this from a sibling point of view, but if there is mental health distress other research tells us that the ensuring anger, frustration, anxiety, and depression, can affect a person’s wellbeing, their health, and their relationships
So what can parents do if we think our children might be heading down this road?
1. Look in the mirror
Our modelling has a powerful effect. And lots of research shows us that our kids are more likely to bully if we are bullies ourselves. So when they’re hurting one another or being challenging, we need to be at our BEST! It’s a tough balance but it matters a great deal.
2. Spend time
Usually our children’s challenging behaviour is at least in part related to an unmet need… as we spend more time with our kids, they become less needy and feel more secure.
3. Use perspective taking
Perspective is the root of empathy. When we ask our kids questions to get them to see how it feels for the other person they can begin to see things from another person’s view. If they can develop empathy, they’ll generally be kinder – and questions about how others feel when they act a certain way are the best way to do this.
There’s only one sure-fire way to stop sibling rivalry and sibling fighting – and that’s to not have siblings. If that’s too late for you then hopefully these ideas will help you contain the agro and keep it kind.