When Your Bully Is Your Sibling

Inside the hidden problem of bullying within the home.
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Throughout her childhood, Melissa, 27, looked for a way out of the bullying she faced every single day. And for her, that meant going to school.

At home, she says her stepbrothers and stepsister regularly beat her up. They stole from her and broke her things. Her stepsister poured water in her bed and told Melissa’s stepmom she’d wet it, hoping to embarrass her.

“At 10 years old I sat in the kitchen with a knife wanting to end my own life because I was so miserable at home,” said Melissa, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her anonymity. “School was my sanctuary.”

Though it is hardly a new phenomenon, bullying has finally been recognized as a major public health problem, affecting up to 30 percent of children, according to some estimates. We now understand that children who are bullied are at greater risk of developing anxiety and depression, among other health concerns, and are more likely to skip or drop out of school altogether.

But often conversations around bullying frame it as something that happens somewhere outside of the home — at school, during practice or on the playground or bus. Indeed, many of the surveys attempting to measure the scope of the problem tend focus on the school setting.

Increasingly, however, research shows that bullying among siblings is at least as common as bullying outside the home — and that it can be equally harmful, often because children feel like they have less of an escape.

“I felt totally helpless,” said Melissa, who is now a mom herself but has only one child largely because she worried about potential sibling aggression. “My dad worked all the time and my stepmom didn’t care. It was kind of this atmosphere of ‘toughen up, that’s life.’ But it’s not life. There is a difference between normal sibling bickering and what I went through. It was nonstop.”

What is sibling bullying?

A major challenge for researchers studying bullying behaviors among siblings is that the lines between typical sibling conflict and more outright bullying are not always clear. And what teachers, doctors and public health experts working in this area mean when they say “bullying behaviors” is often different than what parents and children mean when they use similar words.

Officially, experts tend to think of bullying as behavior that is unwanted and aggressive, that involves an imbalance of power (either real or perceived), that is intentional and that is repeated. By those standards, what someone like Melissa experienced in childhood is clearly bullying. But simple sibling fighting is not.

Despite the lack of clarity around terminology, the research that does exist on sibling bullying suggests the problem is widespread. For example, a 2014 study of nearly 400 young adults who were asked about bullying at home and school reported they’d experienced more bullying from their siblings.

And it can be equally harmful. A 2013 study that looked at the potential impact of even relatively mild sibling aggression — so not even necessarily outright, ongoing bullying — found it can cause clear mental health distress.

Sibling relationships are a vehicle through which children learn key lessons about love, conflict and behavior, which means bullying between brothers and sisters can take on a lot of extra emotional weight.

“It’s a central relationship in your life,” Corinna Jenkins Tucker, professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire and one of the authors of that 2013 study, told HuffPost. “It’s one of the longest relationships you’ll have ... It’s where children learn a lot of interpersonal skills — where they learn to fight constructively or destructively.”

Kids who have warmer, more supportive sibling relationships tend to have good friendships, she added, whereas children who are victimized by a sibling are more likely to also experience bullying behaviors by their peers.

But experts worry that there is still a sense that sibling aggression is simply a rite of passage.

“I would say in the last five-plus years, there’s definitely been increased interest in sibling victimization. There has been a definite increase in studies published by researchers, and I think more parenting programs are including modules on nature of sibling relationships,” said Jenkins Tucker. “So I think there has been some movement. But there still could be more.”

So what can parents do?

For Beth, 54, the most hurtful part of being, as she described it, “bullied, tormented and physically abused” by her older brother in childhood wasn’t even his behavior. It was the sense that the adults in her life who should have been protecting her were permitting it.

“It’s mostly the way my mom made excuses for it,” said Beth. “She seemed to think it was OK for my brother to beat up his sister, whereas if it had been anyone else...” she trailed off.

And unlike the school setting, where teachers are often the ones to recognize and intervene when a student is engaging in bullying behaviors, there isn’t necessarily another adult to step in. Ultimately, parents have a responsibility to understand the differences between normal sibling conflict and bullying, again by paying close attention to factors like intentionality, repetition and the power balance.

“With normal sibling conflict, one of the things you’ll see is that there is a relatively even balance in terms of who is doing the taunting,” explained Carrie Goldman, author of “Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs To Know About Ending The Cycle Of Fear,” who says that parents tend to have a pretty good sense in their guts of what’s “normal” and what’s not. “Maybe 40% of the time it’s Kid A and 60% of the time it’s Kid B. In sibling bullying, overwhelmingly, one kid is the aggressor.”

Parents should also consider whether the conflicts tend to be in response to an external stimulus, like fighting over a toy or the remote (typical) or whether they’re more about personal attacks or insults — which is another big red flag.

And parents should absolutely take it as seriously as they’d take bullying behaviors among peers. Develop an action plan and establish clear boundaries. Don’t be afraid to seek outside help, which should include all of the children involved.

“I really believe the only way to deal with this properly is through family counseling, and that’s work,” said Goldman.

“I think sometimes parents know something’s off and they keep hoping it’ll right itself,” she added. “Or sometimes they get counseling for one of the kids. But really, it’s the whole ecology of the family that needs work.”

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