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Sibling relationships can be both loving and nurturing as well as conflicting and complex when children are young. Typically, most sibling relationships contain positive attributes such as companionship, love, and understanding as well as negative attributes such as conflict, competition, and fighting (verbal & physical). On average most sibling relationships are characterized by these two co-existing extremes: warmth and conflict. Unfortunately, some sibling relationships can consist of repetitive acts of aggression and violence toward the other, appropriately coined sibling bullying.

Bullying between siblings differs from typical peer conflicts by being repetitive, having purposeful, negative and hurtful intent, and reflecting a power differential between the person doing the bullying and the victim. These differences can include differences in age, i.e., older sibling beating up on, intimidating, or other bullying of a younger sibling or siblings. Sibling bullying can also exist between different genders, i.e., brother beating up sister or vice versa.

Although sibling conflicts can be troublesome as well as a nuisance, typical sibling conflict is not harmful in and of itself when it is constructive and properly managed by parents. This is true mainly because most sibling relationships consist of high levels of warmth and love.

However, when conflict escalates to ongoing intimidation and physical injury it has gone passed the point of acceptable or appropriate sibling conflict as it now meets the criteria for sibling bullying. Once sibling relationships have escalated beyond typical sibling disagreements, abusive and hurtful behavior is more likely to follow as there is a reduced chance an easy resolution and there is less warmth and understanding in the relationship. Unresolved and ongoing sibling conflict can create a perfect storm for latent psychological problems in adulthood. Latent problems typically consist of anxiety, aggressive behavior, depression, challenges with socialization, etc.

The following are a list of things that suggest conflict between siblings may be more than just a normal conflict:

  • Fighting between siblings seems more intense and frequent than what would normally be expected.
  • Ongoing frequent harassment and torments that appear to center around the same issues without resolution
  • During sibling conflicts one sibling often appears more powerful than the other (causing emotional pain through hateful words, physically overpowering, creates an intense feeling of fear in the other)
  • There is a lack of warmth and compassion for the feelings of one of the siblings towards the other.
  • Siblings fail to make up or resolve issues leading to the fight, rather they behave as if the issues leading to the fight never existed.

It is important for parents and other adults to recognize when sibling relationships may be causing undue harm to one or both of the children involved. Additional supervision is required to ensure that behaviors do not continue to escalate as well to extinguish the negative behaviors completely.

Parents are encouraged to model empathetic behaviors in front of children in an attempt to encourage perspective and reflective thinking. It is also important to separate children that are locked in conflict and do not assume they have the capacity to negotiate and resolve the conflict on their own. Parents should also not become overly focused on who is to blame, as this will more likely create anger and contempt for the sibling that is thought to be bullying the other.

As a Reminder as kids cope with disputes, they also learn important skills that will serve them for life — like how to value another person’s perspective, how to compromise and negotiate, and how to control aggressive impulses.

Billy & Brandon

Billy and Brandon are brothers, Billy is 9 and Brandon is 6. For the last year there has been a lot of sibling conflict between the brothers. The conflict between the brothers started when Billy began incessantly teasing Brandon about his lisp, which is a sensitive issue for Brandon. Billy’s behavior quickly escalates to mocking Brandon’s speech, pushing, kicking, and punching.

Although Billy & Brandon’s parents are upset about the relationship between their sons, they accept it without further concern as a “typical phase in the children relationships”. Brandon is becoming more and more withdrawn both in school and at home. Brandon has become very self-conscious about speaking in front of other people, including his family. The most recent conflict between Billy and Brandon resulted in Brandon receiving a busted lip from Billy.

Has the relationship between the brothers gone beyond acceptable sibling conflict?