When Does Sibling Rivalry Cross the Line?

If you have siblings, then you’re all too familiar with all of the arguments, bickering, scuffles, and the competing over toys, snacks, and parental attention you and your brothers and sisters went through. Sometimes these sibling rivalries were worse than others. Other times it was just a brief yelling match and everyone moved on. This is normal behavior — and it may even make for some amusing stories during family gatherings when you get older.

As a parent, however, you don’t want to see your children fight with each other. Will your boys aggressive play with each other? Yes. Will your children scream at one another when both want to play with the same toy? You bet.

But, is this type of behavior the norm? If so, you need to determine whether or not the occasional scuffle is just that or something worse.

That’s why this article is going to describe the difference between sibling aggression and abuse, along with some parental tips on how to handle this situation. And, if you do believe that you child is being bullied by their sibling, I’ll share some strategies on helping them heal.

How to Differentiate Between Aggression and Abuse

When one of your children is aggressive or combative it’s a stressful situation with lots of emotions flowing through everyone in your home. You’re angry that your kids are fighting. One child feels like they’ve been wronged and are standing-up for themselves. Meanwhile, you have another child crying and shaken-up.

In this moment, it may be difficult to determine if this was just one-time event or a sign of potential behavioral problems.

First things first, take a deep breath and let the situation cool down before making any decisions.

Now that you’re calm, you need to realize that sibling rivalry is a part of normal behavioral development. But, what exactly is sibling rivalry?

Sibling rivalry, as defined by the CS Mott Children’s Hospital, “is the jealousy, competition and fighting between brothers and sisters.” This starts to occur almost immediately after the birth of a second child and continues throughout childhood. In most cases, these are isolated incidents that are both age-appropriate and mutual — meaning that there isn’t just one aggressor and your teenagers shouldn’t be getting into fist fights over a toy.

There are several factors that cause sibling rivalry, such as;

  • A child feeling that they aren’t getting enough of your attention.
  • Children competing to define themselves as individuals.
  • A child feeling that the arrival of a new baby will threaten their relationship with you.
  • They may be bored, hungry, tired, or stressed.
  • They may not be mature enough to handle a conflict healthy.
  • You may treat one child differently or handle situations aggressively.
  • The family doesn’t spend enough enjoyable time together.
  • There isn’t enough parental supervision.
  • You and your partner have separated or divorced.

Unlike sibling rivalry, sibling abuse is when one child purposely intends to harm their sibling either physically or emotionally through torture, teasing, destroying their sibling’s property, or threatening them. In some extreme cases this can also be sexual abuse.

When a child has been bullied by a sibling, they tend to have lower self-esteem, bully other children, experience anxiety and depression, and harm themselves. And, family research has recently found that sibling bullying can cause as much, if not more, damage to children’s mental well being. It can even last well into adulthood.

What Can You Do as a Parent?

I hope that you, as a parent, now understand the difference between sibling rivalry and abuse. This way you can distinguish between normal fighting and patterns of abuse, such as very frequent aggression that becomes increasingly cruel. Also pay attention to other clues, like older/bigger children ganging on smaller/younger children and a lack of empathy.

When you do notice these patterns do not ignore them and address them appropriately instead of resorting to violence. Instead, let your child cool down and discuss the situation. And, please, stop blaming the victim.

That’s just the start. Here’s some other techniques that you can use in your home to thwart sibling abuse;

  • Reduce rivalries among your children. Stop playing favorites and comparing your children to each other. Also, encourage your children to be themselves and enjoy their specific personalities, talents, and successes.
  • Create a positive family environment. Include your children in solving problems and setting goals. Have family meetings to discuss feelings and plan fun activities. Set structured family time, like having dinner together and going on vacation. Celebrate each other’s successes, traditions, and events like birthdays.
  • Model empathy and non-violence. While some children are empathetic, you can help them develop this by showing empathy to others and explaining how bullying affects others. Also explain that violence is not the way to resolve conflicts.
  • Teach communication and conflict resolution skills. Sit down with your children and give them an opportunity to to express their feelings in a safe, neutral forum. Hopefully, they can learn that this is a better way to resolve conflicts.
  • Help your kids learn to manage their anger. Use physical strategies like exercise, sports, or mindfulness, along with encouraging them to write down or discuss their feelings with you. Also make sure your children are aware of the consequences of their anger, such as loss of privileges. This may make them think twice before acting out.
  • Separate your children when violence occurs. When your children get physical with each other, separate them immediately. When they cool down, find out what caused the fight and again explain why violence is not the answer and suggestions on how to play nicely.
  • Supervise your children. You don’t have to become a helicopter parent. However, it’s been found that bullying occurs more when children aren’t supervised. Monitor your children to make sure that they’re not using aggressive verbal or body language.
  • Spend one-on-one time with your children. Make sure that spend time appropriate “alone” time with each child. Listen to what they’re feelings are and do something that they enjoy. You may also want to ask them the positive factors that see in their brother or sister.
  • Teach your children what’s acceptable and what’s not. Your children should know what behavior is acceptable and what is not, such as inappropriately touching another child. They should also be encouraged to say “no” when they feel uncomfortable.
  • Seek professional help. If you believe that bullying is happening in your home, then don’t hesitate in seeking out a family therapist. They can offer fresh perspectives, guidance, and ways to handle these types of situations.

Daily Aggression Toward a Sibling May Signal Potential Behavioral Problems

While fighting among siblings is a fact of life, it’s also true that it occurs four to five times as often as spousal or child abuse. That’s why it’s important to identify and prevent it from happening. Unfortunately, sometimes there are behavioral problems that will require professional help.

“Very frequent aggression towards a sibling may be an indicator that the child is experiencing significant emotional or behavioral problems that will worsen if left untreated,” explains Melanie Dirks from McGill University’s Department of Psychology.

“Parents who are concerned about their children’s aggression – toward siblings or others – should seek out a clinician who will provide a thorough assessment and then help them to learn developmentally appropriate behavioral management techniques.”

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