When sibling rivalry turns nasty

When does sibling rivalry become bullying?
When does sibling rivalry become bullying? Photo: Getty

When it comes to growing up in a household with other siblings, rivalry is generally considered par for the course. Whether it is competing for the attention of parents, or simply just ensuring that their voice and opinions are the loudest, siblings all over the world are at it. But, what happens when this rivalry goes one step too far? What happens when it becomes bullying?  

The figures certainly suggest that this is happening. A study published last September by researchers from Clemson University (USA) revealed that 75% of participants reported being bullied by a sibling and 85% reported bullying a sibling. Whilst statistics from a UK study released by the Institute for Social & Economic Research at the University of Essex revealed that 50% of children age 11 to 15 are involved in sibling bullying within their home. 

“I thought bullying was normal between siblings,” says *Kate Smith, who recalls telling her sister she was adopted and that their mum didn’t love her. “I once excluded my brother from all discussions for the week when he ate the last slice of chocolate cake that I wanted. But I also remember being on the receiving end when my sister told me I was fat and so couldn’t wear her clothes.”

*Catherine Croft has similar recollections saying, “I used to bully my younger brother all the time. I shoved tic tacs up his nose and covered him in talcum powder.”

Whilst these recollections may seem funny in hindsight, the issue of sibling bullying is very serious and, like any kind of bullying, can have serious consequences for the child being targeted, particularly if nothing is done to rectify the situation.

Jane Green, a Mum to 3, had first hand experience of behavior more reflective of bullying than rivalry when her eldest began picking on his younger sibling.  

“*Josh is 5 years older than *Toby and he used to say he "hated" him all the time. At one stage he threw a torch at him, which resulted in Toby having to get stitches. In the end, we went to a psychologist because we were scared he was going to do real damage.” Fortunately for Green the issues were resolved quickly, and now her sons are 21 and 16 and the best of friends.

So what exactly is the difference between sibling rivalry and bullying, and what are the signs that parents should be aware of that highlight when things may have escalated?

According to Sarah-Jayne McCormick, psychologist and coach at Bright Ideas, rivalry is about a child seeing their sibling as competition for mum or dad's affections, whereas sibling bullying is more often about intentionally hurting a sibling, either physically or emotionally.


Jocelyn Brewer, psychologist, backs this up, explaining, “Bullying is an intentional act of aggression and is designed to provoke hurt.  It is generally repetitive and is based around a power imbalance. It can be verbal or physical, and it’s not just 'play-fighting' but more targeted behaviour. It’s also not just within the realms of bickering and general disagreement. It is more calculated.”

When it comes to being aware of what is happening, both experts agree that parents should look out for signs such as a sibling being excluded, unexplained bumps or bruises, cruel or negative language about the other sibling, and unkind tricks or pranks that appear targeted.

“The way in which power roles play out between kids can be indicative of bullying, as well as ongoing or regular bickering that ends in tears or fights,” says Brewer. “Any withdrawal by the victim, avoidance of interaction or mood changes can also signal that something is not right, as well as any issues at school as, sadly, kids bullied at home are more likely to be targeted at school too.”

Whilst there is no one definite reason for what causes one sibling to bully another, Brewer believes that a sense of disparity or injustice in the way that one sibling is treated over another by their parents can often be a root of the problem. Although she points out that it can also be as simple as a personality clash, whereby the siblings are just very different, with very different interests. 

Both experts concur that ongoing bullying can result in psychological, self-esteem and anxiety issues for the victim, as well as see them withdrawing from things that they previously enjoyed. Perhaps a more important concern however is one pointed out by McCormick, who says “The issue really comes when the bully grows up believing that bullying is okay, and takes that into later relationships.”

So what can parents do should they see this kind of behavior being exhibited within their home?

“It is crucial that parents intervene every time they see this behaviour happening, and set rules and be consistent with this,” says McCormick. “It is also important to follow up later with each child separately and have a chat about expectations of behaviour.”

Brewer also offers the following advice;

  • Set clear boundaries on what is play fighting and what is bullying.
  • Talk about what the differences are and how people might feel when things go too far, how to know what is too far.
  • Make it clear that its not 'dobbing' to report bullying or situations in which you are hurt or upset, but to do this when it happens and not leave it.
  • Help victims develop assertive ways of reporting the bullying and being listened to (sometimes the 'dibber dobber' voice is what stops adults taking it seriously and listening).
  • Address behaviours with both children.
  • Don't overlook it as something that is normal, and something that the kids will grow out of.
  • Spend individual time with each child as well as time all together - make it clear that there are no favourites.
  • Address issues with kids who perceive injustice between siblings.
  • Model the ways of interacting with your children as per how you want them to act.
  • Use reward charts for pro-social behaviour.