Sibling warfare: What to do when rivalry becomes bullying

No parent wants to think their child is either a bully or being bullied. But what if you have both – and it’s taking place in your home between two children you love?

Some conflict between siblings is normal, and such rivalry is a common cause of frustration for parents.

“It’s problematic for parents, it makes life hard, it stops harmony in families,” says leading parenting and educational writer Michael Grose.

But what if it becomes more than bickering between siblings, and looks more like bullying?

Is it sibling rivalry or sibling bullying?

Michael describes bullying as selective, uninvited, repetitive harming of one child by another, which can be physical, verbal or emotional.

UK research suggests sibling bullying impacts 30 per cent of families, but Michael says he has not seen evidence that it is as problematic as that in Australia.

Founder and director of Kids First Children’s Services Sonja Walker says most disputes between siblings are rivalry, rather than bullying.

“Bullying is a different kettle of fish than having the occasional scrap with your brothers and sisters because you’re sick of one another,” she says.

The experts say rivalry is about competition – whether it’s for parental attention, toys, television shows, or achievements – and can manifest in continuous teasing and conflict, and even turn to bullying behavior.

“I’m not suggesting the child be called a bully, but (they may) display bullying behavior, which is dominating another person, not giving them a chance to speak up, to always put them down,” Michael says.

Why do siblings fight?

Sonja says bullying behavior among siblings is often motivated by insecurity.

“(They do it) to ensure another person doesn’t have superiority over them – whether it be with mum and dads’ love, access to different kinds of activities, or they don’t want their brother or sister to be the favourite.

“It’s immature thinking, but children don’t have the capacity to think about the consequences of what they’re doing or label the feelings they have – they act quite instinctively.”

Sonja says if a child’s goal is to gain their parent’s attention, they may do whatever it takes to achieve that – even if it’s negative attention.

“If children get the reaction they’re seeking, that need is satisfied, and it perpetuates the behavior,” she says.

How can parents manage bullying behavior among siblings?

Whether it’s rivalry or bullying, the experts agree it’s important to try to find out what’s driving it.

Sonja recommends asking other adults in the child’s life whether they’ve observed anything that might explain it, while Michael suggests closely examining what is happening in the family.

Set simple rules around behaviour, with clear consequences if they’re not followed.

“In my family we had three rules – no rude words or actions, no hurting yourself or others, no wrecking stuff,” Sonja says. “Any misdemeanor can be applied under those categories.”

Top ways to help your children get along

Schedule one-on-one time

Spending 10 minutes a day with each child can provide them with positive attention in a relaxed manner and reduce the likelihood they’ll seek to be noticed in negative ways, says Sonja.

“Research tells us 10 minutes of individual time per child per day is really all they need to feel attached and connected to parents,” she says.

Find ways for siblings to interact positively

Provide children with experiences that allow them to interact positively, such as planting a garden, building a cubby house, or doing something in the community together.

“Kids don’t have the capacity cognitively, emotionally, or attention-wise to sit down and talk about things for an hour, but when you put something in their hand and they’re working on a common goal, that can be a breakthrough point,” says Sonja.

Offer positive encouragement

The experts say it’s important to acknowledge desirable behavior as often as you can.

“People in a relationship should hear five positives for every negative,” Michael says.

“If you’re always down on a child, you’ve got to make an effort to build that relationship and be positive to that child.”

Teach kids to restore relationships

Choose a calm moment to get the kids together and give each a chance to speak and listen.

Michael says this gives the hurt child an opportunity to be heard, while the other can reflect on how their actions impacted another person.

“You can then get them to think about what they can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he says.

Create family rituals

“Make sure you’ve got rituals that bring your family together, whether it’s meal times or fish’n’chips on a Friday night or the special little celebrations you have for each child’s birthday,” Michael says.

“Family rituals and traditions don’t just build families, but bind people together.”

Written by Claire Burke.