Sibling rivalry can be seen in children’s ordinary skirmishes over the TV’s remote control or a video game’s joystick. However, what about chronic physical or verbal abuse? And what if chronic physical or verbal abuse is directed primarily at one sibling? That’s bullying at home. The line between healthy relations and abusive, bullying behaviors is crossed when one child is consistently the victim of another child and the aggressor’s intent is to cause harm and humiliation.

The distinction between sibling rivalry and bullying at home is an important one. How parents respond to the distinction is critical. Parents influence whether a child learns to hurt harder in physical attacks (and more deviously) or whether he or she learns, develops, and masters the more productive skills involved in negotiating, planning, and communicating. If children learn how to negotiate, plan, and communicate, then power, control, intimidation, and physical aggression are no longer necessary means for meeting their needs.

If you see fighting in your home that is hurting a child physically or psychologically, here are a few suggestions:

  • Separate the two or more children involved. Say something like, “Hold it right there. That looks like real fighting [or “Those words sound really hurtful”]. People are not for hitting or hurting. Separate rooms [or “chairs”], please, right now.”
  • Pay initial attention to the child who has been the brunt of the bullying, not the aggressor, and clarify to the aggressor that he or she has made a poor choice. “Poor choice, Johnny, for hitting Jamie. I am going to spend a few minutes now with Jamie while you stay here and think about how you could have let Jamie know you were feeling frustrated without hitting.”
  • Let children know what they can do with their big feelings. “Johnny, let Jamie know how frustrated you were feeling with words that won’t hurt.” If your children don’t know how to do this, teach them. Help them practice with, “I feel _____ when _____.” You can also model nonviolence and the respectful communication of your own big feelings.
  • Anger is often the behavior we see when a child is hurt, so teach your child words and language to describe his or her hurt feelings. “I wonder if you were really frustrated and angry at him because _____________.”

As a first important step, parents need to acknowledge bullying if it is occurring at home. Then parents can respond. Following a proactive response to at-home bullying, the thinking part of the aggressor’s brain will be engaged. The bullying child can then begin learning to inhibit primitive responses when he or she feels competitive, territorial, or threatened.

More to consider: The research . . .

New research suggests that children and adolescents who are attacked, threatened, or intimidated by a sibling have increased levels of depression, anger, and anxiety.