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Published July 08, 2013, 11:55 PM

A bully in the family: Parents urged to intervene in repeated sibling torment

Fargo -- Two brothers argue in the back seat, fighting over a handheld video game, exchanging shoves, calling each other names. This is the stuff of sibling rivalry. But let’s say only one kid is shoving, name-calling and stealing from the other. That child may be a sibling bully.

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

Fargo -- Two brothers argue in the back seat, fighting over a handheld video game, exchanging shoves, calling each other names. This is the stuff of sibling rivalry.

But let’s say only one kid is shoving, name-calling and stealing from the other.

That child may be a sibling bully.

A recent study published in the July issue of Pediatrics found that being bullied by a brother or sister can be as harmful to a child’s mental health as bullying by a peer.

Too often, the study’s authors say, the behavior is shrugged off as normal, minor or even beneficial.

“The possible importance of sibling aggression for children’s and adolescents’ mental health should not be dismissed,” the study authors concluded. “The mobilization to prevent and stop peer victimization and bullying should expand to encompass sibling aggression as well.”

A separate British study published in 2011 found that half of children experienced bullying in their own home, and middle children are more likely to bully than the eldest.

People often label all aggression as sibling rivalry, which is unfortunate, says Katie Dahlstrom, a licensed marriage and family therapist with the Village Family Service Center in Fargo.

Typical sibling tiffs are often competitive in nature, and may be rooted in vying for mom or dad’s attention, Dahlstrom says.

In bullying, one sibling is clearly the victim.

“It crosses the line when the main purpose is to hurt the sibling,” she says.

Dahlstrom says in some ways, sibling bullying is worse than bullying at school, because at least when a peer is the bully, home is a haven where the child can retreat.

“Home being a safe place is so important,” Dahlstrom says.

That’s not possible when the bully lives there, too.

The Pediatrics journal study showed that children ages 0 to 9 and 10 to 17 who experienced sibling aggression reported greater mental health distress. The authors looked at measures such as physical assault with and without a weapon or injury, stealing something from the child with or without force or breaking the child’s things on purpose, and saying things to make the child feel bad, scared or unwanted, according to aap.org.

The long-term effect of sibling bullying will depend on the child’s age, as well as the duration and severity of maltreatment, Dahlstrom says. A toddler frequently tormented by an older sibling may turn off her ability to respond to angry or harsh emotions, making her less able to form friendships. Older children may take out their anger on others, becoming bullies themselves.

“A lot of times, if a sibling is bullying, it’s because they see the parents fighting,” Dahlstrom says.

The 2011 U.K. study confirms this, finding that the prevalence of bullying in the home was unrelated to economic status or education, but directly related to behavior of the parents who slap or shout at their children.

Even if parental behavior doesn’t trigger the bullying, it greatly affects the victim.

Frustrated parents may back out, telling the kids to “figure it out” or “don’t tattle tale.”

“You’re sending the message that you’re not going to do anything about it,” Dahlstrom says.

Over time, children may feel their parents can’t protect them.

If parents act as if the bullying is no big deal, this disbelief can further damage the victim’s mental health, says Kim Bushaw, North Dakota State University Extension Service family life specialist.

Plus, a person you love and trust, someone perhaps charged to take care of you, is hurting you, which can affect the child’s mental framework, Bushaw says.

“Knowing that you can’t trust that you’re going to be safe or your belongings would be safe in your own home – that would be incredibly frightening,” she says.

Bushaw notes sibling bullying is in many ways like domestic abuse, but children can’t divorce a sibling.

To make a more peaceful household, Bushaw says one simple family rule – No hurting yourself, people or property – can provide parents with a tool for calling out bullying. She suggests posting the rule.

Dahlstrom says parents should stop bullying behavior immediately, reiterating to the children that home is a safe place.

When counseling parents, Dahlstrom encourages them to create three “baskets” of behavior. Basket A is behaviors for which there is zero tolerance and trigger immediate consequences. Basket B contains a limited number of behaviors parents wish to work on, such as sharing or helping around the house more. Basket C is for behaviors you can ignore for now, but may place in Basket B later.

Any emotional or physical abuse should be in Basket A, Dahlstrom says.

When parents intervene, however, they should not turn all their attention to the bullied child.

“In doing that we might be making those roles even more solidified,” Bushaw says.

“We so often manufacture ways to help the victim, but we need to get help for the child who is bullying because they’re obviously needing something more than we’re giving,” she adds.

There may be a need for child or family counseling, Bushaw says.

She also suggests parents struggling with sibling bullying hire care instead of leaving the siblings alone together.

Keeping on a schedule and promoting healthful eating and adequate sleep can also create a more peaceful home environment, she says.

Summer may be a prime time for sibling bullying as children are at home and together more than during the school year, Dahlstrom says.

She encourages parents to schedule children in separate activities of their own interest, and to give each child one-on-one time.

“Give them a break from each other,” she says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556

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