• Thursday, February 29, 2024
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Why we must take sibling bullying seriously


There has been a collaborative study by Oxford, Bristol and Warwick universities that asked around 7,000 children aged 12 if they had experienced a sibling saying hurtful things, hitting, ignoring them or lying about them. These same children were then asked about their mental health when they were aged 18.

The good news is that most children said they had not experienced such bullying by their siblings. The not so good news is that those who had were approximately twice as likely to experience depression, anxiety and to self-harm than those who had not. We hear a lot about bullying and what a problem it is, and the talk tends to be: bullies equal bad and victims equal good. But, of course, it is more complex than that. A bully doesn’t bully for fun. It may look like that, but actually a bully bullies in order to solve a problem – usually, to gain equilibrium where an imbalance is felt.

The first time an older child gets knocked off balance is often when the new baby is born. The family dynamic changes for the older child, and usually for the worse. They have feelings about this – they feel they are a victim. It feels terribly hard for parents to validate how their oldest child is feeling because they hate them feeling like that. So when the older child starts to ask if the newest addition can go back to the hospital where they came from, or some such, they are told that they love their younger sibling and cannot say things like that.

However hard it is to acknowledge, it would be better for everyone, especially the new sibling, if an older child’s inconvenient feelings of displacement were validated instead of being brushed away. If feelings, however uncomfortable they may be for the parents, can be acknowledged non-judgmentally, and empathised with, that goes a long way to lessening them. This can feel counter-intuitive, but when children are made to feel ashamed for resenting the new addition to the family, this drives the hate in deeper, making it more likely to resurface later in the form of bullying.

Although it’s usual for the older to bully the younger, it can sometimes be the other way around, and this usually stems from a similar feeling – it feels like the older child is getting more than their fair share of resources, attention, recognition or simply love. The parents may justifiably feel that there is a fair division of love and resources, but that is not the point. The point is to acknowledge and validate how the hard-done-by child feels, not to justify the parental position.

It is difficult not to side with the victim in such situations, or not to dismiss both siblings and tell them to sort it out for themselves. But it is important to take the situation seriously and to increase supervision to keep the victim safe from further harm.

It’s hard to find the extra time and patience required to sensitively explore what the hurt is that the perpetrator is going through to motivate them to cause harm, and to help them find alternative ways of dealing with difficult feelings. Nevertheless, we need to take seriously the perpetrator’s pain as well as the victim’s, because if we don’t there is a fair chance that their pain will continue to be taken out on others.

If the bully gets told off, punished for tormenting another child, they will possibly just get better at not getting caught, rather than stopping it. When we understand the emotion that motivates bullying, and the perpetrator feels understood, and empathised with, that will begin to address their feelings of imbalance so that the need to torment a younger sibling will be more likely to dissipate. It’s a mistake to label a bully as bad and a victim as good – this could even get a child too comfortable in a victim role and do nothing to lessen the perpetrator’s grievance.

In developmental psychology, we have paid more attention to the influence of parents on the development of personality than to the effect that siblings have in how we form. So I welcome this new research. Early dynamics between siblings has a significant impact on how we go on to make other relationships and how we operate in the world. If we are victims of early abuse, from wherever it comes, we will have less chance of seeing the world as being peopled mostly by those worthy of trust, and we will be in danger of experiencing the difficulties that come out of having insufficient optimism and confidence.