Sibling Bullying and how to prevent it

extracted from an article published byThe Independant

ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD Jessica is terrified of the bully lying in wait. Every day she is baited, kicked and slapped. Her only solution, she reckons, is to run away from home. For Jessica’s 14-year-old tormentor is her sister.


Jessica is one of the desperate children who have rung ChildLine in recent months, targets of sibling bullying and abuse. Of the calls the charity receives about brothers and sisters, 15 per cent involve serious violence.

Scotland Yard’s child protection unit has 318 cases of sibling violence on its 1991 file, including two murders and 30 cases of GBH. But these are only the most extreme cases. It says nothing of the countless children for whom sibling bullying may not lead to a tragedy but certainly leaves bruised minds if not bodies.

Inquiries within our circle of friends alone threw up a surprising number of adults who had suffered at the hands of a brother or sister: knives and even airguns had been used.

In the United States, where the problem has been slowly gaining recognition since the late Seventies, research has indicated that sibling violence – biting, kicking, punching and attacks with implements – is the most common form of domestic violence. Three recent studies reveal that though aggression is more likely to erupt between same-sex siblings, boys and girls are equally aggressive. Other research suggests that siblings do not often ‘tell’ on each other.

Dr Sue Edwards, a domestic violence expert at the University of Buckingham, believes that although we do not hear about abusive brothers and sisters, there are plenty of them. ‘I think we can say it’s a deep, dark secret,’ she says. ‘I don’t know how we would know about it anyway, because what voice does a child really have? Where would a sibling go? How could a 13-year-old girl go to the police and say, ‘My 15-year-old sister is punching me’?’

Dr Edwards believes that the problem is likely to be masked because children are seen as equals. Aggression is usually seen as no more than ‘kids will be kids’ fisticuffs, or good old-fashioned sibling rivalry. ‘It’s been internalised in our language,’ she says, ‘mothers saying ‘it’s six of one and half a dozen of another’ and ‘I’ll knock your heads together’. Fighting is seen as almost an innocent form of development – yet where are the boundaries?’

Childcare experts seem to agree that sibling rivalry reaches danger point when a pecking order takes root. Fighting moves beyond the two-way aggression of normal sibling squabbles and one child is dominant. One child might break up the other’s possessions, even turn on the other’s personal pet.

Dr Penelope Leach, a child development expert, believes parents must rid themselves of the ‘blood is thicker than water’ notion which says that whatever happens within the family must be all right.

‘There’s this great desire to assume, ‘Yes, it’s a love/hate relationship but the love’s always stronger’,’ she says. ‘That’s probably usually true, but you have to be alert to the possibility that it isn’t true. Parents have to ask themselves, ‘Would this behaviour be acceptable if it were school friends rather than siblings?’ ‘

Dr Leach cites an example of one family in which three children, all now successful professionals, lived under the tyranny of the eldest brother. ‘Mostly it was extreme bossiness and power play and they were very frightened of him and have never forgiven or forgotten. It was a real factor in what they felt about going home and desperately not wanting their parents to go out in the evening. The youngest girl grew up with extremely low self-esteem, feeling fat and stupid, and she puts a great deal of that at her brother’s feet.

‘Her parents were aware but they didn’t take it seriously enough. I know the mother would have taken it very seriously if the children had felt the same way about their father. But because there were four children it was a case of ‘Well, we must all try and rub along together and it’s natural to feel like this about a big brother’.’

One possible cause is that children who feel powerless within their family can empower themselves by dominating another sibling. Or a child who is given too much responsibility for their brothers and sisters can lash out at them in anger at their parents.

And there is anecdotal evidence that children who are smacked by their parents may respond with violence against their siblings.

Child psychologists urge parents to be careful how they handle the birth of a new child. An older child can experience overwhelming fears of loss of love and attention and if the transition is not handled in a balanced way it can spark off the intense jealousy that can breed violence.

Margaret McAllister, an educational psychologist, says parents’ ill-judged comparisons between their children can be the harbingers of bullying. ‘A parent might ask a child to model him or herself on another, or else blame the child for not living up to superior qualities in another sibling,’ she says. ‘But covert comparisons may be made by the child. If a child observes that a sibling is preferred, he or she will make the comparison – and react.’

Her advice is to look out for signs of trouble and act. ‘If any parent thinks the relationship between their children isn’t a healthy one, they should seek outside help. Go to a GP for referral to a therapist or ask teachers about seeing an educational psychologist.’

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