Tuesday, June 18, 2013

When Sibling Rivalry Turns To Sibling Bullying

"Historically [sibling bullying] has been accepted as something that's 
normal, as something that's benign. Oftentimes it's just dismissed. 
Some people actually view it as a good thing, thinking it teaches 
kids how to fight and develop conflict resolution skills."
~ Corrina Jenkins Tucker
Sibling bullying can be as detrimental as peer bullying,
a new research study claims. (photo credit)
This Huffington Post article about sibling aggression started making the rounds Monday on the web. Over the years, much has been written about the ways siblings relate to each other. Usually it has to do with the type of squabbles that people refer to as "common" among siblings: jealousy, difficulty sharing, taking each other's possessions and the like. But this article references a recent study that took a look at how sibling aggression affected children's mental health.
"'This study is the first to unequivocally show that sibling aggression is connected to mental health problems among youth,'Swearer said. 'In order to effectively treat mental health problems in youth, parents and mental health providers must recognize and understand the role that sibling aggression plays.'"
The study, at times, references this behavior as "sibling bullying". Although bullying, as a whole, has been looked at in great detail, this aspect of it is an entirely new one for researchers to focus on. For those of us with more than one child, it may also feel like an entirely new thing to be concerned about. 

Teaching our kids to express their anger with
each other in healthy ways creates the possibility
for a stronger relationship with each other.
The relationship your children have with each other can have an enormous impact on them. So much so, that it often will shape how they relate to others as they grow. Who else do they interact with as much as their siblings? Who else do they practice their interpersonal skills with as much as with each other? Who knows them as intimately as their siblings and thus, whose words can uplift or cut down as much as a sibling's?  

But before you begin to worrying that your kids are inflicting lifelong psychological harm on each other, please be aware that all of this can be mitigated by the parents' role in the home. It would be highly unlikely that involved, connected, aware and mindfully present parents would have children who abused each other on an ongoing basis. But in case you're concerned, I asked Pattie Fitzgerald of Safely Ever After for her thoughts on the difference between typical sibling behavior and the sort of aggressive behavior this article refers to:
"I think the biggest difference between normal/healthy sibling squabbles and sibling bullying is whether or not there is an intention to hurt or humiliate the sibling, to use power/control or manipulation in an aggressive manner. Parents certainly should be alert and informed in both instances. I remember having sibling squabbles with my sisters when we were younger, but we all knew that we loved each other and would defend each other till the end if needed. We still do. 
Another important factor is the frequency of the bullying or squabbles. If there are more "bad times" than "good times" parents should step in and see what's going on. I have known siblings who were bullied by their brother or sister, and it had a lasting impact on how they developed as adults. As always, no one size fits all answer, but something that should never be overlooked."
As I said earlier, it is unlikely that sibling bullying would happen in a home with connected parenting being practiced, but that doesn't mean it couldn't happen or that there aren't ways for all of us to improve the way our children interact with each other. As the research points out, "Children who experienced even just one, relatively mild act of sibling aggression in the past year reported greater mental health distress than those who had not." 

So what's a parent to do?

Building The Sibling Bond
Instead of telling your children how upset you
are when they fight, try to "catch them" being
kind to each other and tell them why it
makes you so happy!  

I wrote a post earlier in the year about increasing the bond of friendship and love between siblings and have, for a long time, felt that this is an aspect that is often left out of the advice given on parenting siblings. We all long for ways to stop their rivalry and their fighting, but without the foundation of love and respect, how can we really expect them not to fight?

Here are a couple of additional posts of mine that deal with sibling relationships:

Choose Your Words Carefully

Our language, and the way we choose to communicate with children, reflects who they are and how they see themselves. A child who experiences himself as lovable or as a valued part of the family is less likely to feel the sort of disconnection that pushes him to be aggressive toward his siblings.  

Letting go of old ideas like this one or ones like "boys
will be boys" helps your children understand
appropriate ways to treat each other.
How do we help our children feel this sense of self-esteem? This sort of connection begins with ideas like respectful communication, understanding their stages of development so we don't expect more from them than they are capable of, empathetic listening so our children know we accept all of their emotions and more. 

Respectful communication, in part, means modeling the sort of language and behaviors we want our children to emulate. Be mindful of your habit to, perhaps, bark orders ("get your shoes!", "brush your teeth!") or to make commands ("stop touching that!", "turn off the TV!") and instead remember to speak to your children as you would a trusted friend and invite them to do things: "It's almost time for bed. Let's get your teeth brushed!" or "I see how much you like that photo on the table. I'm concerned it will break if you keep touching it though. Let's look at it together!"

Here are a few posts on these ideas

Know Your Children

Going in for a kiss and a hug. Our daughter is
more likely to physically apologize and our
son more likely to "use his words".
That sounds like a silly thing to say, but if you think about sibling aggression in relation to each of of your children, you might realize that each of them can handle a different amount of teasing, roughhousing, arguing and so forth. 

Knowing this helps you gauge when simple sibling dynamics may have shifted to something that is making one or more of your kids uncomfortable, or worse. When you really make an effort to get to know them each as individuals, you are more likely to notice when something is "off". 

Getting to know them deeply requires some extra effort on our parts. But the payoff is so amazing that I can't think of anything more worth our time. 

A couple of posts on the idea of paying attention:

Building a Community of Support

Listen to a free sibling solutions podcast
from Hand in Hand Parenting
One of the best ways to help our children is to have support for ourselves as parents. When we feel burned out, frustrated, at the end of our rope...we need someone to lean on and someone to turn to for advice. If we don't have that, we are more likely to be "tuned out".

One of my favorite resources is Hand in Hand Parenting. I often turn to their site looking for articles or a teleseminar on a topic I might be struggling with.

Right now they're actually filling up a class on parenting siblings and have offered my readers a special discount. The class is normally $295, but with the discount, it's $235, or $60 off. Click here for more details. There are only a few spots left, so check it out now! 

Hand in Hand Parenting also has a wonderful selection of classes this summer on everything from single parenting to handling aggression. Click here for the details on their summer schedule.

In addition to Hand In Hand, there are amazing communities all over the web. Just a few of the ones I love are:
  • Janet Lansbury's community forum for parents practicing RIE parenting (with a section for people to connect locally as well)
  • RIE/Mindful Parenting - a private Facebook group for parents 
  • The Parent's Break Room - a private Facebook group with a focus on respectful parenting for parents whose children are not developing in a neuro-typical way (this is a group I started and moderate)
  • Teaching Children Empathy - "We are a group of teachers, parents, and parenting coaches devoted to children. We believe that teaching empathy and emotional intelligence is the best way to create peace in our own families, and by extension peace throughout the world."

Ultimately, our children look to us to guide them in how to relate to each other. It's vitally important that we take seriously the way our children treat each other. I know if you're reading this it is not likely that your children are aggressively bullying each other, but there are very subtle ways kids can bully or feel bullied. 

It's appropriate for them to express feelings of anger toward each other and it's important to acknowledge a child's negative feelings toward his or her sibling when it is expressed. At the same time, we have to find ways to strengthen our children's relationship with each other and teach them appropriate ways to fight, negotiate, make up and be in relation to each other. In that way, we are helping to raise a generation of people who know and trust themselves, who know how to stand up for themselves, how to support someone else and most importantly, how to love and be loved.
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