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

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.

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

helping each otherI 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.

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

sister's hugThat 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”. This means to say that you need to spend quality time with your kids since this important for their development throughout the years.

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

sibling solutions podcastOne 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. 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.

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.”

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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.

The Twin Source – An Interview With The Twin Coach

There are very few twin-specific websites I actually like (which is part of the reason I initially started this blog). But one exception to that sentiment is the website The Twin Source:

“We are five mothers who are all very different, with one thing (well, technically two things) in common: We are mothers of twins.

We have come together to share our personal and unique stories about twin parenthood. Each of our stories is very different. Some of us could have breast-fed forever (Lauren), while others struggled desperately for a few short weeks (Carrie). Some of us went back to our careers straight away (Ashley), while others stayed at home for a little while (Maritza). Some of us hired a nanny (Carrie), while others hosted an au pair (Mari).

We acknowledge and embrace our differences, but we also find commonality and support in the fact that we are each one-of-a-kind twin moms doing the best we can every day.”

I have always found my local multiples club to be one of the best sources of advice and support – especially when my kids were really young. The parents there, for the most part, only have the fact that we’re all parenting multiples in common. Yet there is an instant bond and sense of shared experience that makes them somehow feel like trusted friends. The Twin Source is a lot like that.

So, when one of the founders, Carrie Carroll, asked to interview me, how could I say no?

Hello, Gina! Thank you so very much for taking some time out to talk with The Twin Source. It is a pleasure to have you. On your blog, The Twin Coach, you consistently provide a perspective on parenting that is both honest and informative.

Thank you so much, Carrie. I’m a big fan of The Twin Source and am very glad to have a chance to connect with your readership. And thank you for the compliment on my parenting perspective. My goal in being honest about my own parenting struggles is to help my readers know that they aren’t alone and that they don’t have to be perfect in order to be a good parent!

We can’t wait to hear your thoughts on some of the biggest conundrums that twin parents face. But first, tell us about your role as The Twin Coach and your own parenting philosophy.

When my children were born six years ago, I really didn’t have a parenting philosophy at all except that I knew I would love and take care of them. But I have always been an information junkie and a researcher. So I tackled parenting like anything else I am interested in: I researched! Doing this introduced me to the most amazing parenting advocates and helped me begin to be more mindful about my parenting. Editor’s Note: Check out this list of parenting resources compiled by Gina for The Twin Source!

Over time, my philosophy about parenting has been greatly shaped by what I learned about attachment theory, Magda Gerber’s RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers), and ultimately the concept of connecting with children through respect and empathy. Additionally, I’ve spent years working on my own triggers so that I can really be present for my children as a better version of myself. It’s definitely not the easiest thing to look critically at yourself, but it’s invaluable when it comes to parenting.

Before my twins were born, and before I became a parenting coach, I had a small wellness center in Los Angeles. My experience as a holistic healer, using energy work and talk therapy with my clients, gave me a great foundation for working with parents. Although I started out focusing on parents of multiples, I quickly realized that having support in learning how to parent respectfully is something that every parent needs. So, although I especially love working with parents of twins, my blog and my parent education sessions are for anyone who wants to be a happier, more mindful, and more connected parent.

As you know, parenting twins comes with a unique set of challenges. Let’s first talk about achieving a healthy parenting dynamic. When two babies arrive at once, there is obviously extra strain placed on new parents. How can they prepare for this, and what should they remember as they tackle the twin experience?

Before the children are born, it’s important to sit down together and discuss things like how you are planning to share responsibilities. It doesn’t need to be 50/50, but resentment is going to build quickly if you don’t have a plan. Additionally, discussing any preconceived notions you might have about twins ahead of time can be really helpful. Sometimes a parent has negative associations with twins they once knew or has fantasy ideas about how twins will be telepathic and should always be together. It’s better to talk about these so you can try to be on the same page and clear the air prior to the birth.

Once the babies are here, be sure to make time for each other. Two babies can be so overwhelming, and it is very easy to forget that the reason those babies are even here is your love for each other. Make time to keep that love strong! Remember that putting an emphasis on your marriage or partnership doesn’t make you bad parents. Your relationship is your children’s first model of what a loving partnership looks like. It creates the foundation from which they will go out into the world to seek their own partners. You want to model a healthy, respectful, loving relationship. If you occasionally need help from a therapist or counselor of some sort, get it! Invest in your partnership as much as you invest in your parenting.

Carrie very nicely also asked me to write a short list of some of my personal favorite parenting resources which you can find. I was doing my best to keep things brief and to the point, so it’s only a partial list!

I hope you enjoy reading the interview!