It is a Saturday morning. Jodi Richardson wakes up in her Santa Cruz County, CA, home to blessed quiet. Her two boys, “Jimmy,” 9, and “Glen,” 6, sleep in. She quickly makes her coffee and enjoys the serenity, knowing this is the calm before the storm. Soon the boys will be up and the chaos will begin. Jimmy will abruptly snatch the remote from Glen’s hand, calling him hurtful names like “fatso” or “man boobs.” Then he’ll go after something of Glen’s, like the giant blow-up hammer he popped or the Pokémon cards he gave away.
The brothers’ screaming will pierce the house, and Glen will come to Richardson crying and, occasionally, bruised. Richardson will banish Jimmy to his room. Sometimes he’ll refuse to go. She’ll end up yelling, too, and may have to physically force Jimmy into his bedroom. Once he’s inside, Richardson often stands in the hallway holding the door shut as Jimmy shouts and tries to pry it open. Soon, the boys’ dad will be woken, and he will be angry, too.
It’s easy to call Richardson’s experience a particularly rough case of sibling rivalry, but the truth is much harsher. What she is grappling with is sibling abuse — the physical or emotional mistreatment of one sibling by another. The Richardson boys aren’t simply bickering over the iPad, or even throwing the occasional slug (both of which are pretty normal). Instead, there’s a pattern of behavior in which one child is the victim and one is the perpetrator. And their family is hardly unique.
A Hidden Problem
Research published in Pediatrics found that more than one-third of children under age 18 reported being victimized — and most were suffering serious consequences because of it. This was true even with kids who reported only one incident.
“We measured for depression, anxiety, and anger,” says Corinna Jenkins Tucker, Ph.D., lead author of the study and an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. On all three measures, these kids scored considerably higher. “Sibling aggression is not benign.”
Tucker’s study was among the first to look at sibling bullying across a wide age and geographical range, but “there is an abundance of evidence that suggests that sibling [bullying] has long-lasting traumatic effects,” says John Caffaro, Ph.D., author of Sibling Abuse Trauma and distinguished professor at the California School of Professional Psychology.
It’s not just the victims who suffer low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and trouble with relationships as adults. When they grow up, the bullies have a high risk for substance abuse and violence toward partners. “These kids tend to have poorer relationships in general,” says Caffaro. In the short term, they’re also likely to carry their actions into the classroom. Case in point: Jimmy, who’s now 14, has been suspended from school 30 times.
Despite all these effects, few realize how serious it really is. From Miley and Jackson of Hannah Montana to Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s Greg and Rodrick, sibling aggression is laughed off. Although statistics suggest that sibling bullying is more common than parent-child or spousal abuse, we often dismiss it as simply “rivalry” or “boys will be boys.”
And unlike peer bullying, there are no public campaigns warning parents about it. Yet it is just as common, if not more so: 46 percent of 6- to 9-year-olds are victimized by a sibling, according to one study. Among peers, 25 percent are targeted, according to American Justice Department stats. The difference is huge.
Why It’s Ignored
The problem with sibling bullying is that it’s insidious and, as Richardson discovered, all too easy to deny even at its worst. At one sleepover Glen hosted, Jimmy started picking on the guests and making fun of one child in particular. He absolutely ruined the party. After that, some parents wouldn’t let their children hang out with Glen because they didn’t want them around Jimmy.
“It’s an impossible situation,” says Richardson. “As a parent you want to protect both the bully and the victim.” And like any mom would, Richardson found herself comforting Glen while hurting for Jimmy at the same time.
What also makes true bullying hard to spot is the fact that victims can be touchingly loyal. “I see frenemy siblings all the time,” says Kate Roberts, Ph.D., a sibling bullying specialist in Boston. Sometimes the victim fears retaliation if she tells. Many other times, though, despite everything, she loves and wants to please the bully. The relationship may seem normal at times, but the camaraderie doesn’t last. Eventually, everyone in the family is affected.
“Having a bully in the home stresses the entire family unit,” notes Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of The Self-Aware Parent and a therapist in Beverly Hills, CA. It can even strain marriages.
“The child can put a wedge between husband and wife, especially if they view the situation differently,” says Walfish. That was the case for Richardson. “My husband felt Jimmy would outgrow it, so dealing with the problems was on me,” she says. It was hard not to be resentful.
Bullies (Usually) Aren’t Born
It’s true that some children may be predisposed to aggression, like those who have certain developmental disorders, says Caffaro. But the more common reason — hard as it may be to hear — is that sibling bullies often learned their behavior from watching the adults around them, says Vernon R. Wiehe, Ph.D., author of What Parents Need to Know About Sibling Abuse. “If one parent often belittles the other, for example, they may model that.”
Other common triggers include family stressors, such as a move, a divorce, or the death of a relative or even a pet. Early exposure to violence can have the same effect as well. Another big one is the birth of a baby, especially if the older child feels dethroned, says Wiehe. “The child under stress may channel anxiety, depression, and anger into bullying,” agrees Caffaro.
That’s what happened with Jimmy. The first hostile incident Richardson remembers occurred when Glen was a newborn. “Jimmy was 3 at the time. He put a tiny plastic figure in his mouth and spit it right into Glen’s soft spot [the fontanelle],” she says. “I was furious.” Shortly thereafter he started teasing kids at the playground, calling them “babies,” she recalls.
As he got older, though, Jimmy’s stress seemed to stem from social angst. He’s always had trouble making friends. He doesn’t get invited to parties. He doesn’t receive texts. Glen, however, is just the opposite.
Three years ago, Richardson realized she was all yelled out. “I was being a bully parent, which may have made things worse,” she says. Looking for new solutions, she hit upon empoweringparents.com, which offers ideas for changing the way you interact with your kids.
For instance, Richardson learned that assigning Jimmy chores until he treated Glen kindly helped him regain control. (Locking him in his room only made him more resistant.) And when she didn’t allow herself to get sucked into the drama, the boys followed suit.
Richardson made another change, too: she switched the school’s emergency contact to her husband’s cell. “When the school started to call him, he was stunned at how big a problem it was,” Richardson explains. After being in denial for years, he finally got it. “We all entered family counseling together.”
But the Richardsons’ new attitude was soon tested: Jimmy made a hole in a new trampoline. Instead of blowing up, she walked away and doled out the consequences later. Soon, Glen learned to walk away, too. “Leaving takes away his ammo,” says Richardson. “He really doesn’t like being alone, so slowly his behavior began to change.”
Compared to five years ago, things are a lot quieter in the Richardson house. “Now I tell the boys to give each other space, and we’ll talk about it when they cool down.” The boys’ relationship is less explosive. Glen, now 11, is more confident standing up for himself.
With both parents calm and authoritative, Jimmy isn’t getting suspended anymore. He even does odd jobs for a local store, which has improved his self esteem. With his earnings, he took Richardson out to dinner last Mother’s Day. “We still have our ups and downs, because big changes are an ongoing process,” says Richardson. “But now when I wake up early, I can truly enjoy the quiet, because I know the odds are good a storm isn’t brewing that day.”
Stop Bullying Before It Starts
Here’s how to keep typical sibling skirmishes from turning into something more:
1. Separate them. “Don’t make yourself the umpire,” says Derek Randel, author of Parent Smart from the Heart and a parenting coach in Chicago. Instead, send each to spend a little time alone.
2. Let them cool down. Then call a family meeting in which each child gets a turn to speak. If things get heated, remain calm and strong. Separate them again, if needed.
3. Let each one speak without interruption. Then ask how they can resolve the issue themselves next time. The actual solution isn’t the point, says Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills, CA, therapist. “After being heard, the kids usually calm down.”
4. State consequences. Randel teaches the “energy drain” approach. “Say, ‘When you guys fight, it drains energy from the family,” he explains. “To put it back, both of you will have to do a chore.” Then assign fridge-cleaning to one child, vacuuming to the other.
5. Review the rules. No hitting. No name-calling. No destroying property. “Tell them that having feelings like anger is okay but that’s not how to express them,” says Walfish.
6. Keep an eye out. Leave doors open and check in on them frequently. Tell each he must get you the second a problem starts.
When to Get Help
As soon as you sense that normal bickering may be evolving into bullying, especially if there is a large size or age gap, reach out to your pediatrician. She can help you figure out your best options. Watch for these warning signs:
- An escalating pattern of physical or verbal aggression.
- Rigid roles in which one is the perpetrator; the other, the victim.
- Changes in one child’s behavior, such as trouble sleeping, different eating habits, or avoiding a sibling.