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Bullying Between Siblings

An older kid roughhouses with the younger one and always wins.  He makes a point to rub it in, too.  The younger one complains of stomachaches and headaches a lot, especially when he’s been at home after school with his older brother before his parents get home from work.

The parents tell their youngest he has to toughen up if he’s going to make it in the real world.  The youngest gets sadder and more withdrawn, and the oldest gets more brazen with his taunting and insults.  Would you call this normal sibling rivalry or sibling bullying?

Many parents overlook what they believe to be normal sibling rivalry.  They see physical aggression, hear the insults, and get told about the manipulation.  But they do nothing.  Parents like these may truly believe they aren’t doing anything wrong by not coming to the aid of their younger child.  In fact, they may believe that if they interfere they will deprive their youngest the chance to learn about fighting back.  While the intentions may be understandable, the reality is quite different.

Let’s start by quickly going over a few bullying basics.  Understand these features of bullying and you could prevent a problem brewing right under your nose.

The four markers of bullying:
-Bullying is a conscious act.  It is a deliberate act of aggression and is always done against a perceived weak target.
-The bully always has more power in some way (size, maturity, age, more acceptable race or ethnic group)
-The bully always intends to harm their target.
-The bully leaves their target with threats of future aggression and terror.

Types of bullying:
-Verbal – the most common form, can be insults, humiliating comment, name calling, taunting, harassing.
-Physical-easiest to see from the outside, can be tripping, punching, shoving, pinching, hair pulling
-Social/relational – hard to detect and usually indirect, can be shunning and exclusion, done through body language like dismissive looks, mean and degrading notes, ignoring, spreading rumors
-Cyber-bullying – newest form of bullying, using text messaging, email, chatrooms, and other social media to send threatening and degrading messages, harass, or spread rumors

Are you surprised to hear what bullying is really about?  Maybe not if you experienced it yourself or witnessed in some time in your life.  Just because siblings live in the same house doesn’t mean their troubled relationship couldn’t include bullying.  Not all sibling problems can be left to sort out themselves.  In fact, most of bullying happens behind closed doors, in dark corners, and nowhere near an adult’s perception.

Take a second to look at the description at the top of the post.  The youngest child has physical symptoms and shows signs of emotional distress.  The oldest one seems confident and almost brash like he’s getting away with something (because he is).  Be aware of how things really go when your kids are alone with each other.  Take reports of verbal, physical, or social bullying tactics seriously.  If you do not intervene on your target child’s behalf, they will continue to be bullied for as long as the bullying child can get away with it and chooses to do it.

Tell me, did you experience bullying from a sibling?  Or did you witness bullying and intervene on someone’s behalf?  Are you a parent who has suspects or has found out about bullying in your home?  I want to hear from you about your opinion and experiences with this problem.

Bullying Between Siblings

Erika Krull, MS, LMHP

Erika Krull, MS, LMHP is a practicing licensed mental health counselor in Nebraska.

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APA Reference
Krull, E. (2009). Bullying Between Siblings. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 19, 2019, from


Last updated: 25 Nov 2009
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