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How to Know When a Sibling Rivalry Goes Bad

"Kids do not always have the language to express what is really happening."

Therapists and scientists agree that parents should treat sibling aggression as potentially harmful, especially when there’s a significant age difference. It is more likely that parents are raising Cain and Abel than Venus and Serena–even if they don’t see warning signs. Kids hurt each other. Related kids hurt each other deeply. They key is to preventing bad outcomes is understanding the difference between inevitable surface-level conflict and deeply felt conflict. Measured sibling conflict can be normal and healthy, but that doesn’t justify bad behavior or its downstream effects.

READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Raising Brothers and Sisters

“Sibling bullying must be differentiated from normal and healthy sibling conflict,” Jamie Malone, a licensed professional counselor, told Fatherly. “It is the playground of learning how to squabble and resolve differences or to otherwise face natural and logical consequences.”

Still, leeward of the fine line between sibling bickering and sibling bullying lie disastrous results. Isolated studies have shown that sibling bullying can lead to depression, anxiety, and self-harm. Other studies have found that up to 40 percent of children are exposed to sibling bullying at least once per week and, unlike bullying in school, there’s little hope of escape from an abusive brother or sister, especially when parents dismiss such behavior as kids being kids. “The research on sibling bullying is not sufficient,” Shoshanah Shear, a private occupational therapist and author, told Fatherly. Most studies, for instance, only explore how sibling bullying affects children. “I have not yet found research that goes beyond early adulthood,” she says. “But in my practice I have found longer lasting effects.”

The trick to encouraging healthy rivalries and problem-solving skills while preventing dangerous behaviors is learning to spot the warning signs of harmful sibling bullying, as opposed to healthy sibling conflict. Often, Shear says, the signs of sibling bullying are apparent—victims suddenly begin to underachieve in school, or suffer from chronic, unexplained illnesses, or fall into cycles of self-harm.

“If you allow the little one to get pummeled, he is likely to either become depressed or go to school and find a smaller child to displace his anger on,” psychotherapist and author Fran Walfish told Fatherly.

“If a child is demonstrating any negative emotions, especially distress, depression or self-harm, this is cause for concern,” added Shear. “A child who is not managing to concentrate in class or is displaying any difficulty in learning can be a warning sign.”

The Four-Pronged Approach to Detecting a Dangerous Sibling Rivalry

  • Always supervise children playing together until the age of 4. Once they’re older, let them play on their own as long as you’re nearby and there isn’t a large power or age difference between them.
  • Spot clear, sudden changes and suspect sibling bullying as a possible cause, including underachievement in school, chronic, unexplained illnesses, or cycles of self-harm.
  • Look out for subtler warning signs, such as clingy behavior, fear of being alone, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, headaches and stomach aches, and tantrums.
  • Err on the side of stepping in when the warning signs of sibling bullying appear. Prevention is always better.

Naturally, these symptoms could also be the result of other forms of abuse. But at the very least, parents should be aware of sudden changes and suspect sibling bullying as a possible cause.

In other cases, the emotional toll that sibling bullying takes on a child can be less apparent. Meghan Renzi, a clinical social worker, says clingy behavior, fear of being alone, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, headaches and stomach aches, and tantrums can all be warning signs that something is amiss. “Kids do not always have the language to express what is really happening,” she told Fatherly. “So often their distress will manifest in other ways, like physical complaints.”

Parental supervision can make all the difference. When children are under age 4, Walfish says, they should always been supervised when playing together. “Toddlers are not yet expected to have mastered taking turns, sharing, delayed gratification, frustration tolerance, and full use of language skills to self-advocate,” she says. “Conflicts may erupt at any moment.” Once children are a bit older, it is generally fine to let them play on their own as long as you’re nearby and there isn’t a large power or age difference between siblings, she says. Walfish adds that siblings seldom fight over anything besides their parents’ love. “Although it seems that your kids are fighting about a toy, who sits where, and who got the bigger piece of cake, what they are really rivaling for is you,” she says. The solution is to schedule regular, individual time with each child. Children who feel loved and appreciated are, in general, less likely to bully others.

But supervision is only half the battle and, once a child is not sleeping or eating, you’re already too late. Preventing sibling bullying while encouraging healthy relationships between your kids means knowing when to step back and let an argument play out.

“Parents have the ability to guide their children though a conflict provided that they are setting a positive example and teaching empathy through their actions and words,” teen therapist Kent Toussaint told Fatherly. And, as important as it is to prevent sibling bullying, it’s equally important to ensure that a child who is pushing around his or her sibling isn’t labelled an aggressor or the bad guy. Besides damaging that child’s self-perception, such labels can be self-fulfilling prophecies: Kids who are labelled as bullies are more likely to continue bullying. Besides, Toussaint adds, sibling bickering is seldom what it seems. “It is important to be mindful as parents that we don’t assume that one child is the victim and the other the perpetrator, as these issues can be quite nuanced.”

When the warning signs of sibling bullying appear, however, it is crucial that parents err on the side of stepping in. “Prevention is always better than having to treat a longstanding major problem,” Shear says. “Don’t wait for a problem to get worse. Always take note of bullying and work towards developing a healthy, united, loving family environment.”