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Sibling Struggles: When Fighting Turns into Bullying

Squabbling with siblings is part of growing up—but there is a point where it can go too far. That’s according to new research published in the journal Psychological Medicine, which found that being involved in sibling bullying, whether as the victim or the perpetrator, increased the odds of developing a psychotic disorder in early adulthood.

Even after taking into account risk factors for psychotic disorders, such as domestic violence and peer bullying, the association remained. The risk for a psychotic disorder was highest for those who were just victims, or those who were both bullies and victims. In addition, being bullied by a sibling in multiple places, such as at home and at school, increased the odds.

Family Dynamics

While parents might think of bullying as something that happens among classmates, sibling bullying is a little different. It’s a specific type of aggressive behavior that is repeated over time, intended to cause harm and to dominate. Sibling bullying may present as:

  •  Frequently saying mean and hurtful things with the aim of upsetting a sibling

  • Hitting, kicking, pushing, or shoving

  • Telling lies or making up false rumors about a sibling

While arguments and name-calling happen with even the friendliest of siblings, bullying involves power and control. Bullying often happens in front of other children and away from the eyes of adults. It’s something that occurs again and again.

Victims are more likely to be females bullied by an older sibling, particularly an older brother, according to a study published in Pediatrics. They’re also more likely to live in families with at least three children.

A Parent’s Role

Managing the relationship between your kids isn’t always an easy task. Here’s what you can do to foster healthy sibling relationships:

  • Try not to compare your children in front of each other. Let each one know that they’re special in his or her own way.

  • Be consistent and fair in your treatment of each child.

  • Punish in privacy. If a child does something wrong, try to scold him or her away from siblings.

  • Hold family meetings. This can help get all children talking in a way that’s constructive and lets them know they’re being heard.

  • Teach your kids important social skills, such as how to solve problems and have perspective on a situation. Make sure they understand how to manage conflict by using strategies like calmly discussing emotions, setting ground rules, reasoning, negotiating, and agreeing to compromise.

  • If you suspect bullying might be a problem, talking with your kids’ health care provider is a good idea. He or she can have a discussion with your children to find out more about what’s happening, as well as provide a referral to resources that can help.

  • Always intervene if it looks like a situation may be headed toward violence. Bullying behavior should be corrected immediately. Research shows that if you mediate between your kids, you can improve their interactions with each other.

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