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Bullied at Home?

Power Struggles Affect Children

Anyone who is a sibling or has even observed siblings in action knows that there exists a special and often complex connection between combinations of brothers and sisters. These pairings make for some of the greatest love/hate relationships any of us will experience. A baby brother to take attention away, a sister who is the smart one, a brother who never gets caught hitting, a sister who a parent spends more time with. These are our partners in sibling wars.

Many of us carry the emotional battle scars of sibling rivalry into our own parenthood. We are determined to get it right, helping our children navigate every “Not fair!” and “M-o-o-o-o-m!” moment they experience with each other. Let’s remember, though, that without the third party, usually parents, the whole concept of siblings as rivals falls short of a spirited argument. So, it is not just having a partner that creates the rivalry – it is the existence of another to witness and react to the struggles.

Knowing this dynamic, though, we can support our children. Intervening at home, before any continued pattern of arguments, shoving, and name-calling turns to physical fighting and crushed self-esteem, is critical. At-home bullying can quickly carry over to repeating the same rivalry-turned-bullying at school or in the neighborhood. Often overlooked is the idea that those bullied at home may carry the belief that they deserve to be treated this way by others. Conversely, some kids who are the victims of intense sibling bullying at home might turn the tables, bullying others at school to find a sense of perceived power in an alternative setting. Healthy sibling relationships at home teach our children not only how to treat others, but how to expect to be treated. Here are a few tips to consider to successfully guide your kids through contentious sibling relationships:

Be knowledgeable. 

Understand why the conflicts exist. Kids fight because they are protective. They protect their toys, their territory, their time, their relationships. Threats to these perceived possessions may be met with fear or anger. Consider what your child sees as a threat and help him feel secure and safe in the survival of the concern. “My spending time with your sister is important because she has been sick for two days. Don’t worry about your game tomorrow. I have worked it out to be there.”

Acknowledge individual differences and incompatibility. “You are so different from your sister,” as noticed by outsiders, is usually something siblings have learned already. At home, help your children to know and respect each other as individuals. “Yes, I saw that your brother put his report card on the refrigerator. There is also a great spot for your latest artwork.”

Be neutral, but present.

Make that third-party power work for your children. Rather than intervening as referee, casting punishments right away, or ignoring, choose to coach your kids through conflict. Being proactive is always best, establishing family rules for behavior, communication, and interaction. When siblings argue anyway, returning to these reminders through family meetings or one-on-one reminders can help. Separating factions until emotions calm is often effective, too. As the third party, be consistent with expectations and with consequences, but allow your children room to work out their own arguments. Praise them for negotiating and making attempts to get along. “If you two can’t agree on taking turns with the video game controllers, they may be put away until you can figure it out” goes a long way. Guide children to win-win options they can use in all social situations.

Karen Rice is a licensed clinical social worker and the clinical supervisor at Virginia Home for Boys and Girls (VHBG). She developed the clinical services program on campus and specializes in the treatment of children, teens and families. Karen has been married for 26 years and is the proud mother of two young women.
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