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Is It Sibling Rivalry or Sibling Bullying? Spotting and solving struggling sibling dynamics.

bullysliderFrom Joanna’s parents’ perspective, sibling rivalry was “just the way families worked.” But while Joanna’s parents considered their daughters’ dynamic normal, Joanna did not. Joanna insists her older sister emotionally and mentally tormented her throughout her childhood. Today, she says she calls the behavior by another name.

“It was abuse,” Joanna says. Joanna dealt with the troubled relationship by “building a wall between the two of us. I didn’t speak to my sister for years.” Up until last year the sisters had no adult relationship at all. Even today, Joanna can’t say she’s completely forgiven her sister, although she has forgiven her parents for ignoring the unhealthy dynamic.

Joanna now has three children of her own: an older girl, and two younger boys who are both on the autistic spectrum and have special needs. So Joanna knew that when her daughter started mistreating her sons, she had to act fast. “I think my daughter felt her family was different from other families, because her brothers had challenges. She saw her friends bickering with their siblings and thought, ‘That’s how a normal family acts.’” Although it was a challenge, Joanna was able to manage her daughter’s issues with mental health interventions and by keeping the kids separated. This proved an easier solution than it might have been because Joanna and her husband are divorced.

In its most extreme cases, however, bullying can permanently disrupt families. Jennifer* (*she and her children’s names have been changed to protect her family’s privacy) saw her family of six children, which was in part built through adopting children, literally torn apart by mental health issues and bullying. Jennifer’s daughters Liz and Kate were four years apart, and shared a room. They were best friends, Jennifer said, except … when they weren’t. Kate tormented Liz, lashing out and using emotional manipulation. But Kate saved her worst acting out for her brother Allen.

“We didn’t realize what was really going on at first,” Jennifer says. “We thought the basis of their relationship was just them getting on each other’s nerves.” What Jennifer and her husband didn’t know was that Kate would seek Allen out, verbally jabbing him and manipulating situations to get him into trouble. When Jennifer and her husband unraveled one of these situations, the truth came out.

There was no question in Jennifer’s mind that action was needed. “It changed how we addressed the needs of the whole family,” she says. They sought individual and family therapy, and tried keeping the kids apart, but in the end, the mental illness issues at the root of the bullying were so severe the adoption was disrupted, and the child was placed with another family.

Jennifer learned a great deal from the experience, especially how Kate’s early experiences, before she was adopted, shaped her way of coping with stress. “Kids don’t bully without a reason. When it happens, it tells the tale of some other situation, and digging into it will reveal that situation. In our case, Kate was a victim of a trauma, and bullying was a way of processing trauma, of feeling control.” Because they were able to delve into the mental health issues plaguing Kate, they were able to place her with a family more suited to addressing her specific needs. Today, Jennifer says with relief, Kate is thriving.

Thankfully, cases this extreme are rare, says therapist Vivian Morgan, MS, LCPC. Morgan has a Child and Family Therapy Practice in Lutherville, seeing children and families, some of whom come to her for help with sibling relationship problems.

“No parent likes to call their child a bully,” Morgan says.

“And I commend parents for not using that label. Labeling a child can be limiting. It can become the role they play in a family, the main characteristic — for both kids. Being a victim is not a desirable role you want your child to identify with.”

It’s important for parents to recognize the importance of the sibling relationship because it’s “often the longest relationship in a person’s life, most times outlasting even the relationship with the parent. It’s very significant,” Morgan says.

Further, Morgan explains, research has shown unhealthy sibling relationships have long-term consequences. “Research has established that birth order matters. How people relate to their siblings foreshadows all their future adult relationships, and how they manage those relationships as adults.” For example, she says: “Oldest children tend to end up in leadership roles, or teaching roles. They tend to be preoccupied with family well-being.

“When a child comes into my office and says, ‘I hate my brother’ or ‘sister,’ I want to know what’s going on because this dynamic is not just affecting the two siblings involved, but the dynamic of the whole family. Seventy percent of the time I’ll bring in the other kids in the family, and the parents too.”

Most of the time, Morgan finds, sibling rivalry results from an older sibling resenting the younger for displacing their role in the family. Morgan offers the following advice for parents who find themselves dealing with sibling rivalry:

  • Identify the feelings first, then state the problem. Help your child learn to label feelings. Once there, you can state the problem, and establish limits, boundaries, and rules.
  • Don’t play the rescuer. Brainstorm solutions with the siblings. This, Morgan explains, helps children learn to manage their relationships independently, and find their own solutions to problems. Follow through on appropriate solutions that respect both sides.
  • Spend one-on-one time with each child. Kids can feel they are competing for the “most special” prize in a parent’s eyes, so it’s important to recognize each child’s special abilities. Giving kids the attention they need – even if it’s quality time over quantity – not only acknowledges that each child is unique, but also shows your love for them and your relationship with them is unique, and can’t be replaced or diminished.
  • Consult the experts. Family therapy can help, as well as reading up on the subject on sibling rivalry. Morgan recommends the book Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

For Joanna, the dynamic between her children increased familial stress for a while, but she felt the family was better equipped to deal with their challenges because of the societal cultural shift that brought mental health resources out of the shadows. “I hate to say it,” Joanna says, “but it was probably Columbine that opened our eyes as a society to bullying,” and the importance of mental health. “Columbine was the Rubicon. After that, [society] could no longer turn a blind eye to children’s mental health.”

About Elizabeth Heubeck

Elizabeth Heubeck, a native of Baltimore, is a former editor of Baltimore's Child and the mother of two teenagers. Currently, she spends much of her spare time wishing she was a gourmet cook (or at least a solid short-order cook), hoping the piles of laundry would disappear and, in the warmer months, battling weeds in her flower beds.

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