THE BLOG
07/08/2013 03:32 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

He Kicked Me First!: Real-Life Families, Bullying, and the Controversial Pediatrics Sibling Study

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Parents, child development experts, and journalists alike have been buzzing with opinions about a new study in the journal Pediatrics that shows sibling-on-sibling bullying affects children in the same ways bullying in school does, increasing rates of depression and anxiety.

The most quoted part of the study found that sibling aggression "independently and uniquely predicted worsened mental health," and recommended that parents and others "treat sibling aggression as potentially harmful and something not to be dismissed."

As a longtime advocate of allowing children to work out problems by themselves, I was surprised by the summaries I heard of the study. Did it really say that parents should step in to sort out their children's conflicts, lest children fall victim to serious emotional harm?

After reading the original journal article, I can say: it's a little more complicated than that.

First, the study didn't observe children interacting with their siblings; it relied on phone interviews with children ages 10+, and parents of younger children who answered for them. Second, it didn't inquire about the intention or context of the aggression; it couldn't distinguish between twin kindergartners punching each other in the back seat and a 12-year-old slugging his sleeping 3-year-old sister.

Nevertheless, the study is valuable, as long as parents understand what it really says and refrain from using it to excuse over-parenting.

Recognizing Sibling Abuse

The trouble is that lots of discussion of this study, and sometimes the study itself, elides the differences between sibling rivalry and sibling bullying or abuse. The former is normal and can provide opportunities to practice social skills in a healthy environment. The latter is decidedly unhealthy, and can cause real damage to children. So how can parents tell the difference?

There are three vital questions for parents whose children are fighting:

  1. Is it a one-way street? Normal rivalry goes both ways. When one child is consistently the victim and another the aggressor, parents need to intervene.
  2. Do fights arise from specific causes? Squabbles over who got a bigger slice of cake, who gets to play with a toy, or which TV show to watch originate in a specific, finite conflict of interest, and can be good opportunities to develop strategies to deal with conflict. On the other hand, incidents that arise from a general desire to embarrass or intimidate one child are a big red flag.
  3. Are the children old enough to be acting maliciously? This study excluded children under 2 from questions about teasing, name-calling, or destroying toys, and for good reason. Toddlers simply don't have the brain development to purposefully engage in that kind of behavior.

Sibling rivalry is far more common than sibling abuse. In most cases, the best thing you can do when your children clash is to acknowledge your children's feelings and hear them out; express that you have listened to them, recognize the problem, and believe in their ability to settle differences constructively; and leave them to work it out. Whether you're dealing with rivalry or abuse, you can use three steps to diagnose and treat chronic sibling conflict.

Step One: Set Boundaries

Teaching children to respect others is part of a parent's job, and those lessons begin at home. Set the scene for positive interactions by making, explaining, and consistently enforcing rules about how your family treats people inside and outside the home. Be firm when you see unacceptable behavior -- like hitting, name-calling, or destroying toys. Those behaviors should not be tolerated, regardless of whether they're aimed at a peer, sibling, or stranger.

Still, if other factors in the home environment undercut the rules, children will suffer the consequences. Be firm, be consistent, and keep an eye out for behavior that threatens to exacerbate sibling rivalry and turn your home into a breeding ground for sibling abuse.

Step Two: Model Good Behavior

Parental hostility has a very strong correlation with children's behavior, so if your children are engaging in highly aggressive behavior, consider what you model for them. When you encounter conflict, do you instinctively raise your voice? Do you seek to undercut or dominate the person with whom you disagree? Or do you calmly find a solution?

Older siblings are role models, too, and have a disproportionate effect on younger ones' behavior. That can make it tempting to use them as positive examples, saying things like "Look how nicely your big brother is sitting at the table," or "See how your sister already has on her coat and shoes?" The impulse may come from a positive place, but comparing your children with one another promotes competition. Be careful you don't consistently hold up one child as a model for the other. If you do, you may inadvertently end up labeling one as "the good one."

I've talked about this before, and it bears repeating: One of the best things you can do for your children is avoid labeling them. A child you think of and talk about as "the shy one" may well internalize that description and become shy. A child you think of as being "naughty" will rise (or descend) to the occasion. With siblings, labeling is even more complex; pigeonholing your daughter as "the sporty one" may make her feel she can't try out for the school play, or make her brother worry he can't explore his sporty side.

Step Three: Watch for Patterns

Often sibling conflict appears in a pattern. Patterns can help reveal the root of the problem. One family I worked for had two little girls who played quite nicely together all day, but fought horribly around dinner time. I quickly realized the problem: their tired parents liked to retire to their bedroom quickly after supper on work days. Fighting was the only way the girls could keep their attention. When the parents instituted an hour of family time after supper each night, the girls' behavior improved dramatically.

Go through a mental checklist: Is each child getting proper sleep, nutrition, and parental attention? Being over-tired isn't an excuse for poor behavior, but it can make it harder for children to behave properly, so make sure everyone's needs are being met. Help the bully develop an action plan for coping with anger or frustration in a healthy way -- and hold him or her to it. Spend some one-on-one time with the bully's target, too, promoting healthy self-esteem and working out strategies like walking away or telling a parent or teacher.

The truth is, most siblings will fight, and you can't -- and shouldn't -- referee each match. But when fighting goes beyond normal sibling rivalry, you must get to the bottom of it, and make sure each child feels safe, loved, and respected. If you suspect your children are headed into bullying territory, these strategies can help you get your family back on track.