Historically, bullying has been viewed as an act of aggression that occurs outside the home, perpetrated by people who are perceived to be threatening and mean, not the type that live in your own house. In fact, bullying behavior is defined as “intimidation or an attempt to have power over someone” who is perceived as weaker-than, either through physical aggression or more subtle social-emotional tactics.
In the July 2013 issue of Pediatrics, an article, “Association of Sibling Aggression With Child and Adolescent Mental Health,” concluded that bullying behavior has a significant impact on siblings. This study is groundbreaking in that it identifies bullies as siblings and not evil people who only exist outside of our homes. The study results concluded that thousands of children are victims of sibling bullying and had the same negative psychological effects as those children who are bullied outside of the home, in the world at large.
Bullying in the home has received almost no attention compared to the national anti-bullying campaign focused on protecting children from bullying in schools and the community. What should parents know about bullying in order to proactively address it at home?
First and foremost, distinguish between sibling rivalry and bullying behavior.
Sibling rivalry is normal, natural and common in most families and is behavior such as:
Arguments over an object or personal item.
Feelings of jealousy.
No imbalance of power.
Presence of random acts of kindness — “Are my children ever kind to each other?” Siblings who are rivals are kind, especially when not competing.
“Do my children get along when I am not around?” Many times, children who fight for competition do just fine when parents are absent, as there is no need to compete for attention. This is not the case for bullies.
In contrast, bullying behavior is pervasive, consistent and can be subtle or aggressive. It consists of the following behaviors:
Put-downs, name-calling and/or insults such as calling someone stupid, ugly, fat or speaking negatively: “You’ll never make the team.”
Physical actions such as hitting, pushing, pulling hair, scratching, kicking
Ganging up on one sibling
Refusing access to a room or excluding a sibling from activities
Stealing items for pleasure
Threats: “If you tell, it will get worse.”
Pre-empting — manipulation by telling the parents before the victim that the victim instigated conflict
Cyber-bullying — anonymous put-downs, taunts and negativity posted online in front of the world to expose and humiliate the victim
What can parents do?
Parents who are intimidated by the bully may avoid confrontation, only making the bullying worse. Parents must take control if there is a bully in the house.
Parents can be reluctant to challenge the bully, as a bully is often in a helper role and uses this as a way to maintain and assume an inner place in the family hierarchy.
Confront negative behavior, even minor teasing, with direct and immediate consequences: “You will not talk like that to your sister, do you understand me? Apologize now and do not do it again or you will have a time-out.” Regularly, the parents should have one-on-one discussions with the bully about the goal of stopping the bullying behavior. Positive rewards should be implemented if progress is made. These include direct and specific praise for good behavior. If progress is not made, parents should consider a consultation with a psychologist or other professional.
Role-model anti-bullying behavior and demonstrate acts that actively attempt to counter bullying at home and in the community.
Recognize that a bully sibling is also at great risk to bully outside the home and address this whenever possible.
Acknowledge that children who engage in bullying behavior are not “bad” children; they do need guidance and firm and consistent consequences.
Always check in frequently during unmonitored play times.
Be aware that a sibling victim may feel they have a frenemy relationship with the bully and stick up for him in order to prevent him from getting into trouble.
Non-victim siblings are “bully bystanders.” Parents need to help this child find his voice by asking how it feels to watch his sibling be bullied and encourage him to speak up, first to the parent individually, then in front of the bully with the parent present to offer support.
Institute regular family games whereby everyone is engaged and coach the children individually in advance of what the expected behavior is, including positive and negative consequences that will be implemented if this behavior is or is not followed.
Promote and reward random acts of kindness.
Ask everyone at the dinner table to say something positive about others at the table and reward that behavior.
Recognize that bullies engage in this behavior because of their own inadequacies. For parents, this means facing the reality that they have a child who feels insecure and, therefore, aggressive toward others as their way of coping. Once parents face this reality, they can address it effectively.
Dr. Kate Roberts is a psychologist and parent coach in Essex. Questions can be directed to www.drkateroberts.com, www.twitter.com/DrKateParenting, www.facebook.com/Dr.KateRoberts or www.pinterest.com/DrKateParenting.