Bullying: Not Just a Playground Problem

This week is Bullying Prevention Week. When we think of Bullying, we typically think of the school playground. Kids, bullying other kids. The reality is, bullying can occur at any age, and in any place you spend time with the same people repeatedly: School, at work/the office, in a relationship or marriage, even within a family.

What most people don't know is that the most common form of Bullying does not actually occur at school, but within the home - between Siblings.

50% of children report having been bullied by a sibling. It is the most prevalent out of all bullying types. This is higher than the incidence of peer-based bullying, marital abuse, and even parent-child abuse.

When you think back on growing up with your sibling(s), you probably remember lots of laughing, secret languages and games, pranking your parents together, sitting in punishment together. And you probably remember some stellar fights - some shallow and stupid, others deeper and more meaningful. I remember one I had with my brother over the remote control for the TV (what else?). He'd stolen it, I yanked the cable out from behind the TV. He picked up a nearby mug and bounced it off my head, I whipped him back with the suddenly-handy cable I'd misappropriated. 


We all fight with our siblings growing up, and some competition and rivalry is totally normal.... up to an incredibly-hazy-and-impossibly-unclear point. So when does normal, healthy sibling rivalry cross over to something much more sinister? 

When does normal, healthy sibling rivalry cross over to sibling bullying?

Siblings (and the relationships we have with them) play a major role in shaping our personality development. In fact, recent research in attachment and bonding shows that our siblings play as important a role as our parents.  What exactly is bullying? Is it fighting over the remote control? Is it calling your sister a poo-poo face? Is it shoving your brother at the dinner table?


The definition of bullying is victimizing someone through repeated negative actions with the deliberate intention to hurt or cause physical and/or emotional harm. This can involve beating/shoving/punching - even viciously tickling - your sibling, calling them nasty names, spreading rumours about them, and turning other children against them. The key things are that the actions cause the victim pain and are repetitive.


Teachers and school systems now take a hard stance on bullying in school. Modern parents spend time and energy trying to establish healthy sibling interactions. But the reality is, too many parents - along with educators and healthcare providers - are dismissive of sibling aggression, often writing it off as "kids just being kids." So how are sibling bullies made?


Some personality traits are more commonly found in people who bully others, such as high "Neuroticism" combined with low "Agreeableness" and "Conscientiousness." But there are also certain family dynamics that make it far more likely that one child bullies a sibling; one who is usually (though not always) younger. Some of the most compelling ones include parental neglect, parental favouritism, ineffective conflict resolution, obscure/confusing/inappropriate/absence of family boundaries, marital conflict or abuse, parent-child abuse, and lack of emotional and mental fitness of caregivers. Over-promoting friendliness between siblings (i.e. "You have to be nice to each other all the time, and be the best of friends") and lumping them together too often (i.e. "You kids this" and "you kids that") also increase the chances of sibling bullying, because they interfere with the natural process of de-identifying oneself from ones sibling/s, in order to establish a separate and unique identity - a crucial factor in healthy personal development.


Sadly, the downsides of being bullied by a sibling are very real. Depending on the severity and length of the bullying, they range from mild depression/anxiety to substance abuse and even full on post-traumatic stress disorder. In some cases, the ability to form trusting and lasting relationships with others as an adult is never developed. According to research, an overwhelming number of survivors of severe sibling bullying never marry.


I have seen many adults who have painfully described heartbreaking childhoods that involved being bullied by a sibling. They are often hesitant to recognize it as such, for the very same reason parents, teachers, and clinicians often don't - it's said to be "typical and normal." The "shame factor" is also higher in cases of sibling bullying, which contributes to it being hidden away, by victims and sadly, also by parents who are aware it is happening.


If you have a loving and healthy relationship with a sibling, consider yourself (and your sibling) lucky, for there's something truly remarkable about someone who has known you for basically your entire life. If you don't have a great relationship with one or more sibling, don't sweat it. There's no prerequisite that you be Uber close - you are what you are.


And if you experience sibling bullying, or think you may have, take heart. You are not crazy, and you are certainly not alone. The best way to stop a bully is to SPEAK UP. Don't let anyone repeatedly treat you badly. When you don't stand up for yourself, you send a message to the other person that "it's ok” for them to treat you that way - you accept it. Don't accept it. By accepting it, you inadvertently reward it. And behaviour that is rewarded...is repeated.

Behaviour that is rewarded is repeated.

Being bullied in one domain - be it school, at home, by a coworker, in a relationship - puts you at higher risk of being bullied in other domains as well. So it's important to take action. Tell whoever is bullying you to stop. Walk away. Defend yourself if you are being physically attacked. Seek assistance and protection when necessary. Set limits for yourself and make sure you live your life within them. Most of us aren't taught how to do this.


Sometimes, setting your boundaries means severing ties in adulthood; with a sibling - or somebody else - who is simply too difficult and stressful to have in your life. If that's what you need to do, know that it's ok. Blood is not always thicker than water.


Preventing Bullying is altogether another concept - a major social movement that involves change from each and every one of us on an aggregate level: Being Kind to others (while not tolerating poor treatment), healthy parents, good family systems, education, equal opportunities, emotional intelligence, and much more. The importance of prevention can't be stressed enough. The Kindness Journal is our small way of trying to change the system. By creating a practice of caring and compassion, it becomes natural over time. It just becomes you. What you do has a ripple effect in society. And while Kindness may not always stop a Bully once a Bully has been made, it can absolutely help to prevent someone from becoming one in the first place.

"You have power over your mind, if not what happens on the other side of it."