Sibling bullying can be a big problem for younger kids in big families. Here’s how to spot the signs and keep fighting from going too far.
Lauren was just a kid when her brother started beating her.
“My parents worked so much, his dad lived in California. We were always alone after school,” she told Healthline.
She was the youngest of three, and with a six-year age gap between them, he was the oldest.
The bullying started when she was in kindergarten and lasted through fourth grade. That’s when he was sent to live with his biological father.
“The beatings were enough for the neighbors to call the cops countless times,” she said.
Her mom had lost three jobs because she constantly had to come home to referee.
Eventually, it just became too much, and sending him away seemed like the only solution.
It sounds like a nightmare, and for this family it absolutely was. But it’s also not entirely uncommon.
A recent study involving nearly 7,000 children found that the risk of bullying increases for kids who have more than one brother or sister.
The reason? Sibling bullying.
Lead author of the study, Dieter Wolke, PhD, told Healthline his latest research came about after reading anecdotes sent in to the BBC by readers about sibling bullying.
“It affects so many people long term and still it’s a last taboo in families,” Wolke said. “We wanted to find out what makes some siblings become bullies.”
The question of why is one Nicole, a mom in the Midwest, has asked herself countless times.
She has six kids aged 6 to 18, but told Healthline her 12-year-old is “downright mean and hateful to her 10 year old sister, and only to her. She will tell her to shut up. She will pull her hair, hit her, and throw things at her. It’s really bad.”
Nicole thinks it might be because the two are close in age. They have some of the same friends, participate in similar activities, and the 10-year-old often wants to do the things her older sister does. But she said the bullying has affected her younger child’s self-esteem.
“She’s gotten stronger over the years and no longer tries to please her sister, but sometimes you can see she’s just sad.”
It’s a call a lot of parents might make, struggling to determine what’s true bullying in need of intervention and what simply qualifies as normal sibling conflict.
Michele Levin, family therapist and co-owner of Blueprint Mental Health, told Healthline there’s a simple way to tell the difference between the two, even though they’re easily mistaken.
“Sibling conflict is very normal and a two-way street,” she said. It can be a good thing because experiencing conflict with siblings can help children learn how to problem solve and build resilience.
“But sibling bullying is an extreme, powerful, one-way street: repetitive, intentional, intimidating, and meant to make someone else feel less on purpose,” Levin said.
She explained that when it’s bullying, the perpetrator knows it’s hurtful and continues anyway. “It’s a power dynamic.”
Levin was very clear that in cases of real bullying, the “bully” is often struggling themselves. “It’s equally important to focus on helping them and to try to understand why it’s happening, not just shaping the behavior.”
That’s one thing Lauren wishes had happened with her brother. She described a family life that was struggling, and a host of issues her older brother was dealing with at the time.
“He could’ve been helped without being shipped away,” she said. “An adult never went to him or came to me to figure out why. They just looked at the bruises, asked if he did it, and sent him away.”
To this day she says she carries guilt because of that, and wishes her brother had gotten the help she now recognizes he so desperately needed.
But relationship and parenting expert Wendy Walsh, PhD, told Healthline it isn’t always so simple.
“In families that don’t have good conflict resolution skills, and for parents who haven’t modeled emotional regulation themselves, they aren’t always equipped to recognize this type of behavior as true bullying,” she said.
Wolke agreed. “The sad thing is that parents either aren’t aware of it because it’s happening behind closed doors, or they want to ignore it and seek no help.”
He said some may even lie about the behavior in order to protect their children and themselves.
Walsh said this can be especially true when the bullying occurs between boys. “Sometimes there’s this attitude of ‘let them fight it out, they’ll learn, boys will be boys.’ But when you have a big age gap, it’s not a fair fight.”
Walsh’s point about boys is relevant, especially considering that the recent study found that firstborn children and older brothers are most likely to be the perpetrators of this type of bullying.
The researchers suggest this may have to do with a loss of resources. Firstborn and older children are thrust into suddenly having to share time, toys, and attention with their younger siblings, and it doesn’t always go over well.
Both Levin and Walsh agreed with this theory.
“If you want to imagine how an older sibling feels when a new baby comes home, consider that it’s exactly like your husband coming home with a new girlfriend. She’s younger, cuter, and he says he wants to keep you both. That’s what an older sibling goes through,” Walsh explained.
Levin suggested parents should “keep the kids engaged so resentments don’t build,” when bringing home a new baby. “And always remember to validate that it can be tough on the older child.”
Wolke said that this can be a phenomenon that repeats itself. Their research found that victims of sibling bullying often also become perpetrators. And the more time siblings spend together, the more bullying there is.
“Siblings are caged,” he explained. “They can’t choose or ask their brother or sister to move out. They also live in close quarters, and the familiarity allows them to know which buttons to press to upset the sibling and how to manipulate the parents.”
But there’s hope. While bullying can result in long-term negative mental and physical health outcomes and victims of sibling bullying run the risk of never being able to fully escape their tormentors, some do manage to move past the conflicts of their youth.
Lauren told Healthline that her brother is one of the most important people in her life today.
“He’s my rock and my best friend. He’s there any time I need him. He was just young and had anger.”
Although he’s never apologized for the past, she’s chosen to forgive him. She said they’re very close in adulthood.
If you’re a parent concerned about sibling bullying, certain signs of distress in your child might indicate a need for family therapy. These signs may include:
- trouble sleeping
- not doing their homework
- being defiant
- a change in personality
Walsh said to consider making an appointment with a family therapist who can help you get to the root of the bullying and find a way to resolve it.
She has the same advice for adults who may have been bullied by siblings as children.
“You might think, ‘Oh, it was just my brother,’ but the impact of that type of bullying can be very profound. But kids sometimes spend more time with their siblings than their parents,” Walsh said. “A bad relationship with a sibling can have just as much impact as a bad one with a parent.”