Sibling bullying is different from the usual family rows and bickering. Similar to peer/school bullying, one person is targeted usually by one other, but sometimes by more than one sibling. Bullying is repeated, intentional aggressive behaviour and the victim usually finds it hard to defend themselves.
Boys and girls are bullied. The bully can be a brother or sister, older or younger. Generally the bully is quite close in age, with most bully-victim pairs less than four years apart. Quite commonly a sibling will bully the sibling immediately before or after them in age. Sibling bullying can start at any age.
Name-calling is the most common form of sibling bullying, often targeting a victim’s vulnerabilities. Boys may engage more in physical bullying than girls. A sibling may also bully by taking, breaking or damaging things belonging to the victim. All forms of bullying involve humiliating, dominating and diminishing the victim. The bully may be very shrewd and covert in how they bully. As with peer bullying sibling bullying is fuelled by a desire to dominate and gain status within a group.
Much of sibling bullying is not witnessed by parents or an adult. When it is witnessed or when the victim reports to a parent the response is often ineffective and does not stop the behaviour. Parents commonly treat the problem as relational, or as normal sibling conflict. The victim may be blamed for provoking the bully. Such responses can lead to feelings of isolation and hopelessness. Studies have shown that sibling bullying is associated with higher levels of loneliness, depression, anxiety and self-harm, with potential long-term effects.
One of the greatest difficulties in tackling sibling bullying is the erroneous perception that aggression between siblings is normal. The misuse of the term ‘sibling rivalry’ means that behaviour considered unacceptable or even criminal in another context is normalised and tolerated within a family. Many parents are not equipped to recognise and deal with bullying in the home, but sometimes a parent contributes by tacitly condoning bullying behaviour. This may be where the victim is a family scapegoat.