Sibling Rivalry or Sibling Abuse?

sibling rivalryFamily members don’t always get along, and brothers and sisters are no exception. Siblings often experience jealousy, competition, and disagreements. However, there is a fine line between normal rivalry and behavior that is abusive. Today’s blog explains how to tell the difference between sibling rivalry and abuse and how to prevent and address abuse.

Our society generally expects fights among siblings, and most parents tune out their children’s bickering. However, experts warn that parents should pay attention to the interactions between brothers and sisters. Chronic physical violence or emotional tormenting is not normal. Siblings know one another’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities and can easily use them against each other. If siblings are frequently trying to outdo one another or cutting each other down or coming to blows, their relationship has become abusive which can negatively impact your children well into adulthood.

Signs of Sibling Abuse

Here is what experts recommend adults watch for as signs of abusive sibling interactions:

  • You notice an intention by one child to hurt the other — the desire to see the other one in pain, in tears, or in trouble. It is not always the older or bigger child, so don’t assume your child isn’t being abused by their sibling just because the “bully” is younger or smaller.
  • The roles never change: one kid is always the aggressor, the other, the victim.
  • What appears to be regular put-downs or roughhousing often degenerates into something worse. The violence between siblings might appear to increase over time.
  • The victim acts out abuse in play.
  • One child always avoids their sibling. They might leave the room or won’t engage in play or conversation. The child often tries to become invisible around the possible bully.
  • Repeated hitting, taunting, biting, pushing, name calling, choking, and threatening are all examples of abuse.

Tips to Prevent Sibling Abuse

There are ways parents can work to prevent sibling abuse from occurring. Here are some ideas from experts:

  • Reduce the rivalries between your children by not making comparisons between them and by spending equal amounts of quality time with each of them individually. Never play favorites.
  • Set ground rules for acceptable behavior in your family. For example, no family should tolerate hitting, pushing, choking, biting, threatening, name calling, screaming, belittling or personal attacks.  Solicit your teens’ input on the rules and the consequences if someone breaks the rules. Make sure your follow through with the consequences when anyone becomes physically or emotionally abusive.
  • Role model the behavior you want to see in your children. Follow the house rules. Demonstrate positive conflict resolution with your spouse, friends and family members. Don’t put other people down in front of your teens.

What to Do When Siblings Fight

Many times parents believe that siblings should work out their conflicts on their own. While in a healthy relationship, this can be a beneficial way for brothers and sisters to learn how to resolve conflicts, this will not work in an abusive relationship. This is particularly true if your children are angry and emotional about a particular situation. If you suspect your children are in an unhealthy relationship, you should not leave your children alone together and you should definitely break up their fights. When they fight, you can separate them for a short period so that everyone can calm down, but then everyone should gather together so that you can guide them in how to work through their disagreements. Use this as an opportunity to teach them social skills, conflict management, and problem-solving.

As an example, break up the disagreement and ask each child why he or she is upset. Help them identify their emotions. Ask each child what their sibling might be feeling as well, which will help develop empathy. Don’t bother asking who started the fight, because it doesn’t matter; both (or all) parties were participants. But also don’t blame both parties: it’s important to realize one child could be the primary aggressor and the other the victim. The most important part of this process is helping them brainstorm solutions to their conflict. If they can learn to identify their own feelings and needs and then work together to solve the problem or create a goal to improve the situation in the future, you will be teaching them how to manage conflict in a healthy way that will both improve their current relationship and benefit them throughout their life. 

Final Thoughts…

Parents need to step in before rivalry turns into abuse. All children will fight at one time or another, and it might become physical, but it’s the parent’s job to set boundaries on what is acceptable behavior.

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