A new study published in the journal Pediatrics, and reported on in the press this past week, suggests that aggression between siblings can be as psychologically damaging as that caused by bullies at school or elsewhere. The study, involving thousands of children, found that those who were attacked, threatened or intimidated by a sibling had increased levels of depression, anger and anxiety.
Without going into an analysis of the study itself, the nature of the findings reported raises a number of questions to think about. It would be helpful to know at what point sibling rivalry was labeled “bullying”, and whether it was the behavior toward a particular child, or the feelings of that child as a result of the behavior that were being considered in applying the label. The question is really, at what point does the way one sibling expresses feelings toward another become unacceptable. Is it the behavior of one, the feelings of the other, or both?
Dr. Corinna Tucker, the lead author of the study, is quoted as saying about sibling rivalry, “Historically, the general thinking has been that it’s not a big deal, and sometimes it’s even viewed as being a good thing.” She also says, “… aggression among siblings should be taken just as seriously as that among peers.” My own experience with very many parents is that sibling aggression is taken very seriously. In fact, I have always been struck by the fact that so many parents are invested in children loving each other, and so often have a hard time accepting the negative feelings that may exist.
Children have many kinds of feelings toward each other, just as we as parents do toward our children. Despite our frequent reassurances to our children that we love them equally, we may love them and treat them differently. Family relationships can be complicated, and are often influenced by those that existed in our original families as we were growing up. Without our realizing it, the way we relate to individual children may repeat aspects of our relationship not only to our own parents, but to our siblings as well. Sibling rivalry generally is the competition to be first in the affection and attention of the parents. The differences in the way we relate to each of our children often can impact on that competition without our awareness.
The oldest child, of course, actually was the first, and often is the most expressive of resentment of the younger ones who follow. But younger children, too, may be jealous of the privileges of the firstborn and often provoke the treatment they receive in turn. Different children in a family may envy the talent or skills of another, or what they perceive to be the pride and pleasure parents may take in the achievement of one or another of the siblings.
The point is that there are many things that can contribute to the rivalry or angry feelings siblings may experience toward each other, and we need to recognize that such feelings exist. This is a different issue than the way in which such feelings are expressed. Yet children who experience the negative feelings of a sibling may have strong reactions even when such feelings have not been expressed in overtly aggressive ways. When the study cited refers to the psychological reactions of children it is important to know if they are reacting to the feelings, or to the behavior of others.
Of course, the distinction between feelings and behavior is a significant one. Hurtful behavior, whether physical or verbal, is unacceptable, and its existence presents one kind of issue. As parents we need to be clear that abusive behavior is not approved of and will not be tolerated. But to do that successfully we have to think about, and try to understand what is causing the behavior. What are the feelings leading to such behavior, more specifically than just the jealousy of one child of another. This may have to involve an examination of our own behavior as parents and whether we are inadvertently contributing to our children’s feelings of resentment.
We also need to think about whether the child being “victimized” is vulnerable in some particular way, or in some way is inviting abusive behavior. It may also happen that within a family one child in particular seems to be the “scapegoat”, and we need to try to understand why that is happening.
Whatever the issue, understanding the meaning of the behavior and recognizing the feelings behind it are key to our ability to do something about it. All feelings are part of being human, and our message to our children is not that they are bad for having such feelings, or that they mustn’t feel that way. A punitive attitude toward their feelings only serves to increase children’s resentment, thereby intensifying the undesirable behavior.It is the behavior in which those feelings are expressed that is not acceptable and which they need help in learning to control.
In the same way, children who are hurt by their awareness of the feelings of others, even when not expressed aggressively, may also need our help in learning how to deal with others’ feelings, whether those of siblings or peers.
We need to be careful about loosely applying the label of “bully” in sibling relationships. Such a label can become judgmental rather than descriptive, and can serve to prevent a more thoughtful understanding of sibling behavior.