When does sibling rivalry turn into sibling bullying?
Parents, it’s time to step up and step in
Sibling rivalry is an age-old dance of love, irritation, camaraderie, and competition. While parents wish their kids were a synchronised dandiya to the tunes of queen Falguni Pathak, it’s probably closer to the Harlem shake.
Squabbling with your brother over whose turn it is on the computer, swiping your sister’s butterfly clips because you lost yours, arguing over who will be the next Sachin Tendulkar… it’s part of growing up and creating one of the most enduring relationships of your life. But that doesn’t mean the journey isn’t slippery. Rivalry can start to take a darker turn and morph into sibling bullying and abuse which, without early intervention from parents, can leave a lifetime of scars that never fully heal.
Dr Sabrina Mukhopadhyay, a psychiatrist specialising in child and adolescent development, says, “Healthy competition can teach children skills like problem-solving, teamwork, resilience and how to cope with failure with the guidance of parents.” But there’s a fine line that’s all too easy to cross. The younger sibling looks at the older one as a role model, and when that role model starts rejecting everything you do, it takes a toll. More so, if the parents get involved in goading on the fights.”
As a child, 41-year-old Swati Kamdar often pleaded with her parents to stop pushing their daughters to be competitive. “Their constant celebration of my sister and chiding of me only increased her taunts. As we got older, it turned into an ego battle, with multiple outbursts at home and at school, all directed towards me.”
Kamdar hasn’t spoken to her older sister in about four years. They keep things civil if they’re at a family gathering but have no personal connection beyond that. “My parents like to pretend that all the bullying, public humiliation at school about my weight (I had undiagnosed PCOS), and snorting at me like pig was all child’s play. They’d say, ‘But what’s wrong? You are overweight, nah? So, don’t overreact.’ It broke my heart.”
Mumbai-based Gunjan Pimpalkar, 59, and her brother started a “civil war in the family,” she laughs as she tells Tweak. After 35 years of sibling bullying, physical abuse and controlling behaviour, Pimpalkar finally stood up to her brother’s abusive behaviour and left the family home. Her parents, she says, sided with him. “My so-called ‘protective brother’ didn’t let me leave the house after 6 PM because only ‘prostitutes needed to be out at that time. It’s not like you have friends to meet anyway.’ He would frequently beat me, like if he saw me talking on the phone after 8 PM. He would call me all sorts of names, tell me I wouldn’t amount to anything because I was useless and stupid compared to him, the manly man, the son of the household.” Today, Pimpalkar is a successful, practising lawyer in Gurugram, while her brother, she says, has two failed businesses. “I don’t take joy in his failures, he is family after all. But karma works in mysterious ways.”
Mukhopadhyay says that early intervention by parents can correct many of the bad behaviours that create resentment between siblings. But often, traditional patriarchal beliefs hold them back, such as in the case of Pimpalkar, or they might convince themselves that these things get resolved over time. ‘What’s the need to interfere? They’re only children, after all.’
Experts say that during a child’s formative years – ages 0 to 8 and from the onset of puberty roughly till about 19 years of age – parents need to take an active role in ensuring their kids are showcasing the right kind of behaviours and actions towards their siblings to foster a healthy relationship in the long-run.
“Lack of intervention at this time will make your children cement the foundation stones of their behaviour and attitudes towards not only their sibling (because as family, they think they can get away with it) but also others they interact with,” says Mukhopadhyay.
When we published one woman’s account of dealing with a toxic sibling (read it here), the response on our Instagram page was overwhelming. While many expressed shock that someone could treat their own sibling so badly, people largely agreed on the need for parents to step up and nip bullying behaviour in the bud before it turns into something worse.
How parents can address sibling bullying, according to an expert
Teaching effective communication and negotiations
Trying to get emotionally riled up children to sit down and calmly talk about their feelings will feel like you’re trying to domesticate two feral cats simultaneously.
When a conflict arises, Mukhopadhyay says to first asses the severity of it. If it’s something small like fighting over the last piece of pizza, then you can let them to figure out how to share. It may escalate to derogatory name-calling, flailing arms and hair-pulling. More than the actions (though those are important too), Mukhopadhyay says to observe the reaction of the child that’s being targeted for signs of anger or depression and anxiety. That’s when you know you need to step in.
Nikhat Sheikh’s* mother rarely stepped in when fights with her sibling got rough. The 24 year old says, “Even when the fights got more malicious and became personal attacks, my mom would brush it off as things that happen with siblings. My sister screams and shouts, I think my mother is also scared of her. But you’re the parent, so, be the parent.”
When you decide to intervene, Mukhopadhyay says to start by separating the sparring parties. “Give them some time in separate rooms to cool down with a book, a toy, or anything that soothes them. Then bring them back together to talk things out.” When you sit down to resolve the issues, pave the way for effective communication with a few simple questions – Why did you think you reacted the way you did? How did X’s actions make you feel? What do you want Y to do?
Encourage children to express their feelings openly, without any finger-pointing or shaming. Help them to see the other person’s perspective. Even if they continue to disagree, try and reach a common ground. Negotiate a compromise. For instance, if they both want to watch different things on TV, teach them to take turns or find a compromise by agreeing on a show they both enjoy.
Equal treatment won’t always work
Treating children equally may not be effective, and could have unintended negative consequences. Each child is unique, and as they go through different stages of development, their needs vary. “It’s essential to make rules, consequences, and responsibilities to suit each child’s age and capabilities,” says Mukhopadhyay.
She gives an example: You might put your 16-year-old in charge of making sure that all the wet waste is going into the compost bin. Meanwhile, your 9-year-old daughter is responsible for clearing her plate (and other garbage) in the correctly labelled bins.
If one questions the tasks of the other, explain that it is based on their capability.
Celebrate the wins, whether at home or at school. Even the small ones. Especially if it involves teamwork on the part of your children – giving them a boost of happy hormones will encourage them to work together even more.
When the occasion calls for it, you must reprimand the bully. Whatever their punishment may be, end it with an explanation of why they were punished, what they did wrong and what they should do differently. “Not giving them an explanation or any context will only confuse and frustrate them,” adds Mukhopadhyay.
Spend quality one-on-one time with each of them
Sibling rivalry often begins when a new baby comes into the picture. “The child under stress may channel anxiety, depression, and anger into bullying,” says John Caffaro, PhD, professor and author of Sibling Abuse Trauma.
One way to mitigate this behaviour, experts say, is to designate one-on-one time with each of your children doing an activity they enjoy. They’re less likely to react negatively towards their sibling if they don’t feel slighted by losing your attention.
Make them work together
Foster a sense of camaraderie and collaboration, rather than rivalry, by engaging your children in activities that require teamwork, like solving a puzzle together or helping you cook a meal.
Making them join forces, even during times of strife, can help them set aside their differences and focus on the task at hand. “By the end of it, they would have probably forgotten what they were fighting about. Let your older one take the lead, and be the positive role model for the younger one,” says Mukhopadhyay, adding, “Being looked up to can fill the older one with a sense of pride and responsibility, rather than jealousy after seeing the younger child/children being treated differently.”
Don’t play favourites (even if you have one)
Parents will never say it (and they shouldn’t), but sometimes you have a favourite kid. Displaying this favouritism is only going to deepen the rift between your children.
As a parent, recognise each of your children as unique individuals with their own strengths, weaknesses and quirks. Some they may have even picked up from you.
“The Indian tendency is to draw comparisons. ‘Isko science class mein 100 marks mile. Tumko sirf 45 (They got 100 marks in science class. You got only 45). Why can’t you be more like your sister?’ This can absolutely stress the parent-child relationship and provoke sibling bullying,” says Mukhopadhyay.
When discussing unwanted behaviours and one child bullying another, it’s important not to take sides instantly, even during your intervention. Address both of them together, let them cool off and come back to the table with clear heads before you attempt to untangle their communication wires. If a child feels you’re favouring one of them, that resentment can sour the bond between siblings quicker than milk left out on a hot summer’s day.