When Does Sibling Rivalry Become Sibling Bullying?
By guest blogger Marcia Sirota, MD
Sibling rivalry is a fairly common occurrence. Kids engage in one-oneupmanship as they compete for “favored child” status. Even in good, loving families, it’s natural for at least one child to feel the need to demonstrate their superiority to their siblings.
Families are microcosms. Within each family unit there are finite resources to be shared by all the children. These resources include parental love, attention, support, money and favors. Even when the parents do their best to be fair, sometimes one sibling could feel like they’ve been short-changed.
Sometimes birth-order is responsible for sibling rivalry: the oldest child feels that the one who came along after him is now getting the special favors he used to receive, or the middle child is jealous of the oldest child’s status and resentful of the attention given to the baby of the family.
Sometimes a rivalry is inadvertently set up by parents who give one child extra attention for their talents or accomplishments, or extra support with regard to an illness or disability. Both of these scenarios could create feelings of jealousy in the other children.
Animals are biologically predisposed to compete for limited resources, and human beings are no exception. Most often, our competition with our siblings wears off as we grow up and become more secure within ourselves and with our adult roles.
Even when the rivalry has been fairly mean-spirited, with instances, say, of tormenting or humiliating the other sibling, the one on the receiving end usually doesn’t hold a grudge and both siblings end up getting along well as adults. Sometimes the tormentor will even apologize for what they’ve done.
On occasion, siblings engage in a much more vicious form of competition: bullying. In such cases, the bully feels more than a little bit deprived; they’re enraged about what they perceive to be a deep inequity in the allocation of familial resources.
Unlike in situations of sibling rivalry where most often, there’s enough affection to go around, in cases of sibling bullying there’s a genuine lack of parental love or attention. In situations where bullying occurs, the parents were either unable or unwilling to meet the emotional needs of their children.
The sibling who becomes a bully is furious at their parents over the way they’ve withheld much-needed care and affection. They can’t express their anger to their parents, though, due to fear of rejection or reprisals. They continue to hope for the love they didn’t receive.
As a result, they take out their hurt, anger and frustration on their hapless sibling, who has no idea why their brother or sister has suddenly become so cruel. The bully sees their sibling as somehow having received the greater share of parental attantion and they punish them for it.
Whereas sibling rivalry tends to happen during childhood or adolescence, sibling bullying usually occurs once the children are grown and resentment has had time to develop.
It can take the form of stealing an inheritance, sabotaging the sibling’s romantic relationship or job, alienating the sibling from the parents or it might even involve physical violence.
Unlike ordinary sibling rivalry which generally leaves no scars and allows the sibling relationship to remain intact, sibling bullying is extremely destructive and often causes estrangement between the siblings.
Sadly, bullying occurs in families with inadequate parents who are therefore ill-equipped to recognize this hurtful behavior or to intervene appropriately between their two children.
Fortunately, sibling bullying is a lot less common than sibling rivalry. As long as parents are reasonably loving and attentive to their children, their kids might engage in some episodes of obnoxious behavior but it’s highly unlikely that any of them will grow up to engage in toxic sibling bullying.
Marcia Sirota MD is a board-certified psychiatrist with over 20 years of clinical experience. She’s the author of Emotional Over-Eating: Know the Triggers, Heal Your Mind and Never Diet Again coming out in Spring 2012 with Praeger Press. She’s a Huffington Post Blogger and regular contributor to Moods Magazine, She has founded the Ruthless Compassion Institute which is dedicated to improving people’s lives everywhere. www.ruthlesscompassioninstitute.com @rcinstitute on Twitter, Ruthless Compassion Institute on Facebook, ruthlesscompassion channel on Youtube.