Sibling Rivalry and Bullying: Parents Have More Influence Than They Think

image: Mindaugas Danys, Flickr. CC license.

You hear the scream from the other room and run in to find one kid crying and the other child holding a treasured toy. The accusations and explanations fly back and forth while the tears flow. After a few minutes you realize you’ll never really know the whole story so you:

  1. Take the treasured toy away for a while so it’s not a source of conflict.
  2. Give both the kids a time-out since they need to be separated for a while to cool off.
  3. Throw up your hands and go cry in the other room since this is the fourth time today you’ve had to mediate a dispute.
  4. Yell at the kids since you are so frustrated that they can’t share and get along.

Sound familiar?

Every parent with more than one child is faced with sibling disputes all the time. Whether its toy stealing, physical stuff like pushing/poking, or verbal trash talk that drives the sibling to anger or tears, sibling rivalry is a feature in every family at one time or another. Understanding what drives the behavior will help parents address it appropriately.

Sibling rivalry

Sibling rivalry is triggered for a reason. The child who is acting out wants or needs something. Sometimes he is looking for a parent’s attention. Sometimes she is looking to cure boredom, and sometimes they are looking to get a reaction from their sibling. Figuring out which is the main trigger is very important as it will guide the intervention.

Young children under 5, who are arguing with their siblings, are almost always looking for parental attention. If you really think about it, they aren’t getting any “joy” per se out of their sibling’s reaction but will amp up the behavior if you don’t intervene. They want you. If you don’t run in, the screams get louder and the tussling gets more pronounced.

Another sign that kids are looking for your attention rather than the sibling’s is when they look over at you for your reaction when they are about to do something to their brother or are in the middle of the fight with their sister. They are less engaged with each other than they are interested in your response. A sure sign that the interaction is all about you!

The challenge is realizing that by paying attention to these little scuffles you are reinforcing them and creating a pattern of behavior between the children that can lead to bigger issues down the road. With young children, often ignoring your children’s interactions rather than negotiating, punishing them, or trying to play referee can allow them to work things out on their own and prevent you from become the object of their attention.

The time to help teach children how to negotiate with each other, share well, and be kind is when you are playing with them, not by intervening when they are arguing on their own. Comment on and model these behaviors with your children when you are playing together. You can even role play and practice what to do when you are upset when they aren’t mad; you can give them tools to use at other times.

Another strategy that works well with kids of all ages is to be a play-by-play announcer when you see something happening between your children. Sometimes you don’t want to ignore what you see but know you shouldn’t solve the problem for them. Instead, by describing what you see (the actions and the feelings), you give voice to both of the children in the scuffle and allow them to work things out themselves, perhaps even seeing the other child’s point of view. Here’s an example: You walk in and find 4-year-old, Joey, holding the 2-year-old’s, Jimmy, favorite stuffed animal and he’s crying. Say something like: “Jimmy, you sure seem sad and mad. Joey, you’re holding Jimmy’s best friend. He seems sad and upset. Jimmy is reaching for the toy. Joey, you are keeping it from him. That seems to be making Jimmy even more sad and upset. What are you both going to do?” and then walk away.

When rivalry becomes bullying

As children get older, sometimes what may have started off as an attempt to get the parent’s attention has turned into something more. One sibling has begun to enjoy the “rise” she gets out of the other. Instead of wanting to get the parent’s attention, now the child enjoys the emotional drama that the sibling shows when verbally triggered or egged on in other ways. When this sort of behavior occurs, it can become more serious and, if frequent and unchecked, it is no different than bullying in any other environment.

Most children wouldn’t want to think of themselves as bullies or be labeled as such, but somehow bullying behavior at home isn’t thought of in the same way. Parents have a responsibility to intervene differently when they start to see behaviors that are targeted, affect self-esteem, are power/dominance driven (regardless of which child is older), and persistent. Ignoring these sorts of exchanges can lead to an aggressor-victim dyad in the family that can persist for a lifetime. If one sibling consistently taunts (especially when the verbal taunting is personal and drives the other child to feel insecure or inadequate), intervention is required. Managing both the bully and the bullied in this scenario is key. Both parties are fragile and need support. Bullies often lack self-esteem, are anxious or depressed, or are looking to get attention in unhealthy ways. Getting them help is essential. The child who is being bullied needs strategies to disengage, as well as support to feel secure and safe at home. This last bit can be challenging since the child was the victim of bullying in the place that should feel the safest.

Many parents downplay sibling bullying. “Kids will be kids.” “All kids fight.”
You have to develop a thick skin.” “Siblings will always be meanest to each other.” All of these are examples of things parents say to themselves. And the occasional argument between siblings is normal. But when these interactions become taunting, physically targeted, humiliating, or dehumanizing, it is not normal anymore and intervention is necessary.

The relationships within our family are the best practice we have for relationships in the rest of our life. How we learn to talk to each other and treat each other is the key to our success in friendships, work relationships, love affairs, and as parents later. Teaching your child how to solve his or hew own problems through proper attention to the stuff that matters, ignoring the stuff that doesn’t, creating a culture of positivity in your home, and intervening early if any sign of bullying rears its ugly head is the key to raising kids who will be friends for a lifetime.

– Dr. Molly O’Shea, a board-certified Beaumont pediatrician, offers traditional medicine in non-traditional ways including newborn home visits and emailing parents directly. She has practiced pediatrics for nearly 30 years and was the “Ask the Pediatrician” columnist for the Detroit News for many years. A journal editor for the American Academy of Pediatrics, she also organized the AAP’s national continuing education programming for pediatricians. Dr. Molly loves cooking, traveling and spending time with her family.

Raising awareness about bullying

schoolyard bully kicking a ball at 3 boys

Cropped image. Thomas Ricker, Flickr. CC license.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. This is the time when we—as parents, schools, communities and states—need to come together to spread the word about bullying and what we can do to prevent it. Messages about kindness, inclusion and acceptance need to be part of our conversations and actions.

What exactly is bullying?

The Center for Disease Control and the Department of Education define bullying as “unwanted aggressive behavior; observed or perceived power imbalance; and repetition of behaviors or high likelihood of repetition.

Cyberbullying is a form of bullying that happens via electronic communication and often takes place on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, messaging apps or texts. It includes sending false, negative, hurtful or mean content about another person leading to humiliation and embarrassment of the victim. At times, cyberbullying may be criminal in behavior or unlawful. In 2015, The National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that 21 percent of students between the ages of 12 and 18 are being cyberbullied.

What do the numbers show?

  • More than 1 in every 3 or 4 children report being bullied.
  • Bullying occurs most often in middle school, although it occurs at any age.
  • More than 160,000 students miss school each day in fear of being bullied.
  • According to the National Center for Educational Statistics:
    • 13 percent of victims were made fun of, called names, or insulted
    • 12 percent were victims of rumors
    • 5 percent report being pushed or shoved
    • 5 percent were intentionally excluded from activities
  • A slightly higher number of female students were bullied at school (23 percent vs 19 percent) but more male students were physically bullied (6 percent vs 4 percent).
  • Bullying occurs in the halls, stairwells, in the classroom and cafeteria, outside on school grounds and on the bus.
  • The most commonly reported reasons for being bullied include physical appearance, race/ethnicity, gender, disability, religion and sexual orientation.
  • School-based bullying prevention programs decrease bullying by up to 25 percent. (McCallion & Feder, 2013)
  • More than half of the bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the student being bullied. (Hawkins, Pepler & Craig, 2001)

What are some effects of bullying?

  • Bullied students have an increased risk for poor school adjustment, grades, anxiety and depression. They also report frequent headaches and stomachaches.
  • These students are at a greater risk for behavior and mental health problems.
  • Bullied students have a poor self-concept, often blame themselves and show maladjustment as they develop.
  • Bullying affects their relationships with family and peers.

Laws in Michigan schools

The laws require Michigan school districts to adopt policies to prevent bullying in the schools. All pupils are protected, and bullying is prohibited under this policy. School districts must:

  • have a written plan that includes notifying the parent/guardian of a victim of bullying and the parent/guardian or the perpetrator.
  • investigate the incident, report the findings and include the consequences, such as discipline or referrals. This must be done confidentially.
  • Have personnel trained to prevent, identify, respond to and report incidents of bullying that they encounter.

There is much more to this law; the complete law can be found here.

What schools can do

 Research shows that bullying can be stopped and even prevented when adults immediately respond to bullying and the students know that this behavior will not be tolerated. When a school enforces the laws and policies set by the school districts, students have clear expectations of their behavior and the consequences.

Schools can also provide school-wide activities around bullying. Activities can be done in the classroom so all students can feel safe to prevent bullying. Finally, creating a warm, safe atmosphere that fosters acceptance can prevent bullying.

What parents can do

  • Explore, a one-stop shop website that covers bullying, cyberbullying, prevention and resources. Another resource is
  • Help our children understand bullying. Talk about what it is and empower each child to stand up to it. Make sure a child understands that bullying is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated. Educating them to know what to do about it.
  • Empower your child so they know what to do if someone tries to bully them or what they should do if they witness a bullying situation.
  • Keep the lines of communication open. Talk with your child each day, but most importantly, listen to what they are saying, either implicitly or explicitly.
  • Encourage kids to do the things they love. Students who are involved in their special interests and activities generally display a higher level of confidence.
  • Model how to treat others. When children see you treating others with kindness and respect, they may also display those same behaviors.
  • Check out one of the many apps that are available. One of the popular apps is “Sit with Us” that kids can use to find a lunch buddy.
  • If your child is being bullied, Beaumont Children’s Hospital offers the NoBLE program (No bullying, live empowered). NoBLE provides guidance, support and strategies to help resolve bullying issues.

Books as resources

There are many children’s books available for children to understand what bullying is and how to empower themselves when confronted by a bully. As always, reading together and talking about the books you read together gives valuable insight to the topic and your child’s feelings.

Let’s rally together and stop this hurtful behavior. Let’s strive to make all environments a safe place for our children.

– Lori Irwin, M.Ed., is a Parenting Program volunteer. She’s a former teacher of children with severe disabilities in reading, a consultant with a leading educational book publisher, and a mother of two adult children.


Mommy shaming: What else is new?

Woman hiding face in shame

Altered image. Camdiluv, Flickr. CC license.

Through social media and popular culture, we’ve found a hip and trendy way to blame and shame mothers in the 21st century. And while we think this is a new “thing,” that is far from the truth.

Let’s take a look back. Sigmund Freud, a psychologist who studied psychoanalysis in the 19th and 20th century, was one of the first to suggest that early childhood experiences were the cause of poor brain development and led to diagnoses such as autism. Mothers were often blamed for causing autism in their children during this time and were known as “refrigerator moms” due to their inability to show emotion and displayed cold parenting. Thank goodness these thoughts and attitudes were debunked. However this notion that the mother is to blame continued throughout the sciences of psychology and medicine.

Not to get too scientific here, but epigenetics is the study of how external and environmental factors influence gene expression. Even in the 21st century scientists continue to have various thoughts. It’s very similar to the old debate of nature versus nurture. Let’s use the example of a mom who lets her child eat pizza for breakfast to avoid the morning power struggle. Is it really that bad? Could be. Some scientists may say that by doing so, the mom may be altering the eating habits of that future generation. Other scientists may say that one less argument may have a profound impact. But unless you are a scientist, nutritionist, or gym teacher, why do you care? Why are you judging this mother?

How often have you (primarily women, though men have too) been in public and witnessed a mother doing the unthinkable to her child? Was she breastfeeding him, scolding the child, allowing the child run all over the store, letting the child talk back? Did the child have her mother’s electronic device? Did the child have snacks with high fructose syrup or was the mom late in picking her child up from practice? These are things that we judge other parents about. We call them names, roll our eyes in disgust, talk about them behind their back, and put them down.

That is Mommy shaming.

Yes, we Mommy shame! So why is that? We put down other mothers for doing something that we disagree with or think is appalling. But who are we to say what is appalling or not? There is no perfect parent. The Parent Police do not exist. But what does start to exist is a need to be the perfect parent.

As parents, we try to keep up with the latest information that will help our child succeed. We may overschedule our child with several extracurricular activities and tutoring sessions. We give our children the newest electronic gadgets. We grow our own garden and prepare all the meals from scratch to avoid pesticides and GMO foods (genetically modified organisms). It becomes too much and too stressful to keep up with.

Now there may be some times when safety is a concern and you feel the need to say something to a mother. Think twice about this, then think again and wonder how you would prefer to be approached. For example, if a child isn’t being supervised and you’re concerned about safety or a kidnapping, you might say, “I saw an unattended child on aisle eight,” in a pleasant and polite tone. Avoid saying, “You need to go get your kid and do a better job of watching her,” in a disapproving judgmental tone.

By now you should know if you are one of those women who shame other mothers. If this is the case, it is a definite sign that you may need more balance in your life. We could all use a bit more balance in our lives. If we have to put others down so that we can justify our own neurotic behaviors, then we know we are too close to the edge! Besides what does our mommy shaming behavior teach our kids? We wouldn’t dare want our daughters and sons to be known as “the mean girl” or “classroom bully” would we? What would the neighbors say!

– Carnigee Truesdale-Howard, PsyD, ABPP, Pediatric Psychologist with Beaumont Children’s Divisions of Hematology/Oncology & Gastroenterology


Bullying: No safe exposure

3 girls talking about another girl

Unaltered image. Twentyfour Students, Flickr. CC License.

October is National Bullying Prevention month. Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.

Both in 2014 and 2015, bullying ranked #2 as a leading health concern adults have for children, according to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health. This concern is for good reason as research shows that youth who bully, are bullied, and witness bullying are all at risk for health problems. Exposure to bullying can affect mental and physical health with an impact lasting well into adulthood.

The largest group of children exposed to bullying are the witnesses, sometimes referred to as bystanders. On the surface, bullying may not seem like a relevant issue for bystanders because they aren’t directly involved.

But what if parents knew:

  • Every day, their child went to school afraid of becoming the next target
  • Their child was afraid to be friends with someone, or in a certain group, for fear of becoming a target
  • Their child worried about their social status because it could be impacted at the whim of someone more popular
  • Their child watched someone else’s life being ruined by bullying and now felt anxious, sad or hopeless
  • Their child felt the threat of what would happen if they told an adult was too powerful to overcome
  • Their child saw another child become a target after trying to intervene
  • Their child couldn’t concentrate in school secondary to anxiety about this issue
  • Their child started siding with someone bullying out of fear
  • Their child’s change of interests or extra curricular activities occurred to avoid standing out
  • Their child dreaded social situations because of what could happen, but was also afraid of being excluded
  • Their child’s self esteem was being negatively affected from being afraid to intervene
  • No one was talking about feeling this way and what to do about it

What if this is the reality for millions of youth?

Every day, children are going to school or online and witnessing bullying. They are also being told to stand up, that they can stop this behavior, but what if they are terrified? What if they don’t trust that adults will do anything? And what about the millions of parents who have no idea their child feels this way or attends a school where bullying is happening?

If there is power in numbers, then the parents of witnesses have tremendous power. However, first parents must realize that this is an issue that indirectly, insidiously, and negatively impacts their child, like second-hand smoke.

Fueled with this knowledge, parents can immediately begin to have an impact by talking to their children about bullying and asking about their experiences. They can talk about what to do in certain situations and who they can turn to for help. They can role model what it means to be an upstander (someone who is willing to stand up and take action in defense of others) by talking to other parents and school personnel, and understanding how they can help their school address this issue. Do funds need to be secured to implement an evidenced-based bullying prevention program? Does the school board need to know that parents see this as a priority?

To decrease bullying is going to take a societal effort that cannot be left to the parents of children who’ve been bullied or bullying survivors themselves. Parents of a witness may one day become parents of a targeted child or one who is bullying; it’s too big a gamble to leave to chance.

The parental instinct to protect one’s children is a powerful one. There is a long list of things we do to prevent bad outcomes, even before a child is born. Preventing bullying in schools should be one of them.

– Marlene Seltzer, MD, Director, The NoBLE (No Bullying Live Empowered) Program, Beaumont Children’s Hospital

5 Important Numbers to Plug in Your Teen’s Phone Today

A teenage couple using cell phones

Many teens have cell phones, and if not a phone, some other portal to the Internet. These are five numbers that should be made available to every teen simply by adding them to the contact list. Some of these topics are extremely heavy, so it’s ideal to discuss what to do in conjunction with dialing or sharing these numbers.

1. Poison Control: (800) 222-1222

This is a great number to have for teens who babysit or even just watch younger siblings. However, poison control isn’t just for babies. Some topics that may impact teens include drug or alcohol use, improper use of over-the-counter or prescription medication, teen trends including the “cinnamon challenge”, side effects from energy drinks, carbon monoxide poisoning, eye or skin exposure to a chemical, insect or animal bites, poison ivy, mixing cleaners and food poisoning.

Parent message: Let your kids know that it’s OK to talk to you if they’re concerned about a friend’s, or their own, drinking or drug use. Also discuss when calling Poison Control is appropriate, and when to dial 911 instead.

2. NoBLE/Common Ground Bullying Hotline: (855) UR-NOBLE (855-876-6253)

Beaumont Health’s NoBLE (No Bullying Live Empowered) program has a 24/7 bullying hotline operated by Common Ground, a non-profit crisis intervention agency. In addition to the hotline, NoBLE has additional resources available to help support kids affected by bullying.

Parent message: Talk to your kids about bullying, including why it’s important to not be a bully or a bully bystander. Let them know to talk to you if they are being bullied, or if they witness bullying of one of their peers.

3. Love is Respect, a project of the National Domestic Violence Hotline: (866) 331-9474

The statistics for teen dating violence is shocking. According to, “One in three adolescents in the U.S. is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner, a figure that far exceeds rates of other types of youth violence”. Teens often have little experience in relationships and aren’t always able to identify when behavior is considered “abuse”.

Parent message: Make sure to let your children know that they can talk with you about personal things and that you won’t overreact. If they believe you can handle problems together, they may feel more inclined to talk to you about behavior that makes them uncomfortable. Visit the Love is Respect site and review the warning signs of abuse together so they will know if things are getting dangerous.

4. National Eating Disorder Association: (800) 931-2237

Having access to the Internet can lead those suffering with eating disorders to the wrong kind of “support” by finding those who enable this disease.

If you type certain eating disorder “code words” into the Instagram search features, a warning pops up advising of possible graphic content. It gives the option to click “learn more” and you’ll be directed to an Instagram page with information about eating disorders and links where to get help.

If you do the same search on Pinterest, a banner message appears with the message: “Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices; they are mental disorders that if left untreated can cause serious health problems or could even be life-threatening. For treatment referrals, information, and support, you can always contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or”.

The National Institute of Heath reports that eating disorders frequently begin in the teen years and that girls are at a 2½ times greater risk.

Parent message: Make healthy body image a family priority. Be aware of the signs of each different eating disorder listed here. Two newer eating disorders include Diabulemia, a disorder specific to those with Type 1 Diabetes, and Orthorexia Nervosa, which occurs when healthy eating becomes an obsession.

5. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 273-8255

Chances are your teen has heard about, or known someone who has committed suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people age 10–24. Unfortunately, there’s a huge stigma attached to suicide, and it isn’t openly discussed. Often family and friends didn’t realize their loved one was suffering.

Parent message: Talk to your teen about suicide. It’s an extremely uncomfortable topic to discuss, but it’s very important to establish an open dialogue. Discuss the warning signs. Let them know that they can talk to you about anything, including thoughts of hurting themselves or concern for friends exhibiting these behaviors. Instruct your teen that it’s imperative to tell you right away if anyone they know talks about committing suicide, even if your child thinks they’re joking or exaggerating.

– Erica Surman, RN, BSN, Pediatric Trauma Program Manager, Beaumont Health System