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.

Beaumont’s Big Brother – Big Sister Class

big brother holding baby brother

The Big Brother – Big Sister Class continues to be popular among families year after year. Beaumont’s Prenatal and Family Education department offers approximately one or two classes per month at Beaumont Royal Oak, Troy, and Grosse Pointe.

This lively, interactive class is designed for children ages 3 to 8 years old (although 9- and 10-year-old children are also welcome). During the class, your child will learn what new babies are like and how to prepare them for their new role as a big brother or big sister. We use dolls and an educational DVD to keep your child interested and engaged.

Your child will learn the day-to-day care that a new baby needs. Children also learn how they can help mom and dad when the new baby comes home. Safety is discussed and stressed to the young child. Hand hygiene is another component taught.

A parent joins the child for the class. As your child learns about his or her new baby sibling, we will share written information with you on how you can prepare your child for the new baby’s arrival and how to help the big sibling adjust to the newest member of the family. Techniques are discussed to help the sibling understand the normal range of emotions during this time of family transition and how to express these feelings based on their age.

The Big Brother – Big Sister Class should be taken approximately four weeks before your new baby arrives.

Click here for more information or to register for an upcoming session.

– Maribeth Baker, RN, LCCE, HBCE, Program Coordinator, Beaumont Health Prenatal and Family Education

Myth busting: Speech delay in siblings

Brothers

Myth: Younger siblings can have a speech and language delay because the older sibling(s) will interpret or speak for the younger child, possibly resulting in a need for speech-language therapy.

Truth: Parents often attribute a speech and language delay to a child being a younger sibling. However research shows that birth order isn’t a risk factor for speech and language delays; having an older sibling who speaks for a younger sibling doesn’t cause a delay in speech and language skills. Although if a child has a delay, it is more likely others will talk for him/her.

While being a second (or third, fourth, etc.) sibling does not cause a speech and language delay, it can impact early language skills. Several research studies found:

  • First-born children reach the 50-word milestone earlier than later-born children. Later-born children quickly catch up, so there are no lasting differences in vocabulary.
  • First-born children have more advanced vocabulary and grammar skills, while later-born children have more advanced conversational skills.
  • Second-born children are more advanced with use of personal pronouns (e.g., he, she, them, they).

Birth order contributes to different language learning environments. First-born children may benefit from more one-one-one attention, while later-born children may benefit from hearing and participating in conversations between parents and other siblings. Neither of these environments are detrimental to speech and language development and there are no lasting developmental differences between first-born and later-born siblings.

Rather than compare first- and later-born children, it is important to focus on whether an individual child’s speech and language milestones are being met. Important milestones can be found here:

Ideas for stimulating speech and language skills can be found here.

If you have questions about your child’s language development, talk to your pediatrician or contact a speech-language pathologist.

– Amanda Vallance, M.A., CCC-SLP, Speech and Language Pathologist, Children’s Speech and Language Pathology Department, Beaumont Health

 References:

  • Berglund, E., Eriksson, M., Westerlund, M. (2005). Communicative skills in relation to gender, birth order, childcare and socioeconomic status in 18-month-old children. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 46, 6, 485–491.
  • Reilly, S. (2007). Predicting language at 2 years of age: a prospective community study. Pediatrics, 120, 6, e1441-9.

 

When a sibling has cancer

Father and daughter holding hands

Cropped image. Spirit-Fire, CC License.

The word cancer invokes a plethora of emotions and questions. The impact is wide and affects the family, friends and community of the person diagnosed. Cancer can be a difficult diagnosis to manage and treat. However, there are advances made in medicine daily and the prognosis and survival rates are improving. This can be encouraging news for parents with children who have cancer, but what about the siblings?

Children who have a sister or brother with cancer experience a range of feelings and how these feelings are expressed is going to depend largely on their age and developmental level. Younger siblings may have more tantrums as they witness the changes in the family dynamics, whereas older children and teens may experience anxiety and depression as they begin to grapple with the awareness of their own mortality. Below are some helpful tips to consider.

Share information

Tell the siblings about the diagnosis and changes that will likely take place. Even younger children can sense that things are different and will fill in the missing pieces with wrong information, which could increase their anxiety. Use age-appropriate language and allow siblings to help when they can. Allowing siblings to help and keeping them informed can decrease feelings of jealousy, anger and attention-seeking behaviors.

Consistency is key

When a sister or brother has cancer, things can seem consistently chaotic for the entire family. It is important for the siblings to continue with their school and extracurricular activities as much as possible. Routines help children feel safe and secure. Sometimes other family members or friends may help with caretaking responsibilities, such as picking up from school or making dinner. Letting your children know about these changes and who they can expect when will help.

Make time

It is important for siblings to have individual time with their parents, especially if other family members are caring for them. Try to carve out time to spend with your healthy children; engage in a fun activity and inquire about their day. This will be a stress reliever for all and it teaches children how to cope and have fun in the face of adversity. Encourage your healthy children to talk about their feelings or worries, and feel free to share your own thoughts and feelings. This can help you stay connected with your healthy children and gives them a safe outlet to express themselves. Validate their feelings, even negative ones, and show unconditional love.

When to get help

Sometimes you can do the best that you can but it isn’t enough. Either healthy siblings or the whole family needs help coping with all of the changes. If you notice prolonged uncharacteristic behavior or changes in mood such as poor grades, disinterest in favorite activities or ange,r feel free to reach out to the clinical psychologist within the Oncology Department of your nearest children’s hospital.

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

Sibling Rivalry Caught On Video

If you have more than one child, chances are you have seen sibling rivalry in action. Sibling Rivalry is jealous and competitive behavior and fighting between brothers and sisters. This behavior usually begins right after the birth of the second child and usually continues throughout childhood. Sibling rivalry can be very frustrating and stressful to parents. Depending on the ages of the children you may see sibling rivalry manifest in different ways. Continue reading