One word too many, one shove too hard and normal sibling rivalry may deteriorate to sibling bullying or abuse. It’s often difficult for parents and caregivers to recognize what’s normal and what’s not. Laurie Kramer, a professor at University of Illinois, and expert in sibling relationships, contends no one really knows what normal is. The research field is growing and continues to unearth interesting and surprising results. But it’s not necessarily making it easier for parents to recognize when rivalry has morphed into bullying or abuse.
Parents have to watch for — and interpret — the tone of the interactions between brothers and sisters. Kramer says sibling conflict crosses the line into not-normal territory when interactions turn into chronic physical violence or emotional tormenting.
Physical violence can include anything from blows to sexually acting out (such as voyeurism, exhibitionism, poor boundaries around touching, and inappropriately provocative behavior). With emotional warfare, siblings know one another’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities. “They can . . . make the other one feel bad with a word.” The consistency of these behaviors can leave their mark over a lifetime.
Here is what experts recommend adults watch for as signs of abusive sibling interactions:
1. Intention to hurt the other — the desire to see the other one in pain, in tears, or in trouble.
2. The roles never change — one kid is always aggressor, the other, the victim.
3. What appears to be regular razzing or roughhousing always degenerates. And anger doesn’t just blow over.
4. “Weapons” become involved — bats, rocks, toys, scissors, knives.
5. One child avoids another—leaves the room or won’t engage in play or conversation. The child often tries to become invisible around the possible bully.
6. A change in a child’s behavior — difficulty sleeping, bad dreams, eating less or more, emotional outbursts, new anxiety or nervousness.