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Sibling Conflict: When Is It Bullying?

Siblings have been fighting with each other during their childhood from time immemorial. Much ink has been spilled in the child development literature concerning the proper way for parents to deal with sibling conflict. One aspect that is sometimes overlooked is that occasionally sibling conflict can be a form of bullying. The entire conversation changes once we are dealing with bullying and not your run-of-the-mill quarreling amongst siblings.

Some have a notion that sibling conflict is part of life and is a rite of passage for children as they grow up. Some will even say that “siblings who fight together stay together.” However, research shows that when that conflict is bullying, then the trauma can be as harmful or even more harmful than bullying that a child experiences from peers in a school environment. It is therefore incumbent upon us to learn how to differentiate between regular sibling conflict and bullying. Of course, we must first ask ourselves, what exactly is bullying?

Bullying typically has three components: (1) The actual harmful behavior, which can be physical, verbal or emotional. (2) Imbalance of power between the bully and the victim such as physical strength, savviness, ability to use embarrassing information or higher social stature. (3) The behavior is repetitive. These three components can also occur with aggressive behavior between siblings. However, not all siblings with a power differential who fight repetitively are engaging in bullying behavior. More information is needed in order to establish that this conflict might actually be a form of bullying.

Here are some signs to look out for in sibling conflict that might indicate that bullying is occurring.

Behavior is consistent. Many siblings will fight like cats and dogs one minute, but a little while later they can be playing with each other and enjoying each other’s company. When the behavior is a form of bullying, then you will often find that their interactions tend to be consistently aggressive in nature.

Feelings of contempt. Siblings who fight with each other tend to deep-down like each other, but nevertheless fight as siblings often do. However, when the dynamic is one of a bully and a victim then the sibling in the bully role will often have consistent feelings of contempt towards the other sibling.

Intensity. When siblings fight with each other, they usually intuitively understand not to fight with too much intensity since they do not really want to harm each other. When the relationship is one of a bully and a victim then there tends to be greater intensity in their quarrels.

Patterns. When siblings fight there tends to be a degree of randomness as to the content of their conflict. When the relationship is that of a bully and a victim, there often is a pattern. For example, one sibling torments the other sibling about the same topic day after day.

If a parent suspects that bullying is occurring amongst siblings, it is extremely dangerous to sit by idly and let the passage of time work things out. Being victimized by a bully can lead to severe emotional challenges later in life, even if the bully is one’s own sibling. It is imperative to seek intervention. A therapist with experience with families and children can be essential in changing the relationship amongst the siblings and healing any of the scars that have already developed.

Rabbi Azriel Hauptman was the founding director of the Relief Resources Baltimore office and writes extensively on the topic of mental health for a variety of publications. Rabbi Hauptman resides with his wife and children in Baltimore, MD.

By Rabbi Azriel Hauptman


Relief Resources helps thousands of people every year find the mental health care that best fits their needs. They can be reached at (718) 431-9501 or [email protected].

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