The bully on the playground can cause lasting harm, both physical and psychological, to your children. But even more dangerous is the bully in the backyard, the one who shares your child’s DNA.
Up to 40 percent of children are being bullied by their siblings, and the torment can have long-lasting consequences, including depression, anxiety, inflammation, obesity and self-harm, a recent study says. In fact, sibling bullying can be worse than bullying by peers because the child has no way to escape, experts say.
Yet parents often dismiss the behavior as natural and don’t intervene, rationalizing that all siblings fight to some degree.
“Conflict is normal and natural and necessary. But bullying is not something you resolve; it’s something you stop,” said bullying expert Barbara Coloroso, author of “The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander.”
If allowed to continue, the abuse can harm the bullied child not only as it occurs, but long after she and her sibling are adults. One study in England found that the effects of childhood bullying persist into middle age.
“We’ve looked at mental health, inflammation, education, work, social relationships in adulthood and physical health, and across the board, we tend to see that victims have long-term effects of this early experience,” said Dr. William Copeland, an associate professor at Duke University Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in Durham, N.C.
When bullying gets under the skin
About 75 percent of American children have at least one sibling, and when their relationship is healthy, it can become one of the most important relationships they have over a lifetime.
“By middle childhood, children spend more time interacting with siblings than with parents,” wrote Dieter Wolke, Neil Tippett and Slava Dantchev of the University of Warwick in a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry in October 2015.
When good-natured bickering becomes chronic torment, however, outcomes for both the bully and the bullied worsen, and the family home, which should be a safe haven, can resemble a torture chamber for the singled-out child.
Bullied children are more likely to suffer psychological distress, like anxiety disorders and depression, and to try to harm themselves. Some studies suggest that they are more likely to be bullied outside the home, and to have difficult relationships with peers.
And the effects are not just psychological: Even in adulthood, bullied children have higher levels of C-reactive protein, a key marker of chronic inflammation.
Short-term, or acute, inflammation helps us to recover from disease or injury. But chronic inflammation breaks the body down and can lead to heart disease and other conditions like diabetes. Persistant inflammation is also an indicator of toxic stress, unrelenting pressure that can interfere with a child's normal brain development.
Bullying literally gets “under the skin,” says Copeland, the researcher at Duke University.
Ironically, Copeland has found that inflammation levels of bullies seemed to be improved by their bad behavior since aggression may improve their social status and thus their psychological health.
But over the long term, bullies may suffer, too. Some research shows that they are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs than their peers, have criminal convictions and traffic violations, and have trouble staying employed. Like their victims, they’re more prone to anxiety and depression than their peers, and to have an eating disorder.
The worst outcomes, however, are for the person Copeland calls the “bully-victim,” someone who was bullied, but then does it to others.
The bully-victim is more likely to experience depression and suicidality, which includes suicide ideation, attempts and self-harm.
“It’s a distinct group that has much worse long-term outcomes than even the victims themselves,” Copeland said.
The effects are also magnified in children who are bullied both at school and at home. “They don’t have any safe place or refuge from the experience,” he said.
Siblings have been fighting since Eden, which is why parents are sometimes slow to realize that something more serious than bickering is occurring.
One way to discern whether it’s just normal conflict or bullying is to pay attention to the reactions of both children.
“In conflict, they’re both upset. But in bullying, one is in pain and the other is getting pleasure from the pain. They’re worlds apart,” Coloroso said.
Rather than being temporarily angry or upset, bullies have persistent contempt for the sibling, she added.
Look for patterns of behavior, Copeland advises. “You’re talking about repeated behavior, a person being singled out on a regular basis, and the bully being in a position of perceived authority or power. Those are the three ingredients we typically define as bullying.”
Typically, bullies are older than their victims and they’re most often male, although sometimes the reverse is true. And sometimes two siblings can unite against another.
When the bully is older than the target, the behavior might be a result of unresolved anger at being displaced by a new baby.
The late psychiatrist David M. Levy, who coined the term “sibling rivalry,” found that young children presented with dolls representing a mother, a baby and an older child often said the older child’s response would be to attack or hurt the baby. He concluded that feelings of hostility toward a baby are biological and universal.
But the expression of that anger, Coloroso said, is learned.
“You have to be taught to be mean,” she said. Parents of bullies need to ask themselves, “How do we relate to one another in the family? How do we relate to people outside the family? Our children are watching.”
This may be expressed in physical abuse, like shoving, or verbal bullying, such as taunting the target or calling them names. A common tactic among sibling bullies is to label the other person the aggressor.
When parents realize one of their children is bullying another, they should take care not to minimize or rationalize the behavior.
Reassure the bullied child that you realize what is happening and that you believe her. Don’t tell her to avoid the bully. “In a family setting, you can’t avoid him, and it doesn’t work anyway, the kid will find you.”
And while it helps a child’s confidence to learn some defensive moves, don’t tell her to ignore the bullying (“it eats internally at the targeted kid”) or to stand her ground. “Bullies are cowards. They pick on someone they know they could get to. If you tell the kid to fight back, they’ll get pummeled,” Coloroso said.
For the bully, family therapy may help, as will getting her in positive, energy-expending activities, such as running, swimming or basketball. Explain that the home should be a safe harbor for everyone in the family, and ask the child to think about how to make amends and how to keep the behavior from happening again.
Finally, give both children an opportunity to do good, whether helping with meal preparation or volunteering in the community.
“Bullies grow up, and unless they’re stopped, they’ll continue,” Coloroso said.