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My youngest daugh­ter has told me she’s be­ing bul­lied, not at school but at home. She says her old­est sis­ter picks on her con­stantly and is mak­ing her life a mis­ery. I don’t want to over­re­act, but I do want to deal with the is­sue ef­fec­tively. What should I do?

ATo my mind, the key ques­tion here is; when does nor­mal ‘sib­ling ri­valry’ be­come ‘sib­ling bul­ly­ing’? At what point is the line stepped over? We know the na­ture of bul­ly­ing gen­er­ally in­volves put-downs and name-call­ing, but then any­one with brothers and/or sis­ters prob­a­bly knows and re­mem­bers this in their child­hood and that it can be tough as a kid some­times.

Sib­ling bul­ly­ing is quite dif­fer­ent to stan­dard fam­ily bick­er­ing and rows though. I think the line comes with the ‘in­tent’ to bully, when the bully knows all too well what they are do­ing. When the na­ture of the bul­ly­ing is con­stant, se­cre­tive, cruel and ma­nip­u­la­tive – this is sib­ling bul­ly­ing and not sib­ling ri­valry. Also, when ‘ban­ter’ and chat is re­placed with se­cret threats of or even the ac­tion of phys­i­cal vi­o­lence, this is a bully at work.

I de­fine bul­ly­ing as an in­ten­tional, re­peated and tar­geted ag­gres­sive act to­wards an in­di­vid­ual who finds it dif­fi­cult to pro­tect them­selves. There may be a real or per­ceived dif­fer­ence in power and in the case of sib­lings, a per­ceived favouritism. Sib­ling bul­lies are what we term ‘niche’ bul­lies – they act only in the home, fo­cus on a sin­gle vic­tim, they fo­cus on in­se­cu­ri­ties and fears, and their ac­tions are harder to de­tect be­cause they can de­ter­mine who should or should not wit­ness their ac­tions.

Vic­tims of sib­ling bul­ly­ing of­ten feel hu­mil­i­ated and pow­er­less. It’s stress­ful to live in an en­vi­ron­ment where a bully is at work – and of­ten chil­dren are un­happy as a re­sult. In fact, sib­ling bul­ly­ing is just as (if not more so) preva­lent than school bul­ly­ing. You wouldn’t coun­te­nance bul­ly­ing there, so, please don’t give it tacit ap­proval in your home.

Par­ents are of­ten re­luc­tant to iden­tify this be­hav­iour as bul­ly­ing; there­fore, I’m pleased you have reached out.

As a par­ent you need to take con­trol. State how you will not tol­er­ate dis­re­spect in your home – a new rule is that ev­ery­one will ac­tively be sup­port­ive to­wards one an­other and adopt a new phi­los­o­phy that en­cour­ages all fam­ily mem­bers to sup­port and care for one an­other. Ad­di­tion­ally, you should dis­cuss with your kids what you con­sider con­sti­tutes a healthy friend­ship and en­cour­age them to take the steps to be­come a good friend to their sib­lings. Your ac­tions need to be firm and res­o­lute. This will bring com­fort to the vic­tim and lead to sanc­tions for the per­pe­tra­tor.

Re­main vig­i­lant and try to pre­vent any fur­ther bul­ly­ing in­ci­dents. Your duty is to mon­i­tor the sit­u­a­tion, rec­ti­fy­ing un­kind or bul­ly­ing deeds in­stantly. Re­mem­ber, if one of your kids bul­lies an­other, this doesn’t au­to­mat­i­cally mean you are a poor par­ent. Kids con­stantly test bound­aries and are al­ways dis­cov­er­ing what is ac­cept­able be­hav­iour and what is not. By re­main­ing firm and con­sis­tent you and your kids will come through this and ul­ti­mately emerge stronger for.

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