Where do you draw the line between sibling rivalry or bullying? They are closer than you might think.

How Do You Know If Is It Sibling Rivalry or Bullying?

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Some moms were talking the other day about how their kids fight so much.  The discussion was about what is normal sibling rivalry or sibling fighting?  Is it was normal for siblings to have such a hard time getting along?  I don’t think so and I’ll tell you why.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that we’ve had a lot of problems with our youngest son and bullies. So I’m very sensitive to any situation that looks like bullying.  To me, sibling rivalry at it’s worst looks exactly like any other kind of bullying.

Where do you draw the line between sibling rivalry or bullying? They are closer than you might think.

I’m not trying to criticize other Moms.  I think we’re all good parents in our own way.  We all do the very best we can to raise our children. Instead, I’d like to present viewpoint that challenges some of the accepted wisdom out there.

How to Redirect Sibling Fighting Behavior

People have always said things like “boys will be boys” or “let kids just be kids” to excuse kids who play rough or who are mean and hurtful. But I really question that type of thinking. If we let them, our kids would still be pooping their pants and eating food off the floor too.  As parents, it’s our job to teach them better habits and set limits.

As parents, it’s our job to teach them better habits and set limits.

I think the litmus test is what you would tolerate between your own kids vs. what you would tolerate from another kid on a playground.  If you would be talking to another parent or a teacher about the behavior, it’s crossing the line into bullying.  And I think you would want to defend your child as much from their sibling as you would from any other bully.

In my situation, I had no choice.  You can see in that picture how large of a size difference we were dealing with.  There were about 9 years between each of my three kids.  I couldn’t let the older boys be rough with their siblings or someone would have been genuinely hurt.  But mine were usually pretty tolerant about putting up with their pesky little brothers.  They weren’t especially physical, but I had to quash some teasing and name calling now and then.


In a way, I think it’s almost worse for kids to be mean to their siblings, because there’s nowhere to go to get away from them. They have to live right alongside their attackers every day.  Even worse, this kid knows ALL your weaknesses and insecurities.  I’ve seen some very nasty infighting between siblings and that would be a terrible way to grow up.  Many friends take great joy in recounting how horrible they were to their younger brothers and sisters.  It’s like a badge of honor or something.

Kids have so much pressure today, in school, in sports, in every other environment.  I really think the home needs to be the one place where they can let their guard down and just relax.  They deserve to have just one safe place to be themselves without constantly being harassed, teased, or even physically abused by their siblings.

Sibling bullying examples – it’s almost always an older child going after a younger one, or a stronger one going after a weaker one – over and over again. The victim will always be younger or weaker than the sibling, so they really can never win.  This has to produce a terrible feeling of powerlessness. Even if they ask the parent to intervene, they are frequently just called a tattletale, so it really is a no-win situation.

Honestly, I can’t understand why a parent would allow either child to act this way – it isn’t healthy behavior for either of them.  But many parents think it’s really no big deal if a sibling hauls off and punches their brother or sister or calls them a humiliating name.  I think about the boys who bullied my youngest so unmercifully at school and I wonder if this is how their bullying habits took root?  With their own siblings?  It’s certainly one explanation.

The Solution

Now stopping the problem is a whole other story.  But I think it can be done, even if your kids are die-hard daily fighters. Kids are very smart and they catch on quickly to what will and won’t be tolerated.  After all, if Bobby was chasing little Susie around with a butcher knife, you’d find a way to put a stop to it immediately.  Bullying is harmful for both parties, so take it seriously, even if it’s just between your own kids.

Model kindness, teach them some coping skills and some negotiation skills.  Many times, that’s part of the bullying cycle.  The bully just doesn’t know how to get their needs met except by physical force.  No one ever taught them how, or explained to them that other people have rights and feelings that matter.  And sometimes you DON’T get what you want – that’s life and life is rarely fair.

It’s all a matter of deciding if it’s worth the effort to your kids learn to get along.  It definitely does take some effort on your part, but it’s absolutely worth it.  If nothing else, it helps to teach them some basic negotiation techniques.  It may help them later in life when they’re dealing with bad teachers or bad bosses.

Here are some other posts you might enjoy:

Ideas that Could STOP Bullying

How Scouting Helped My Bullied Son

Help! How can I tell if my teen is being cyber bullied

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  1. I find that your points are valid, but also judgmental. I came searching for helpful clues about how to end sibling bullying and instead, feel like I’ve been called a bad parent. I’ve already done all of your suggestions before coming on here searching for advice, and it still doesn’t work. My oldest and second boys are almost 8 and 5. We homeschool, so there’s no bullying in a school situation that he’s bringing it home from…we have a new baby and I feel like this is his way of trying to get attention. But I’ve exhausted the talks, punishments, trying to teach him a lesson, etc. I’m unsure of where to go from here other than a therapist.

    1. Sorry if you felt I was being judgmental, but as you say, it’s a tough behavior to correct, especially once it’s become a habit. It might be helpful to get some advice from a therapist – I worked with an excellent one when my sons were younger. My only advice would be to stand your ground. If there is a decisive response from the parent every single time the behavior occurs, kids are eventually going to understand that the bullying behavior won’t be tolerated and will move on to other attention-seeking behaviors. I had a similar problem with my son mistreating the cat – every time he was rough with her, he was not allowed to talk to her, pet her, play with her or have any contact with her for the rest of the day. After a few incidents, he got the message and started being much more gentle with her.

  2. My stepson who is 9 yo is very mean to my 3 yo whenever he has the chance. That is he is fond of his iPad and when it’s technology free time or whenever the little one wants to play, elderone get pretty upset and starts annoying to a point where I’d have to intervene and tell him to leave the poor little one alone.

    My husband thinks it’s good for the elder one but unfortunately the little one is having behaviour problem because of the interaction he gets from the elder one.
    I am at a loss and really afraid of this issue as the elder one is very manipulative.

    1. I think I would be very firm with the older one and treat it as clear and unacceptable bullying behavior. If he learns that this attitude will never bring him any benefit, he will start behaving better. Kids are very smart and they learn what we will turn a blind eye to and what will result in an immediate response. Hopefully the 3 year old will benefit from this as he’s getting a pretty raw deal. I think I would also cut back on the iPad use quite a bit. I firmly believe that technology can be quite addictive (notice all the adults who can’t even drive a car without messing with their phones!) and that just adds fuel to the situation. Hope that helps.

  3. Excellent points. I think there’s a lot of value to letting kids work things out on their own. That said, they also need adults to help model how they’re supposed to do that.

    It makes me really sad to see siblings fight. Arguing and disagreeing happens between everyone, but no one has the right to be cruel. And it’s just especially sad when it happens in a family.

  4. Wow, I’d never thought about bullying as being a potential issue in a family. My brother and I are five years apart, and my parents would NEVER (and still wouldn’t) tolerate that between us. They get upset enough when we tease each other, and we’re both grownups. Great point in your post!

  5. I have twin grandson (fraternal) and one is quite I bit bigger than his brother. I used to think his behavior bordered on bullying, but his parents refused to see it. Fortunately, he seems to have outgrown this, and I no longer get that sense that his treatment of his brother crosses the line. I guess my point is that parents need to be honest with themselves so that the can recognize if one of their children is bullying another. Obviously, we don’t want to think of our children as bullies, which can make parents have a blind spot.

  6. Excellent point! “If Billy was chasing Suzy around with a butcher knife you’d put a stop to it!” Exactly – I agree – there is a line between sibling “teasing” and “bullying” . . . and it’s important to have the awareness to create an idea of what behaviors fall on either side of that line ahead of time!

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