Premium Podcast Help Contact Dr. Laura Dr. Laura Designs Return to
Join Family Premium Login Family


When Sibling Rivalry Turns to Sibling Bullying
by Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC

Siblings naturally fight and argue, and most of us have experienced fighting with our brothers or sisters while growing up. This is not only considered normal, but it is a rite of passage in our childhood memories. The problem comes about when sibling rivalry takes on a tone of bullying. This is seen when one child is always the one victimized, and the other child actively plots how they can break that child down. This sort of bullying is not normal, and parents should intervene to minimize anxiety, depression in the child being victimized, and aggression in their child bully. Both kids will suffer the loss of good mental health if this behavior is allowed to continue, says a new study in the July issue of the Journal of Pediatrics.

When the researchers studied sibling bullying, they did not extend past adolescents, but much of counseling deals with sibling rivalry and bullying behavior. Sometimes siblings form alliances against one of the other siblings and cut them out of the family entirely. A child who grew up being picked on may continually be picked on well into adulthood. It is not uncommon for a parent to begin overprotecting this child and continue into adulthood. Children of the "weaker, picked on child/adult" are favored over children of the bully child (now adult). These patterns, unless intervened with in childhood, can forever change family dynamics, making them toxic and uncomfortable for family and friends.

Intervening in sibling rivalry should be done with careful thought and diligence. Allowing siblings to work out their own jealousy and conflict is important, but when parents are both working and one sibling is angry and aggressive repeatedly toward another child, the child being picked on may become victimized with little recourse. Many times children are told that if they tell a parent, they will be hurt or worse, and if a child worries about being beat on they will begin showing physical and emotional signs of distress. There are ways parents can intervene wisely when children are fighting too much.

Below are suggestions to help your kids improve their relationships with one another.
  • If you have one child who is a bully and wants control over the other child or children, one thing is clear: this child suffers from self-doubt and an error in thinking. Telling them frankly, "When you get mad, you think it is OK to hurt someone else, but it is not OK in this family."  Telling them this behavior is bully behavior and that you will not tolerate it, and then following through with consequences each and every time they bully is paramount to any other action.
  • If you have one angry or aggressive child, encourage empathy by rewarding signs of it in your home. Limit TV and movies or anything else that is violent.
  • Get both of your children involved in activities that will help them physically work out their frustration or stress.
  • As parent, never compare your children to one another out loud or within earshot of the children. Some children are very sensitive to this, and it can increase jealousy and mistrust.
  • Have one area in your home where kids can talk things out or bicker. If you hear bickering in their rooms or wherever, take them to the table. Setting up a time each evening for them to bicker at a table can help minimize the behavior. Enforce this for best results.
  • Never referee the fight or conflict. As much as you can, try to stay out of it.
Parents who raise children who have learned how to resolve conflict and still love one another are gifting their children and generations to come. Home is where the heart is, and it is supposed to be safe. If you are a child and you live in fear of being home with the people who are supposed to love and care for you, your home becomes a war zone. There is no love or peace in a child's memory or the adult they grow to become.

Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC, is a licensed psychotherapist and co-author with Janine J. Sherman of Start Talking: A Girl's Guide for You and Your Mom About Health, Sex or Whatever. Read more about the book at and more about Rapini at  Permission granted for use on


Tags: Bullying, Family/Relationships - Parent/Child, Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC,, Parenting, Raising kids, Relatives, Sibling rivalry, Siblings
< Back to Parenting Archives