Emotional Education

Understanding Causes of Sibling Bullying

Sarah wanted that same doll which her sister had gotten at her birthday. Why wouldn’t she? That doll was adorable.

We can dismiss that behavior as a one-off event. But longer observation made it clear; it was not a stand-alone event. Sarah needed every toy that belonged to her sister. And she needed that toy as soon as her sister showed interest in playing with those toys.

She was not focused on her happiness. She focused on her sister’s happiness and wanted to capture that happiness.

Now, this repetition of pattern clearly indicate sibling bullying which Sarah was conducting against her sister.

Now consider the example of Rachel. She wanted to borrow her sister’s tea set to play with her friends who were visiting her for play-date. But her four-year-younger sister thought it as an offence to her property. So, she denied lending the set. Rachel, instead of forcing her sister to give up on her set asked if she could borrow it after ten minutes. Unsurprisingly, the answer was yes.

Because this event occurred in reality, I was shocked at the caring nature and cooperation among the two sisters. Later on, I found that such behaviors are not that uncommon at I first believed.

Spending time with Rachel’s family gave me valuable insight into why sibling bullying is becoming a huge issue these days. It also told me techniques to raise emotionally sounds kids who are not only loving, caring, and respectful to their siblings but are also a beneficial part of the society.

We all can nurture these relations among our children. But doing so would need us to understand the reasons for which our children bully each other in the first place.

So, let’s understand that causes of sibling rivalry to see if you can mitigate any of these reasons.

Family Structure

These factors are most important to consider when you are in the planning stages of developing a family. Especially you should consider implications of your decisions on sibling relations among your children when deciding for the gap between their birth years.

Age Difference

It is a common experience that those children who are considerably elder than their siblings feel more empathy and care for their younger siblings.

At the same time, elder siblings who welcome their brothers of sisters just a year or two after their arrival in the family feel that that baby has snatched their right on parental attention from them. Consequently, they behave aggressively to newer arrival.

Oftentimes, elder siblings show intolerance towards the siblings who are immediately next to them in birth order but show love towards those siblings who are more than 4 years younger than them. It’s because babyhood and toddlerhood is all about self-centeredness. In these stages children are focused on their own interests. However, in later years, they start to notice and appreciate other people’s feelings. As a result, any human being who will be introduced to them after these early stages would get their positive attention.

We can also help them overcome their initial feelings of self-centeredness by prompting them to think of their siblings as a separate human being. But these efforts have limited effects because on tangled nature of their relationship. These siblings, more often than not, are so dependent on each other that any indication of independent identity is only unbelievable.


Gender of these children is another noteworthy factor in level, frequency and intensity of sibling bullying.

Brothers, for example, are more likely to bully their siblings than sisters. It doesn’t mean that sisters are more reliable and caring in their sibling relations. It just means that brothers engage in more obvious forms of sibling abuse, which is physical bullying; while sisters use covert tactics of verbal abuse and emotional manipulation to feel more power in sibling relational dynamic.

Number of Children

Number of children has become a huge factor that dictates if a family will witness sibling bullying in it or not.

Fewer children translate into more instances of one-to-one parent child communication.

And it doesn’t end with balance of supply and demand on parents’ time. Parents also have to think of dividing monetary resources among children.

In general, fewer children receive more care and love from parents.

Parental Factors

This is the most influential factor that controls interactions among siblings. Fortunately, it is easy to manipulate. The stress level of parents, their interaction with children, and their mutual relationship dictate how harmonious the children will be to each other.

Mutual Relationship among Parents

Parents are the primary role model for the kids. If they are modeling love and affection towards each other, children will learn these behaviors and apply them in their daily lives. On the other hand, if they are giving signs of animosity and rivalry, children will assume that animosity is the normal method of doing life.

Things become more complicated when bullying, aggression, and abuse come into picture. Although children of dysfunctional families, or where abuse is a norm, intuitively dismiss these conditions as normal or healthy, they accept it as their way of life.

Their cognitive dissonance towards accepting and tolerating abuse combines with the dysfunctional social skills their parents teach them to increase their stress levels. These cognitive pressurize nourish an unhappy child who finds solace in harming others’ feelings. And their siblings are the most convenient targets.

Educational Level of the Parents

It is another factor that may increase the likelihood of bullying within the family. But, it should be noted, it does not directly harm the family unit. Lack of education often comes with increased financial difficulties and stressed out social circle. Both of these factors increase parental stress.

The former also negatively impact the demand and supply balance of resources in the home.

In the end, the parents are left with little stamina to deal with conflicts and rivalry among family.

Financial Abundance in Parents

It is another factor that triggers stress among parents and, indirectly, results in increased possibility of sibling bullying.

Other than affecting stress level in the family, it also allows parents to spend less on children and be more conscious of where they are spending money. Children feel the need to compete to get access to monetary resources and this competition can quickly turn nasty.

At the same time, financial status also forces parents to choose a less-than-ideal parenting style; thereby, increasing creating an imbalance in accountability and delegation of responsibility among children. (Let’s learn about this imbalance in more detail in next section)

Parenting Style

There are three commonly cited parenting styles: authoritarian, authoritative, and laissez-faire. I would add another parenting style to the mix and that is neglectful parenting style.

The chances of bullying are lowest in the family if parents practice either authoritative or laissez-faire parenting style. In both of these parenting styles there is either not much pressure on the kids to prove their skills and talents or this pressure is healthily managed among them.

At the same time, families which practice either authoritarian parenting style or are neglectful towards their children often raise bullies. (And these bullies don’t confine their tension to their families rather they share it with their peers, romantic partners, colleagues and subordinates.)

Parental Stress

After parent’s relationship among each other this is the second most crucial factor that decides if children will bully each other or not.

Happy parents raise happy children. And sad and depressed parents raise children with similar emotional issues. (This formula only applies if the parents are truly happy, or emotionally successful.)

If you are anxious or depressed, children will feel that being emotionally imbalanced and stressed is the normal way of life. They will align with the same mindset and keep attracting and spreading unhappiness in the world. Bullying will only be one channel for achieving their goal of spreading unhappiness.

Siblings Relations and Personalities

Let’s start with personalities

Individual Factors

Every individual is different, so is every child.

One of your children could be a star at school, social gatherings, and peers; while the other can be a late-boomer with no award in her trophy case.

One may feel pride at his brother’s accomplishments; while, the other may feel left out or neglected.

One may prefer the STEM skills but also know that they are born artist. And the other may want to trade their STEM talent for a perfect shot at music.

These differences in capabilities, talents and desires create friction among people. The same holds true for kids.

Some kids, when fail at their attempts to gain their desired traits, become frustrated and jealous. Their most convenient outlet of this frustration often appears as their sibling who was previously their role model.


These feelings of jealousy and being left out often heighten because of lack of positive fun interaction between the kids. If the kids are not used to the spending time with each other and mutual understanding is missing, they easily get caught up in negative thought which ultimately lead to negative emotions. And these emotions soon force them to misbehave with and bully the other kid.

Wrap Up

This part of the series looked at the reasons behind sibling bullying. In simple words, these incidents and feelings come from different stressors on parents, parenting styles, family dynamics, family structures, and individual differences among children.

In the next part, we shall look at the emotional makeup of bullies and victims to better understand the remedies.

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