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Sister and brother stick out tongues to each otherI don’t care how perfect you are as a parent, there are going to be some occasions when your children squabble. This is why Erma Bombeck’s timeless wisdom resonates: “Never have more children than you have car windows.” But as this warning also suggests, with a little mindful planning, parents can influence—to a great degree—how well children get along.

Most parents do try to encourage good relationships among their children, but even so, some siblings seem incapable of spending even a civil second in one another’s company, and there may not be clear reasons for this at first. If this describes your family, it’s worth considering that some of the following unconscious habits might be undermining your efforts.

1. Playing Favorites

When parents are surveyed on the subject of favoritism, nearly all respondents say that despite their best efforts to the contrary, they have favored one child over another at least occasionally. They also typically admit that they know favoritism is hurtful to children and that they try to avoid it as much as possible—and there’s good reason to do so. Unfavored children are vulnerable to depression and aggressive behaviors, and a reduced sense of self-worth and social responsibility. But favored children also suffer from harmful effects. They may feel empathy, or even guilt, for the “underprivileged” sibling’s experiences; or feel the loss of what might otherwise have been a close sibling relationship. Of course, just because parents may treat children differently does not mean their actions are necessarily “preferential.” But when differential treatment is necessary, it helps for parents to explain why it’s necessary.

2. Viewing sibling conflict as “normal” preparation for “real life.

Many harmful stereotypes could cloud parents’ understanding of the boundary between healthy and unhealthy sibling relationships, but this may be the worst offender. It’s true that children can learn a great deal about how to resolve conflict as they interact with their brothers and sisters, but the necessary skills are not automatically absorbed. Without clear boundaries and parental intervention, “ordinary” conflict can develop into chronic aggression, which in turn can escalate into violence. It may not always be easy for parents to recognize the line between normal developmental conflict and abuse, but researcher and psychologist John Caffaro offers a helpful guideline: “Violent sibling conflict is a repeated pattern of physical or psychological aggression with the intent to inflict harm and motivated by the need for power and control,” he says, noting that psychological attacks are frequently at the core. “‘Teasing’ often precedes physical violence and may include ridiculing, insulting, threatening, and terrorizing as well as destroying a sibling’s personal property.” Often one sibling (not always the oldest or biggest) consistently dominates in these conflicts, and the weaker or more passive child, having failed at all attempts to stand up to the aggression, will cease to resist in what researchers call “learned helplessness.” A common manipulative tactic among children is to say, “I won’t play with you if you don’t . . . [fill-in-the-blank].” This is not harmless teasing, says researcher Laurie Kramer. Rather, it’s full-fledged bullying.

Bullying perpetrated by brothers or sisters can be considerably more traumatic to children than peer bullying, because it occurs within the home on an ongoing basis and there is often no way of escape—and very little respite—for the sibling on the receiving end.

3. Tolerating conflict as a normal part of the general family atmosphere.

A retired professor of social sciences at Swansea University in Wales, Robert Sanders has extensive experience in working with children and families. In his 2004 book on the subject of sibling relationships, he summarizes that“factors such as the child’s temperament, the level of positivity in the relationship between the parent and children, differential negativity in the relationship that the parent(s) has with the children, and the level of conflict between the parents, all combine to influence the quality of the relationship between siblings, which may prove quite consistent over time between middle childhood and early adolescence.” While all these factors could, in theory, be modified, often they are not: patterns of behavior in dysfunctional families tend to persist unless someone or something becomes a catalyst for change.

4. Believing that it’s enough to discourage negative interactions between siblings.

Just because children don’t lash out at one another doesn’t mean they feel warmth in their relationship—and it’s the degree of warm feelings rather than the absence of negative ones that predicts children’s well being. This isn’t to say that children who feel warmth toward one another will never experience conflict, of course; but the goal for parents is to help children increase their ability to resolve conflict reasonably quickly and restore an atmosphere of active support. This may require parents to change their expectations: instead of brushing off hitting, name-calling and shunning as harmless behaviors, parents ideally would make it clear that they expect their children to treat each other with warmth and affection, and would reward such behavior when it occurs spontaneously. Positive reinforcement works wonders.

5. Neglecting to talk to kids about the “bonus benefits” offered by good sibling relationships.

Sibling relationships are likely to be the most enduring they will have in their lifetime. Like our parents, siblings are party to our early experiences, but barring unnatural death, they are likely to remain part of our lives much longer, outliving parents by 20 years or more. In addition, if siblings share both parents with us, we will typically have about 50 percent of our DNA in common. That means they are genetically more like us than anyone else on earth other than our parents. Considering that these relationships can contribute tremendously to the stores of resilience that will help carry us through the adverse events that are an inevitable part of life, it makes sense to ensure that they are as supportive and nurturing as possible.

With these 5 considerations in mind, what do you think the chances are that the siblings in this video will grow up to have close, supportive relationships in adulthood?

In honor of October’s status as  National Bullying Prevention Month, dozens of non-profit groups have been working to raise awareness of bullying and how to prevent it. It makes sense that the vast majority of the activities focus on educating parents, teachers and students about school bullying and cyberbullying. These two forms not only interfere with learning and emotional development, but have sometimes even led to suicide as in Amanda Todd’s recent case. Fortunately, many organizations are making important contributions toward teaching children the prosocial behaviors necessary to transform the schoolyard, if not yet the Internet, from a traumatic place into a safe, supportive one.

But what if the bully lives with you? What if it’s a sibling or parent? Worse, what if there are multiple family members who join forces against one family member to the point that there really is no escape from the abusive behavior?

In April 2008, I addressed this topic on another blog, referring to work by psychologist James R. Holmes examining the family influences on bullying. Holmes examined the existing research to tease out factors that contribute to bullying behaviors at school and found that most of them have their origins at home. It’s not really surprising that he found “boys who bullied others as adolescents were more likely in their 30’s to have children who were bullies.” There are certainly genetic components, which include  temperament and intelligence or attention problems. But there are environmental components too, says Holmes. These would include behaviors that occur between parents and children or perhaps between siblings.

The upshot, says Holmes, is that “bullying is associated with families in which people do not treat each other with respect or families in which children are not taught to respect the rights of others.”

Of course, parents can’t teach what they never learned. Holmes points out that the effects of poor family management and discipline can extend back several generations. More than having a parent who bullied, having grandparents who also bullied is an even stronger predictor of bullying for an adolescent.

After first writing about this topic, I found the online responses to be both sad and illuminating. Nearly 100 posts described the personal experiences of people who had been on the receiving end of bullying from family members at home. Sometimes it was the bully who commented, as in this instance:

When I was a child and teen I did act in a bullying way to some of my sisters. Often it was teasing gone too far. Mostly it was a case of intolerance, boredom and abusing my power as the eldest.

Sometimes my sister annoyed me just by her presence. She was often sulky and sullen and humorless. I annoyed her just for entertainment and to get a laugh from other siblings. I didn’t physically hurt her, but I verbally teased and niggled. Sometimes I just gave her hateful looks. Over time it wore her down. My parents didn’t intervene as they thought ‘kids will be kids.’ Plus a lot was done out of their sight.

These days I am a lot more self-aware and feel very badly for the way I behaved.

It’s worth highlighting the reference to the lack of intervention by parents. As you might expect, similar observations were made by many who had been on the receiving end of bullying. Also common were references to the mental health issues bullied siblings now faced as adults. This isn’t surprising considering that childhood is a crucial period of development for the brain and that a healthy and resilient neural structure depends heavily on positive social interaction. As one reader describes it:

My parent’s way of dealing with it [was] to ask me to just ignore it and to ask my other siblings to also just ignore it so that tension within the family is minimized and that we remain a family—this is after they tried to talk to the bullying sister and were met with denial and hostility. It has caused so much hurt and anguish in my life. After 10 years of bearing it, I began to experience panic attacks and nightmares as family events approached . .

Sometimes parents not only fail to intervene, they may also become an active part of the problem, particularly if there are multiple family dysfunctions:

I’ve been bullied all my life by my family. My brother beat me to a pulp every day and my mother took savage pleasure in stopping it by punishing me instead of him. She herself takes her temper out on me frequently. My sisters have now started picking on me online . . .

It can be tempting to blame the victims in these cases. Certainly, many of Amanda Todd’s tormentors continued to lash out at her for “weakness” even after her death. Almost like predatory animals, we tend to pounce on the fragile, blaming them for succumbing to their circumstances. It’s not only that the weak are easy prey, but seeing weakness in others can also make us feel uncomfortable. If there can be chinks in someone else’s armor, perhaps that means we are vulnerable to finding chinks in our own. This is not a conscious thought, of course. When spoken aloud it often comes out in terms such as, “I’ve had family issues, but I came through them fine. Why can’t that person?” Rather than seeing ourselves as fortunate that we had optimum circumstances to develop resilience, we see our resilience as something we’ve managed to work up on our own, and therefore everybody else can too if they’d just grab hold of their bootstraps with both hands. This is a misconception that all too easily gets in the way of our compassion for others whose circumstances are different.

That said, resilience can be strengthened: The really good news is that we aren’t stuck forever with the vulnerabilities we carry with us out of childhood. Research is zeroing in on influences that can promote resilience and is finding that supportive relationships are key to this process. In other words, the weak need the strong to give them a compassionate hand up rather than kicking them off the ladder.

The anti-bullying programs that have been leveraged over National Bullying Prevention Month have gone far in raising awareness of bullying behaviors in schools. Amanda Todd’s tragic death this month has made us all keenly aware of the issue of bullying behaviors online. The way forward in both of these venues, it would seem, is to raise awareness of bullying behaviors where they first take root: Home, sweet home.

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