It’s heartbreaking to read about the death of Rebecca Sedgewick, the little girl who killed herself after bullies convinced her that her life was not worth living. We might imagine bullies as queen bees, mean girls or privileged jocks and like any stereotype there can be a grain of truth in those images. But all too often, bullying begins at home. A 2009 study found that “both sibling bullying and sibling victimization were associated with bullying and victimization at school.” *
In fact, many researchers believe that sibling abuse is the most under-reported type of abuse. A sibling with more power than the others may exert that power on one or more of the other kids and parents are often completely unaware. Parents must become aware of the differences between good-natured teasing and vicious bullying; an important tactic is to asses if the target child is mad or terrified. If the answer is terrified, get involved immediately.
Bullies generally lack empathy, or the ability to sense the effect their behavior is having on others. Little kids need a constant reminder of the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” By the time they’re adolescents but still lacking in real empathy (as is developmentally normal) kids will at least have a foundation of the concept of empathy in their minds, if not their heart.
Parents can help prevent bullying by discussing and modeling empathy, and speaking clearly to a child who does not show empathy about why that is wrong. When parents learn about or observe a child exerting any type of power unfairly over another, they can ask the simple question, “How do you think that makes the other child feel?” This is not meant to be a rhetorical question; rather, it should start an important discussion between parent and child.
Empathy is not natural for adolescents; they have too much internal angst going on to spend much energy on anyone else’s feelings. Empathy must be learned early on and as with any family value parents are the most important teacher. Promoting appropriate treatment of siblings and other younger kids is a great place to start this lesson. Never stop saying “Stop and think how that makes your sister feel” or, “How would you feel if someone treated you that way?” If done consistently, your message and rules will follow your child from the home into the community, and a loving relationship between siblings will follow them into the future!
You can find a detailed discussion on siblings in chapter 8 of The Sex-Wise Parent: A Parent’s Guide to Protecting Your Child, Strengthening Your Family and Talking to Your Kids About Sex Abuse and Bullying, now on special from Kindle for $1!