Bullying at schools has become a focus for administrators, teachers and advocates of things-should-be-better-than-when-I-was-growing-up. I’m glad to see this. After years of speaking to students in schools I can tell you that school bullying is a huge problem. Students’ spirits are crushed and life-long wounds are inflicted on those who are perceived to be weaker, different or those that commit some other social crime that makes no sense outside of the world of schools. The irony that students in an educational environment designed to expand their world learn that they are lower life forms than the paramecium they study isn’t lost on anyone. It’s a terrible blight on our educational system and it has to be fixed. I speak to educators, students and community groups about how to change the culture.
But we’re missing a huge piece of the puzzle. A piece that I almost never talk about even when I address the subject of civility in schools: sibling bullying.
Based on your childhood experience you probably just had one of two reactions. You either just thought, “Here we go, one more thing we have to solve” or, if you’re like me and had my experience growing up, you’re thinking, “Finally, someone is talking about the bigger issue – living with your bully.”
A recent study of bullying from the University of Nebraska found that sibling bullying was far more common than peer bullying. A University of New Hampshire study found that 32 percent of children who reported being victimized by a brother or sister suffered higher rates of mental-health distress. An Oxford University study found that “children who revealed they had been bullied by their brothers or sisters several times a week or more during early adolescence were twice as likely to report being clinically depressed as young adults.”
The research is in. Sibling bullying is a problem and it’s a bigger problem that school bullying. There are also implications that bullies on the playground are frequently being bullied at home by older siblings.
That’s my story.
I was a mild to moderate bully in late elementary school and middle school. The reason was 100% the torture I endured at home.
From a young age I was tormented by a brother 2 ½ years old than I. I don’t know if he saw me as a rival or what his reasons were. Maybe we just had normal sibling strife that always resulted in him emerging victorious. Whatever the reasons were (he has repeatedly apologized and I’ve never asked him why he did it), the severity was high. It was daily and frequently physical. And he was good at it. He could involve dozens of other people and no one, not even my friends were immune to joining the team that would abuse if called to duty.
When I watched The Wonder Years, older brother character played by Jason Harvey seemed to have been ripped off directly from the real life character of my older brother.
My brother is now a great father and we both talk about teaching our kids to be different than we were. We were both products of acceptable system that shouldn’t have been accepted.
My parents were great parents, but didn’t see what was really happening to me. Even after I tried to kill my brother 3 times around the age of 11, no one seemed to care. I tried to stab him with a butcher’s knife (unsuccessful), push him through a window (successful and bloody) and impale him with a large screwdriver (unsuccessful). All of my relatives and educators thought that he was cool, I was difficult and I either deserved my daily punishment for existing or that sibling rivalry of this nature (which might be more heightened than normal) was to be expected. In my world, he was likable, smart and funny (usually at my expense) and I was awkward, annoying and contentious. No one ever told me even one time that I didn’t deserve the treatment I received. (I remember an aunt one time sitting me down to ask why I was so angry and I told her I wanted my brother dead. She told me that we needed to get along better.) I’m not saying I wasn’t part of the problem, but even conflicts I started were met with disproportionate response.
I’m not saying he didn’t get in trouble sometimes. He did. But, more frequently, we got in trouble or were expected to work it out ourselves. This was the approach used by my parents, educators and relatives. It was what they had learned from the system they grew up in.
The irony is that I was old enough to stand toe-to-toe and fight with him, just not enough to ever win any physical battle–of which there were many. Little blood was shed; it was mostly just cuts and bruises and emotional scars that I carried for decades.
How do you solve this? If you’re a parent, you demand civility among your children. As a father of two, civility is non-negotiable in my house and there is no gray area. I will not let injustice become acceptable under the guise of “letting them work it out.” My 11-year-old son would win every physical battle and my 10-year-old daughter would win every social emotional conflict if I let them “work it out.” No fights are fair. I’m a parent, not a boxing referee or debate moderator.
What do we do for those victims of incivility that aren’t our own children? We have to teach them…
- …to report abuse. Like domestic violence (which was once acceptable), physical abuse, even by a sibling, is never acceptable.
- …that they don’t deserve the emotional torment that receive. We have to teach victims not to assimilate verbal abuse as truth.
- …how to withstand the injustice being inflicted upon them. We have to give students the emotional tools to deflect verbal abuse.
- …not to victimize others. When students get the message that abuse is acceptable, they often become abusers themselves. Like victims of sexual abuse, the cycle can be stopped. The bullied don’t have to become bullies.
Lest you have come to think in this article that I am one of those whiners who calls every unkind word abuse, I’m not. I know the difference between being a jerk, being a bully and being an abuser.
If you think that I am some politically correct pseudo-advocate who wants to elevate every conflict to the highest level and get everyone who has ever experienced a lack of kindness into therapy, you don’t know me.
If you think that I’m looking to turn our students soft, I think we need to teach them to be tougher. And that the ultimate show of that resilience is by not repeating the cycle.