You know that sinking feeling all too well. You’re expected to make an appearance at an upcoming family gathering, and you just know your sibling will be there — putting you down, as usual.

While some parents see bullying among their children as a normal form of sibling rivalry, few people realize that, in many families, it can continue well into adulthood.

So, what is it and why does it occur?

Sibling bullying can take many forms, but it is always done with the intention of shaming, belittling or excluding their victim. It can include name calling, threats, constant teasing and enlisting other siblings to join them in the bullying.

Bullying among siblings can occur because parents don’t take it seriously, assuming it is just a phase or that it is natural for siblings to fight and squabble among themselves. More often than not, though, bullying takes root within families where abuse and bullying tactics are practiced by the parents.

Children are wired to imitate the behavior they see around them, so it is no surprise that a child who is being bullied by an abusive parent goes on to bully others. As is so often the case with bullies, it will be those even less powerful than they are, such as younger siblings or classmates, who end up being the target. The child may also resort to various forms of bullying as a way of venting the frustration they feel at their parent’s ill treatment of them, but which they are powerless to stop.

Relationship dynamics between the bully and the victim often remain unchanged from childhood into adulthood. The bully continues to victimize their sibling because having someone to pick on boosts their own fragile sense of self-worth. The victim, worn down by years of ill treatment at the hands of their sibling, may feel resentful, but may also be at a loss as to how to change the situation, thus allowing the abuse to continue.

The bully may have become so used to having a sibling who can’t or won’t defend themselves that they don’t want the dynamic between them to change and become more healthy. Having someone to blame for their problems or take their frustration out on suits the bully and so they deliberately resist any attempts at sincere reconciliation.

After many attempts at trying to have a healthy relationship with the bullying sibling, most victims simply give up and accept the situation, however miserable it makes them. Some take the drastic, but necessary measure of avoiding contact with their sibling.

Estrangement between adult siblings is not as uncommon as most people think, with a recent study at Cornell University finding that one in ten adults have one or more family members from whom they are estranged. For many people in this situation, it is a last resort and one they may grapple with for years before finally taking the plunge. However, most report feeling a strong sense of relief that they no longer have to endure their bullying sibling’s behavior.

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