Did you grow up with any siblings at home? If you did, then you know — siblings tease each other, sometimes until Mom or Dad puts a stop to it. And contrary to common assumptions, it’s not just brothers teasing sisters by dangling worms in their faces. Any family with more than one child has more than one personality in the mix. What’s fun and games for one child may be horrible for another. So what should parents do about sibling teasing?
It may sound counterintuitive, but your kids are learning a lot when they are teasing each other. A sibling is quite possibly your first close friend, your first playmate and the person you have your first argument with. Kids who are able to test out conflict resolution skills at home with siblings — in a safe environment — may be better able to handle themselves when a situation arises with a friend or classmate.
“A sibling is often a child's first real friendship,” says Katie Hurley, LCSW. “Although toddlers work on things like sharing and taking turns (in theory, anyway) in toddler groups and preschool classrooms, it takes time for young children to learn how to be a friend. The great benefit of the sibling relationship is that siblings have the time to play together, work through arguments and learn to cope with the ups and downs of childhood in a safe environment,” she adds.
There can be a fine line between playful banter and nasty comments. Siblings are close enough to know your quirks, your fears and your weaknesses — the good, the bad and the ugly. For someone in such a trusted role to say hurtful things can gnaw away at self-esteem over time. “Most adults would say they can still remember the hurtful things their siblings said to them as kids,” shares Kim Blackham, LMFT. “If teasing involves hurtful comments, parents should always step in and stop it.” Speak to your children about how the other child feels when hurtful things are said, and help them to build a sense of empathy towards their brother or sister.
Can a sibling really be a bully, though? A sibling becomes a bully through continued mental and/or physical aggression against a sibling, in a relationship where there is clearly one child who has the upper hand. Corinna Jenkins Tucker is an associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire, and the lead author of a study on sibling aggression published in the journal Pediatrics. “Historically, sibling aggression has been unrecognized, or often minimized or dismissed, and in some cases people believe it’s benign or even good for learning about conflict in other relationships,” she says. “That’s generally not the case in peer relationships. There appears to be different norms for what is accepted. What is acceptable between siblings is generally not acceptable between peers.” The authors of the study concluded that parents, pediatricians and the public need to pay close attention to sibling aggression and treat it as potentially harmful, rather than dismissing it as normal or even beneficial.
Blackham notes that these different norms of behavior contradict how we should be treated by family. “Home should be a place where every member feels safe and accepted,” she says. “Sometimes it's hard to see the real consequence of teasing. When being teased, most people will laugh it off or go along with the joke so as to not be further embarrassed by it. In reality, those comments may be leaving scars that exist for a lifetime,” Blackham adds. Hurley also feels that parents need to be aware of the possibility of bullying within their own family. “Like it or not, teasing is a gateway to bullying,” she shares. “The ‘sit back and let them fight it out indefinitely’ approach doesn't really build character, as some people choose to believe. You can't prevent teasing and hurt feelings from happening, but you can help your kids figure out where it's coming from and how to handle similar circumstances in the future,” she adds.
So what should parents be doing when their kids get into a teasing match or squabble? Do we have to jump in all the time? “With young children, the easiest things parents can do is separate and distract,” shares Blackham. “Taking every teasing moment as an opportunity to teach kindness and appropriate behavior will wear you out! With older children, help them understand the damaging nature of teasing and commit together to make home a safe place of belonging for everyone. Show them there are ways to be funny and have fun without teasing and being mean,” she adds.
Parents should find ways to foster a relationship between their children that encourages empathy, yet still allows the freedom of being confident enough of the relationship to tease each other in ways that aren’t hurtful. Part of this means helping your kids learn what type of teasing is fun banter, and what is hurtful. Hurley notes that teasing between siblings crops up at various times, and these instances can be used to help kids learn valuable social interaction skills. “Nine times out of 10, there is some feeling lurking beneath the teasing, and jealousy is often the cause,” Hurley says. “When parents take the time to process these feelings with the kids, they teach kids how to interact in a more adaptive manner so that they don't approach new friendships in the same way.”
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