One of the more difficult things parents must manage in a family is the sibling fights with one another. When the family is a blend of birth, foster, and adopted kiddos, parents want to know if it is just normal sibling rivalry, or something more. When does simple sibling rivalry turn into bullying, for example?

Hitting, shoving, name-calling, threats, mocking, shunning,

and spreading rumors

are all examples of bullying.

Bullying isn’t the same as teasing; most kids get teased by siblings, parents, other relatives, and friends. Teasing becomes harmful when only one kid is having fun, or when the teasing is done in a hurtful way. Bullying is different from sibling rivalry, where healthy competition is behind the horseplay. Moderate levels of conflict, such as in sibling rivalry, can help children learn to negotiate their needs, manage disagreements, develop empathy, and increase social skills. Not so with bullying. Bullying is the intentional torment of another in physical, verbal, or psychological ways. Hitting, shoving, name-calling, threats, mocking, shunning, and spreading rumors all examples of bullying.

Don’t dismiss bullying behavior as horseplay or sibling rivalry.

Siblings should never be victimized by other siblings.

Another distinguishing factor between sibling rivalry and bullying is whether or not the siblings generally have an otherwise warm relationship with each other. An example of an otherwise warm relationship would be the siblings who fight about something, and then an hour later are laughing and playing together again. In sibling relationships that do not have a high level of warmth and caring, even what seems to be just goofing around can be a marker for bullying.[i] Foster and adoptive parents should be on guard for signs of bullying at the beginning of the sibling relationship when the children are just getting to know each other and have not established a connection or bond yet.

How to Encourage Good Sibling Relationships

Warm and caring behaviors in a relationship are necessary to prevent incidences of bullying in families with children prone to this behavior. Of course, building sibling relationships would take a priority in your parenting, but in the meantime, resident siblings need to know what bullying looks like so they can be empowered to speak up for themselves if it happens to them. They need to know it’s not OK and they need to feel confident that they will be heard when they do talk to you about it.

If your child discloses that they are being bullied:

  • Listen calmly and offer comfort and support.
  • Praise them for doing the right thing by talking to you about it.
  • Remind them they aren’t alone —siblings often get bullied.
  • Emphasize that it’s not their fault.
  • Reassure them that you will figure out what to do about it together.

Some resident children will not speak up about being bullied by a foster or adopted brother or sister because they don’t want to cause their parents any more concern than what the parents already endure with the sibling. Caring for special needs children and also attending to the needs of typically developing resident children can overload most parents on some days. Resident children may feel that they want to help or that they should help, but don’t have the ability to do so. And so, they think one way to help is to stay silent about bullying.

TIP: Create a Safe Home Environment

  • Make your home a calm, safe, and secure place for resident children to come to; sometimes this might just be a small section of the house that is used for a quiet place.
  • If even a small, quiet space is not possible, then arrange for them to have frequent respite at a friend’s house, or other family member’s house from time to time.
  • Monitor your children’s interactions with siblings and have periodic check-ins to make sure everything is OK.

When it comes to bullying, it’s important that resident siblings:

  • Are honest with you
  • Speak up for themselves
  • Know that in no situation is it ever okay for them to be bullied


(This article was adapted from Chapter 5: Bullying from the book In Their Best Interest: Preventing Secondary Trauma in Siblings of Foster and Adopted Children, which will be released in July 2020.

[i] Bedford, Victoria Hilkevitch, Brenda L. Volling, and Paula Smith Avioli. “Positive Consequences of Sibling Conflict in Childhood and Adulthood.” The International Journal of Aging and Human Development 51, no. 1 (2000): 53–69.





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