What to do when sibling teasing goes too far

On a recent morning, Heli Wiener had a minor crisis on her hands. Her 3-year-old daughter was playing with an old cell phone and her 5-year-old son wanted it all for himself.

“He was getting in her face about it, so she was hitting him because she wanted him to leave her alone,” Wiener, of Deerfield, Ill., told TODAY Moms.

“My daughter is extremely sweet and kind (but) she developed some of those bad habits of teasing and hitting because she sees it works for him,” Wiener says.

The story of siblings not getting along is as old as Cain and Abel, but there’s real reason to worry when the kid hostility goes too far. Research published Monday found that being picked on by a brother or sister can be harmful to a child’s mental health.

Michele Borba, a parenting expert and TODAY contributor, travels around the country to educate parents about bullying and whenever the subject of sibling intimidation comes up, there’s a visible reaction.

“You see nodding, you see concern,” Borba says. “It’s clearly an issue.”

Many parents have been told to stay out of routine kid squabbles so the children can work out their conflicts by themselves and Borba agrees with that approach. Wiener, who writes the Mommy’s Two Cents blog, follows it as well.

“When we’re removed from it, there seem to be closer and more tender moments shared, but when we’re involved, frequently their interaction is tattling, fighting, and arguing,” she said.

But moms and dads shouldn’t ignore bullying, which is different from teasing and goes beyond normal sibling fighting or rivalry, Borba said.

She advises parents to look for the three classic signs of bullying: an imbalance of power, where one child cannot stand up to the other kid because of size, age or other factors; intentional cruelty, and mistreatment that keeps repeating, rather than being a one-time offense.

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