Sibling Aggression and Its Damage

Jump on baby's tummyWhen I was an infant, my sister jumped up and down on my stomach in my crib trying to kill me, she told me years later. I don’t remember that, of course. When I was a toddler I idolized her; my big sister could do everything. Before I started kindergarten I began to fear her bullying and to realize she wasn’t on my side. She would humiliate me by teasing, hitting, hurtful tickling, and addressing me as Stupid and other derogatory names. Coming home from grammar school, I’d listen at the front door for where she was. If she was to the right, I’d go left. If she was to the left, I’d go right.


An article in the New York Times, When the Bully Is a Sibling, by Anahad O’Connor validated some of the feelings I had as a child. According to a new study of 3,600, children and teenagers attacked, threatened or intimidated by a sibling have increased depression, anger and anxiety. Researchers conducted interviews with children and their parents, looking at physical assaults, destroying or stealing property, and threats, name-calling and other forms of psychological intimidation. “They also measured the same types of behaviors perpetrated by peers outside the home… in order to tease out the specific roll of sibling violence,” wrote O’Connor.


This subject has rarely been studied because fighting among siblings has been seen as beneficial or unimportant. But “chronic physical and verbal abuse is particularly damaging when it is directed at one sibling.”


Corinna Jenkins Tucker, lead author of the study published in the journal Pediatrics, said, “Behaviors among siblings that cross the line into abuse deserve more recognition. The programs… aimed at stopping bullying and violence in schools and other settings should include a focus on sibling relationships.”


Clinical psychologist John V. Caffaro said, “While normal rivalries with siblings can encourage healthy competition, the line between healthy relations and abuse is crossed when one child is consistently the victim of another and the aggression is intended to cause harm and humiliation… It can erode their sense of identity and their self-esteem.”


Parents who don’t intervene, play favorites, or give their children labels that show division inadvertently encourage conflict. According to Catherine Bradshaw, an expert on bullying, “Parents [think] their kids can fight it out or that a little bit of victimization might not be so bad, but these findings suggest the threshold is pretty low. It’s not just the rough stuff you have to keep an eye out for.”  


Was my sister put in a position where it was inevitable she’d hate a sibling—or was she somehow the source of her own hostility? She seemed dissatisfied a lot and had severe mood swings. Her envy, angst, and investment in the dramatic suggest she was type 4, the Romantic in the Enneagram system. Her blaming and her perception that threats were bigger than they really were suggest type 6, the Questioner. I am a conflict-averse 5, the Observer.



Years ago, my mother and I lived in the same town. She was in her late 70’s and had the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. One night, my sister, who lived over an hour away, came with moving vans and took our mother and her houseful of belongings to live with her. I can only imagine the planning and intrigue that went into pulling this off and keeping it a secret from me.

The next day I tried to reach my mother about getting together as we had planned and was distressed when she didn’t answer my phone calls. When I discovered what had happened, I felt baffled—and angry about the plotting behind my back. This episode was the final blow. I hope my sister is healthy and happy, but I no longer see her or talk to her.


I’m glad this topic is getting attention. Ms. Tucker’s research is sure to save some sibling relationships.


Please read my blog on Death Cafes in Psychology Today.


Visit for Famous Enneagram Types and to check out my books (including “The Enneagram of Death”), CD, cartoons, and essays.


Guest Blog by Tom L. Clark–A Toast to Royal Afghani Airlines Part II

5-AubadeWe got off the plane a total of three times, spread over three hours. Each time this happened my feeling of trust declined and my feeling of fear increased. But it’s not as though there was another flight.




When the plane finally managed to take off, after lurching and banging down a washboard dirt runway, it was already dark. The plane headed up and directly into black thunderclouds. I knew that we had to fly over some high mountains on our flight to Teheran.




A couple of hours into the flight, we ran into what U.S. pilots often announce as a “patch” of bad weather. But it felt to me like flying into a cyclone. The plane rolled, pitched and yawed—violently and horribly.


Sudden drops in altitude: heart in mouth stuff, for sure. There were immense jagged flashes of lightening and unbelievably explosive claps of thunder.




I was utterly convinced that we would either smash into the side of a mountain (a reasonable fear) or that the plane would begin a vertical dive which would end in oblivion (also a reasonable fear).




My fear factor was aided and abetted considerably by a number of people who got out of their seats, the better to kneel and pray loudly to Allah.


Their shouted litany of God is Good, God is Great served only to firm up my conviction that I was about to die.




Jo and I held hands. I don’t think we talked. There was a ferocious din in the cabin of the old plane—the roar of sputtering engines, the random explosions of thunder, and the yelling of those preparing to meet their God.


A tin cauldron of imminent death.




At some point I stopped being afraid; after all, one can sustain fear for only so long. I felt not peaceful but fatalistic. Likely-Jo-and-I-are-about-to-die-soon-and-that’s-okay. So be it, Amen. That was surely better than having large amounts of adrenalin coursing through my veins.




Seemingly against all odds, the little C-47 descended out of the dark storm clouds and made a bumpy, clunky landing at the airport in Teheran.




I was glad to be alive. Jo and I took a taxi to a hotel, wandered out and found a restaurant, had some good food. Our knees were still wobbly but our respiration returned to normal.





I included Tom Clark’s story, A Near-Death Experience, in my book, The Enneagram of Death—Helpful Insights by the 9 Types of People on Grief, Fear, and Dying. When he was 20 years old, he was the passenger in a car that rolled over three or four times in the New Mexico desert following a blown-out tire at 75 miles an hour. He tells us how this affected his philosophy of life. “The experience I had, ultimately, is not even about death. It is only about the door that opened for me into that spacious presence that surrounds us, always. That’s all.”



For reviews and other information about The Enneagram of Death, see




For a list of Famous Enneagram and MBTI types, see




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