Prince Harry's Tell-All Memoir Spotlights Sibling Bullying
Royals and others must combat sibling maltreatment in family culture.
Posted January 25, 2023 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Prince Harry claims to have endured sibling bullying, which includes shaming, name-calling, threatening behavior, and excluding a victim.
- Sibling maltreatment is the most common form of domestic abuse in Western society, more common than domestic partner abuse or child abuse.
- When a sibling feels powerless and lacks control, they are inclined to take out anger and hurt on an even more powerless brother or sister.
In his new memoir, Spare, Prince Harry reveals a pattern of behavior during his youth in which his brother, Prince William, routinely ignored, rejected, or bullied him.
When Harry joined William at an elite private school, for example, William complained that he had lost his sanctuary, where he’d had “no kid brother tagging along, pestering him with questions, pushing up on his social circle.” The brothers attending the same school "was pure murder” for William, Harry writes, although he assured his elder brother, “I’ll forget I ever knew you.”
The most outrageous incident of bullying occurred when 20-year-old Harry asked William and his then-girlfriend, Kate Middleton, to help him choose between two costumes for a party—a British pilot’s uniform or a Nazi uniform with a swastika armband. From the costume shop, Harry phoned William. “Nazi uniform, they said,” Harry wrote, adding that when he went home and tried it on for them, “they both howled.” Astonishingly, Harry claims he didn’t understand the implications of wearing such a uniform.
The resulting firestorm included a photo of him in Nazi garb under such tormenting headlines as “Heil Harry!” “Heir Aberrant,” and “Royal Heil to Pay.” Harry describes this incident as one of the most humiliating experiences of his life.
Family patterns that lead to bullying
Often labeled "sibling rivalry," sibling bullying and abuse are forms of repeated, intentional, targeted aggression to control, overpower, or harm a brother or sister. Sibling bullying includes shaming, harassing, belittling, gaslighting, name-calling, threatening behavior, constant teasing, or excluding a victim.
Sibling maltreatment is the most common form of domestic abuse in Western society—more common than domestic partner or child abuse, according to Professor Mark Kiselica of Cabrini University in Pennsylvania. He reports that sibling bullying, which he calls “the forgotten abuse,” is three times more common than school bullying.
Sadly, Harry falls into many of the risk categories for sibling abuse. These include:
- Siblings who are close in age
- Parent/child attachment difficulties
- Low level of paternal involvement or acceptance
- High level of spousal conflict
- Parents who are not available or emotionally involved in their children’s lives
- Parents who reinforce competition by playing favorites or comparing children
- Parents who model abuse and bullying tactics
- Children who do not know how to handle conflicts
The more a person feels powerless, the more inclined he/she will take it out on someone even more powerless, explains Karen Gail Lewis, author of the upcoming book, Sibling Therapy: The Ghosts That Haunt Your Client's Love and Work, and a counseling psychologist in Maryland.
“Underneath bullying is anger and hurt,” she explains. “A bullying sibling is kicking the ball down the generational line.” She identifies an old cartoon—in which a boss kicks a man, the man kicks his wife, the wife kicks their child, and the child kicks their dog—as capturing the pattern of bullying.
Though parents often dismiss toxic childhood dynamics as “normal sibling rivalry” or “just a phase,” these patterns may continue or even worsen in adulthood. To boost his/her fragile sense of self-worth, the bully continues to victimize and blame his/her sibling for their problems, resisting any attempt at reconciliation. Eventually, most victims simply give up, resorting to a policy of no-contact to protect themselves.
How parents can address sibling bullying
- Parents can and should stop bullying. Establish a family culture that does not tolerate aggressive, mean behavior. Intervene immediately when one child hits, pushes or calls another a name. Model healthy ways to relate, and teach children how to treat each other with respect. Monitor and correct bullying as it arises. Be firm and consistent, so children learn what is acceptable and what isn’t.
- Minimize jealousy. Praise children even-handedly for their good characteristics and efforts, so they feel equally valued. Make sure each receives recognition and love. Avoid comparing your children or labeling them by identifying “the athletic one” or “the smart one.” Such labels breed jealousy, competition, and contempt.
- Hold the bully accountable. Help the bully to see and understand the pain he or she has inflicted. Insist that the bully take responsibility for his/her actions. Enforce consequences—such as grounding, loss of privileges, and/or mandatory apology—so children understand that bullying will not be tolerated.
- Cultivate empathy in children. Identify kind, loving behaviors. Encourage children to try to understand others’ feelings. Emphasize collaboration; create opportunities to work together, supervising for cooperation and harmony.
How adult siblings can recover from childhood bullying
For William and Harry to reconcile, they must—like any estranged siblings—first commit to listening to each other, Lewis says. In her office, she uses a technique that helps siblings truly hear one another. She asks the victim to sit in silence and listen while she questions the bully: “What wasn’t he getting that he needed? Why did he feel the need to bully? Did he feel shame?” Then she asks the bully to be silent as she asks the victim: “What did it feel like to be bullied? How did it make you see yourself?”
“Often, while hearing their sibling’s perspective,” Lewis says, “they cry. Each is surprised to learn of the hurts the other suffered.”
In her book, Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, Donna Hicks, an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, outlines her similar approach: the "dignity model."
“The biggest lesson I learned from these encounters [between feuding parties] is that vulnerability is where the power lies,” Hicks writes. “The magic happens when we expose the truth to ourselves and others and are ultimately set free by it.”
If Harry and William used the dignity model, they would discover the truth of their separate stories and see themselves as part of a larger dysfunction. As they truly hear one another, they would honor each other’s dignity and strengthen their own.
Kiselica, Mark S., (2007) Sibling Maltreatment: The Forgotten Abuse, Journal of Counseling and Development: JCD 85 (2)
Blake, Lucy; Bland, Becca; Rouncefield-Swales, Alison, (2022) Journal of Family Issues, "Estrangement Between Siblings in Adulthood: A Qualitative Exploration" https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0192513X211064876#bibr9-0…