Bullying At Home: Aggressive Siblings Hurt Mental Health, Study Finds

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(Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)

True story: My older brother tormented me quite a bit as I was growing up, and my parents would mete out frequent discipline, but when we were visiting my grandparents and I'd complain, "He hit me!" my grandfather would joke dismissively: "It was a love tap!"

Funny. Sure didn't feel like love.

These days, laudable anti-bullying programs abound in the nation's schools. But the anti-bullying movement seems to have an odd blind spot when it comes to bullying at home.

A new study just out in the journal "Pediatrics" addresses that gap, using findings from a national survey of children and their caregivers. It found that, just like bullying by peers, bullying by siblings causes significant mental distress and worsens the victims' emotional health. Bottom line:

The authors concluded that parents, pediatricians and the public should treat sibling aggression as potentially harmful, and not dismiss it as normal, minor, or even beneficial, and this message should be included in parenting education.

Corinna Jenkins Tucker, associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire and the paper's lead author, suggests that it's time for the new norms that condemn school bullying to stop making an exception for siblings.

Sibling aggression has "generally gone unrecognized and dismissed," she said in a phone interview. "Our findings suggest that it should not be dismissed and it's in fact not benign."

What kind of aggression are we talking about? Here's a useful explainer from the New York Times report on the study:

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, said John V. Caffaro, a clinical psychologist and the author of “Sibling Abuse Trauma.”

Parents who fail to intervene, play favorites or give their children labels that sow divisions — like “the smart one” and “the athlete” — can inadvertently encourage conflict. Nationwide, sibling violence is by far the most common form of family violence, occurring four to five times as frequently as spousal or parental child abuse, Dr. Caffaro said.

According to some studies, nearly half of all children have been punched, kicked or bitten by a sibling, and roughly 15 percent have been repeatedly attacked. But even the most severe incidents are underreported because families are loath to acknowledge them, dismissing slaps and punches as horseplay and bullying as boys just being boys, he said.

“Our society tends to minimize child-on-child violence in general,” he added. “We have these ideas that if you’re hurt by a child it’s less injurious than if you’re hurt by an adult, but the data don’t support that.”

The study did not compare the damage of sibling bullying to peer bullying. It found that either could cause mental distress. From the press release:

The researchers interviewed more than 3,500 children and youth aged 1 month to 17 years or their parents about various measures of aggression displayed by siblings and peers as part of the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence. They assessed the range and extent of sibling aggression experienced by the respondents, looking at such measures as physical assault with and without a weapon or injury; stealing something from the child with or without force, or breaking siblings’ things on purpose; and saying things to make the child feel bad or scared or not wanted around.

The children’s mental health also was assessed. The results showed that sibling aggression in the past year was associated with significantly worse mental health for both children and adolescents. Distress was evident for children and adolescents who experienced both mild and severe forms of sibling aggression. The data also showed that when comparing sibling versus peer aggression, each uniquely predicted greater mental distress.

The study is unique, Corinna Jenkins Tucker said, because it used national-level data and looked at more than one age group.

"And we also have a comprehensive picture here, where it's not just physical — we look at physical, property and psychological, and we look at more mild forms vs. more severe, and we also took the approach of, 'Is it just experiencing one type vs. none, and that made a difference as well," she said. "And the final thing that's unique is that we controlled for other kinds of co-occurring victimization, such as experiencing Internet victimization or maltreatment, and these connections between sibling aggression and mental distress still showed up."

I must say, I've sometimes thought that my brother's aggression did help toughen me up. Tucker says that's a common belief, that "this is one of the first places you learn how to fight. You're able to try things out."

But really, I'd gladly have forgone that toughening for more peace. Tucker says that for parents, sibling bullying should be "a real teaching opportunity, to teach about conflict resolution skills and constructive conflict."

Readers, any old scores to settle? Will you be sending any siblings a long-belated 'That was not okay'?

This program aired on June 17, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.