When brothers and sisters pick on, harass, hit, punch, kick, insult and generally harass other siblings they’re not typically identified as bullies. The response is more often “kids will be kids”. But if the same treatment is launched against a peer at school they could suffer some pretty hefty consequences such as expulsion, being arrested on an assault charge, fined or put in detention.
Many times sibling conflicts seem to get a free ride. It’s not that parents don’t eventually step in and stop prolonged fights or separate siblings when things get too out of hand – they often do – but it’s seldom considered bullying. New research suggests that children do see it as being bullied by a brother or sister and that it is harmful to a child or teenager’s mental health.
A new study published in the journal Pediatrics looked at the mental health consequences of bullying between siblings.
“Historically, sibling aggression has been unrecognized, or often minimized or dismissed, and in some cases people believe it’s benign or even good for learning about conflict in other relationships,” says Corinna Jenkins Tucker, lead author of the paper and an associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire.
“That’s generally not the case in peer relationships. There appears to be different norms for what is accepted. What is acceptable between siblings is generally not acceptable between peers.”
The line between normal sibling mischievousness and hostility or violence is a little uncertain sometimes. The age of the child can make a big difference. Younger children tend to act out more on impulse, but as they get older more thought can go into devising an attack or humiliation. That’s where the line gets a little clearer.
Having to deal with sibling conflict and competitiveness is one way children learn to negotiate their way through life. Early on they can begin to learn constructive ways to handle disagreements, sharing and standing up for them-selves.
If siblings fight and argue, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is bullying taking place. But there are signs that point to more than just normal sibling rivalry. Some indications that can signal when a child is being bullied by a sibling are:
- One child is always the aggressor and one is always the victim.
- A child is afraid to be left alone with a certain sibling or siblings.
- Bruising or evidence of physical assault.
- Verbal hostility directed at a particular sibling.
- Fascination with violence by the aggressive sibling.
Tucker’s report used data from The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, a phone survey that collected the experiences of 3,599 children aged 1 month to 17 years who had at least one sibling younger than 18 living in the household at the time of the interview. One child was randomly selected to be the subject of three telephone interviews.
Children ages 10 to 17 answered the questions themselves; for children younger than 10, the parents answered the questions. The researcher acknowledged a potential limitation of the study because some parents may not know what goes on between siblings when they are not around to witness it.
The study’s interviewers asked about incidences of sibling aggression in the past year, and they also assessed mental health by asking how often the children experienced anger, depression and anxiety.
Of the children interviewed (or interviewed by proxy), 32 percent reported experiencing at least one type of sibling victimization in the past year. Researchers found that “all types of sibling aggression, both mild and severe, were associated with significantly higher distress symptom scores for both children and adolescents,” the study authors write.
Rules about bullying at schools have grown much clearer. There’s a list of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. While bullying by peers can have very hurtful consequences – imagine sharing a bedroom or home with your worst nightmare. You may have a place where you can escape to at school, but not at home.
Parenting is both difficult and rewarding. You’re not going to be able to keep your kids from getting angry at one another. They are going to fight and fuss. But, you can keep an eye on the level of aggression and draw the line at certain actions. Encourage your children to tell you when they feel bullied. Also encourage resolution building. Family conferences may seem old fashioned, but they are helpful in giving everyone a chance to speak their minds and work on less aggressive solutions. If a child is continuously aggressive and abusive, he or she may need professional help. Talk to your pediatrician or family doctor about pediatric or adolescent mental health resources.
A home should be a place where your child feels loved and safe, not a battleground.