Bullying Between Siblings Often Dismissed

Bullying exists between siblings but is often casually dismissed as rivalry. However, research out of the University of New Hampshire warns parents that such abuse should not be ignored as it could stem from a mental health issue or potentially cause one.

Sibling bonds are complicated and influenced by factors of birth order, age gap, and number of children, relatability, and personality. Although children will often enjoy the company of their brothers and sisters for a lifetime, others can carry out a contention of epic talk-show worthy proportions.

Sibling rivalry, for those of you who are an only child, is a competitively driven animosity between blood and non-blood related children raised in the same household. Kids will petulantly battle one another over a perceived favoritism or preferential treatment from parents/guardians – the other child getting more attention or more than their share of anything such as dessert, praise, or gifts.

When a new brother or sister comes along, siblings are expected to be compassionate, helpful, and share – standing by while mom and dad lavish eager attention on the newborn and hand over their old belongings. Children are sensitive to even the most trivial of presumed inequality. Younger children have been guilty of regressing to bed-wetting in hopes of being doted upon.

Over time, this assessed inequality can manifest into bitter tantrums and toy-snatching. Fights can ensue – both verbal and physical.

Parents with more than one child become accustomed to rants of, “It’s not fair!” … he/she “hit me!” … he/she “started it!” … or the ever so popular, “you’re not the boss of me,” echoing out just before you hear the shriek beckoning forth the great mediator, “Mom!”

But at what point should a parent take a second look at the aggression instead of chalking it up to a part of growing up? And could it be causing long term emotional or psychological damage?

UNH research has found sibling aggression is associated with significantly worse mental health in children and adolescents. For some, the effects of sibling aggression on mental health of victims were the same as those of peer aggression – being bullied by classmates.

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.

Corinna Jenkins Tucker – associate professor of family studies at UNH and lead author of the research – states, “Our study shows that sibling aggression is not benign for children and adolescents, regardless of how severe or frequent.”

Tucker and her co-authors from UNH’s Crimes against Children Research Center – center director and professor of sociology David Finkelhor, professor of sociology Heather Turner, and researcher Anne Shattuck – analyzed data from the center’s National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV). This data represents a national sample of 3,599 children, ages one month through 17.


Peer aggression, like bullying, is often seen as more serious than sibling aggression – the two independent of one another, including the possible effects on the victims. Yet the mental health of those experiencing property and psychological aggression, whether from siblings or peers, did not differ.

Of the 32 percent of children who reported experiencing one type of sibling victimization in the past year, mental health distress was greater for those one month to 9 years of age than for subjects 10 to 17 who experienced mild sibling physical assault. But children and adolescents were similarly affected by other psychological or property aggression from siblings.

The effects of bullying have been shown to follow individuals into adulthood – causing them to suffer from conditions like anxiety and poor self-esteem.

The takeaway: Parents should take what they assume is sibling rivalry – which can include physical altercations, property damage, threats, degrading remarks – more seriously, as based on the research it is leaving equally damaging psychological scars on their other children as peer bullying does.

The study, “Association of Sibling Aggression with Child and Adolescent Mental Health,” will appear in the July 2013 issue of the journal Pediatrics.

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