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Bullying by Siblings Anything But Harmless

While other forms of bullying are commonly taken seriously and relatively well-researched, bullying between siblings often gets ignored or minimized. However, two recent studies call attention to the potential pitfalls of discounting the effects of sibling bullying. One of these studies indicates that children who bully their brothers or sisters take this activity less seriously than other bullying behaviors, while the other study indicates that sibling bullying can cause just as much mental health harm as other forms of bullying.

Bullying Basics

The term bullying covers a range of physical, psychological and social behaviors designed to assert power over others and either change or maintain an existing social order among a group of peers. Typically, these behaviors cause significant mental/emotional or physical harm in targeted individuals, who often have no real means to protect themselves from a bullying attack. Current evidence indicates that bullying exposure can have serious consequences for a person’s short-term and long-term mental health. For example, in a study published in 2013 in the journal Psychological Science, a British and American research team concluded that childhood bullying substantially increases the chances that an individual will develop a diagnosable mental illness during adulthood. These same risks also apply in magnified form to bully-victims, a term used to describe bullying victims who go on to perpetrate acts of bullying on others.

Attitudes Among Sibling Bullies

Generally speaking, researchers find that bullying perpetrators tend to identify themselves as such substantially less often than bullying victims. Presumably, this hesitancy stems from a conscious or unconscious understanding that bullying behaviors often violate social norms in important ways. In a study published in 2013 in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, researchers from Clemson University examined the willingness of sibling bullies and sibling bullying victims to identify themselves. These researchers concluded that more siblings (85 percent) actually identify themselves as bullies than as bullying victims (75 percent). The authors of the study believe this finding points toward a widespread childhood acceptance of sibling bullying as a non-consequential behavior that has no meaningful impact on the well-being of affected individuals. This acceptance also almost certainly reflects the attitudes of the larger culture toward the seriousness of sibling bullying.

Sibling Bullying’s Impact

In a study published in 2013 in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ journal Pediatrics, researchers from the University of New Hampshire used information gathered from a nationwide project called the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence to examine the impact of sibling bullying among a group of almost 3,600 children between infancy and late adolescence. Children age 10 or older directly answered the questions posed on this survey, while parents of children below the age of 10 answered the questions on their children’s behalf. In addition, many of the children in the study participated in phone interviews conducted by the survey team.

After reviewing their findings, the authors of the study found that roughly 32 percent of all of the participants had experienced some form of physical, psychological or social bullying at the hands of a sibling within the previous 12-month period. Some of the bullying behaviors were relatively moderate in nature, while others were relatively severe. The authors concluded that both relatively moderate and relatively severe bullying produce a decline in mental health marked by things such as anxiety, depressed moods and uncontrolled outbursts of anger. Moderate physical bullying by a sibling has a greater mental health effect on younger children than on older children. However, the authors found that all other forms of sibling bullying have an equally negative effect on both younger children and teenagers.

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the study published in Pediatrics believe that sibling bullying acts as an independent factor for the onset of mental health problems in affected children. In turn, they also believe that current social tendencies to downplay or dismiss the importance of sibling bullying contribute to the problem and seriously increase the chances that sibling bullying and other forms of bullying will continue to diminish the psychological/emotional well-being of large numbers of individuals. The authors of the study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence believe that pediatricians can help decrease the impact of sibling bullying by looking for signs of such bullying in their patients on an annual basis.

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