We tend to assume that sibling conflict is natural and inevitable, but when it crosses the line to become aggressive, then it causes harm and calls for parental intervention. Perhaps we underestimate this damaging influence that takes place within the home.
There’s been a lot of research conducted in recent years on the detrimental effects of bullying. Most of this research has centered around the impact of verbal taunting, physical threats, social ostracizing, and various other forms of aggression on school-aged children by their peers. And we’ve learned a lot from this research, including how bullying not only puts its victims at a much higher risk for experiencing a host of mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, but also predisposes them to poorer psychological adjustment as adults. But bullying occurs in a wide variety of settings, including within families. So, it’s welcome news that at least one new study has focused its attention exclusively on the effects of bullying by a sibling. And, while at one level the findings of the study did not come as a total surprise, the conclusions that the study drew about the prevalence of sibling bullying and the effects of what some have long considered to be a normal part of every child’s family experience are most noteworthy.
The June 17, 2013 online edition of the journal Pediatrics featured a study by Tucker et al (‘Association of Sibling Aggression With Child and Adolescent Mental Health’), which found that young persons who experienced bullying at the hands of one or more of their siblings suffered the same kind of psychological distress and emotional trauma as children who were bullied by their peers. And, while the effects of the bullying appeared to be somewhat more severe on younger children, the rates at which bullying precipitated reactive psychological problems in its victims were about the same regardless of age.
Most of us have heard it said that “kids will be kids” and that it’s normal for siblings to taunt and fight with one another. But, while quarrels among siblings are a common occurrence, bullying and other forms of aggressive behavior are an entirely different matter. And how such behaviors are responded to within the most important social training ground of all — the home — is crucial to a child’s moral development and character formation. The authors found a surprisingly wide range of unhealthy attitudes to be held by parents toward both the family bullies and their victims. From attitudes of unwarranted tolerance for bullying (i.e. viewing it as simply normal, unavoidable, and harmless) to actually showing favoritism toward the ‘stronger’ sibling and disappointment and/or disfavor toward the ‘weaker’ sibling, a host of unhealthy parental attitudes were found to contribute to both the prevalence and intensity of inter-sibling bullying. Perhaps even more shocking than the findings on parental attitudes were the unexpectedly higher than anticipated incidence rates of sibling bullying reported by victims. Nearly 1 in 3 children reported feeling bullied by a sibling.
It’s no secret that bullies like to target the most vulnerable. So, children who are disadvantaged in some way are at the highest risk for being bullied (see also “Here’s Why Autistic Teens are a Prime Target for Bullies”). The brother or sister with a learning disability, autistic spectrum disorder, physical disability, developmental delay, or mental illness, is particularly vulnerable. More often, it’s an older sibling who perpetrates the bullying, but this doesn’t always have to be the case. Still, it will usually be the sibling who has some sort of power advantage who bullies. It was once very commonly believed that ‘underneath’ their brutal exteriors, persons who bullied were really cowards struggling with issues of low self-esteem, who sought to build up their impoverished egos by positioning themselves in a position of power over those they perceived as weaker. It was also assumed that they were probably ‘acting out’ patterns that they had learned or been subjected to themselves. But ample research has demonstrated how erroneous these perspectives are most of the time. Bullies largely target the weak because it’s easy and because they have disdain for them, lack empathy, and relish the power they can lord over them. And we also now know that diminished empathy capacity is the key factor involved in a very serious character disturbance: psychopathy (see also “Budding Psychopaths or Immature Characters?”). That’s why it’s so critical for parents to appreciate the warning flag that bullying inevitably raises, and to take particular care in a child’s formative years to put a check on any bullying tendencies he/she displays, to focus on empathy development with that child, and to show concern for, provide protection for, and help build strong self-care skills in any children who might have been the target of bullying.
Sibling on sibling aggression is a much more frequent (some studies suggest 4-5 times greater) occurrence than spousal or parent-child abuse. So, the results of the Tucker study should give us all a little pause. Children are far more likely to experience the detrimental effects of aggression from their siblings than from any other source within their homes. And it would do us well to regard this sobering reality as neither an inevitable nor acceptable aspect of childhood. Wherever aggression occurs, damage is done. It’s really that simple. And while it’s a good thing that most schools and other facilities caring for children have enacted strict anti-bullying efforts, perhaps the best hope for dealing with and preventing bullying and other forms of aggression, and their detrimental psychological and social consequences rests where it probably actually always has: in the home.
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