Sibling Rivalry Not So Harmless

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Sibling bullying linked to poorer mental health and should not be dismissed

June 16, 2013 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

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(dailyRx News) Whether it's name calling or punches or stealing your stuff, siblings beating up on each other is nothing new. But just because it's an age-old issue does not mean it's harmless.

A recent study found that bullying between siblings is linked to poorer mental health for the victims.

Even when the researchers took into account other bullying that kids might experience, they still found poor mental health was related to being bullied by a brother or sister.

"Stop sibling bullying."

The study, led by Corinna Jenkins Tucker, PhD, of the Department of Family Studies at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, looked at possible effects of bullying between siblings.

The researchers used data from telephone interviews with 3,599 participants. The participants included youth aged 10 to 17 or the parents of kids aged 9 and younger.

The questionnaires asked about different types of bullying or maltreatment that the participants had experienced from a brother or sister in the past year.

One question asked whether the responder had been physically assaulted by a sibling, either with or without an object, and causing injury or not.

Another question asked whether the responder's sibling had taken away their property or intentionally broken or ruined something the responder owned.

Another question asked about psychological bullying, such as being called names, feeling scared or bad because of things their sibling said or similar mean statements.

To understand whether treatment by siblings might relate to mental health without being affected by other negative experiences, the participants were also asked about other types of victimization.

These included the following:

  • non-sibling assault
  • non-sibling property victimization
  • non-sibling psychological bullying/victimization
  • child maltreatment
  • sexual victimization
  • school and internet bullying
  • witnessing family and/or community violence

Then the participants' mental health was assessed using a questionnaire related to trauma. It included questions related to experiencing anger, depression and anxiety.

The researchers made adjustments to their analysis of the participants' mental health to account for the effects of other negative experiences besides sibling bullying.

The analysis revealed that any type of bullying by siblings was linked to poorer scores in mental health.

"All types of sibling aggression, both mild and severe, were associated with significantly higher distress symptom scores for both children and adolescents," the researchers wrote.

They also looked at whether experiencing multiple types of victimization by siblings was linked to mental health outcomes in participants.

Among those interviewed, 32 percent reported that their sibling had victimized them in one of the ways asked about in the past year.

Then, 8 percent of the respondents said they had experienced at least two or more types of victimization by their sibling.

The researchers found that the more victimization types the respondents had experienced from their siblings, the poorer their mental health was.

Experiencing two types of sibling victimization was linked to worse mental health results than experiencing one type.

These results remained even after making adjustments to account for other types of bullying by peers and demographics like age and sex.

"Taken together, our study shows that sibling aggression is not benign [harmless] for children and adolescents, regardless of how severe or frequent," the researchers wrote.

They wrote that sibling aggression should be regarded as possibly harmful and not "...dismissed as normal, minor or even beneficial."

The study was published June 17 in the journal Pediatrics. The research was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the US Department of Justice. The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 14, 2013
Last Updated:
August 5, 2013