Reclaiming Childhood

Freedom and play in an age of fear

Let's Not Obsess About 'Sibling Bullying'

Giving sibling rivalry a bad name

This week, I took part in a discussion about ‘sibling bullying’ on BBC Radio Scotland’s Call Kaye. It left me with the sinking feeling that the anti-bullying bandwagon could build up a lot more steam.

The issue of ‘sibling bullying’ has hit the headlines and airwaves over the past few days because of a ‘new study’ (actually published in July) in the journal Pediatrics, warning that the effect of sibling aggression for children’s and adolescents’ mental health ‘should not be dismissed’. But I think it should be dismissed.

For a start, the Pediatrics study found no evidence of long-term negative effects of sibling aggression on mental health. The researchers carried out interviews about ‘victimisations’ over the past 12 months with around 3,500 children and caregivers. The fact that a child or adolescent may be distressed by a fight they had with a sibling—whether this morning, last week or several months ago—does not mean that incident will define them or their sibling relationship in later life. Yet the authors of the journal article called for paediatricians to "take a role in disseminating this information to parents at office visits" and for "parents education programmes to include greater emphasis on sibling aggression."

Over the last decade there has been more than a six-fold increase in published peer-reviewed research on bullying. It is a crowded market, which is perhaps why some academics and psychologists have moved on to sibling relationships. Most of the published peer-reviewed research has many shortcomings, as I have discussed elsewhere. Academics need to be more honest in acknowledging these shortcomings and stop making claims that go way beyond what the data shows.

One of the callers on Call Kaye described a childhood dominated by fear due to the physical and sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her older brother. Sadly, some sibling relationships are seriously messed-up, but such examples are thankfully extremely rare: The vast majority of sibling relationships are perfectly healthy. It will do parents and children no good to start looking at these relationships through the prism of ‘bully’ and ‘victim.’ Nor will it do anybody—apart from the anti-bullying industry—any good if we ‘mobilise’ anti-bullying prevention programmes ‘to encompass sibling aggression as well’, as the authors of the Pediatrics study urged.

We are not helping the next generation by exaggerating the negative effects of bullying. Those who are now pushing for recognition of the ‘damaging effects’ of sibling bullying should stop and think about the possible unintended consequences of this negative message. Such a message may encourage children to see themselves as victims of something that purportedly has ‘long-term deleterious effects’, rather than allow them to brush it off as typical sibling rivalry.

Children need to learn how to handle both positive and negative emotions. We cannot—and should not—insulate them from conflict. Nor should we give children the impression that if they feel hurt, upset, embarrassed, or humiliated by something a brother or sister has said or done that they may be ‘scarred for life’. Children and teenagers can be horrible to each other. But they are socially, emotionally and morally less sophisticated than adults—and they learn from these spats with their siblings. In the vast majority of cases, sibling rivalries do no more harm than irritate the hell out of parents.

Helene Guldberg, Ph.D., is the author of Reclaiming Childhood: freedom and play in an age of fear.

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