Sibling Abuse and Bullying
When does sibling conflict and aggression cross the line to become bullying?
Posted Dec 31, 2015
We hear a lot about bullying in schools. There are books and videos and programs and workshops about how students and teachers can stamp out bullying. But there’s another type of bullying—potentially far more damaging—that often gets overlooked: bullying between siblings.
In a nationally representative survey, Murray Straus at the University of New Hampshire and his colleagues interviewed parents with multiple children between three and 17 years of age about aggression between siblings. Four out of every five families reported that some form of sibling violence had occurred in the past year. For many of these families, the sibling aggression was relatively minor, involving pushing, slapping, shoving, or throwing things. Alarmingly, 53% reported that the sibling attack(s) involved actions with a high potential for serious injury, such as kicking, biting, punching, hitting with objects, beating up, or threatening with or using a knife or a gun.
A research review by UK psychologists Dieter Wolke & Alexandra Skew concludes that about half of children are involved in sibling bullying every month, and one out of every five children is involved in bullying several times a week. Sibling bullying is linked to worse mental health and increased likelihood of being involved in bullying with peers.
In a research paper lead by Lucy Bowes, conducted by this group of investigators, UK children were asked about sibling bullying at age 12 then assessed for mental health at age 18. Twelve-year-olds who reported being bullied by a sibling several times a week were twice as likely to report depression and self-harm at age 18, compared to those who said they were not bullied. This doesn’t necessarily mean the bullying caused the depression and self-harm, but it certainly suggests we should take a closer look at sibling bullying.
What is sibling bullying?
But what exactly do we mean by sibling bullying?
As a clinical psychologist, I have heard horrific stories of physical and emotional abuse by siblings; stories that involve breath-taking cruelty and deliberate efforts to injure or terrorize. (Sibling sexual abuse is also shockingly common, but that’s a topic for another post.) Brothers and sisters can hurt each other very, very badly, and because they live together, there’s no escape for the victims.
On the other hand—as every parent of multiple children knows—siblings squabble.
In the Bowes study, participants were told that sibling bullying occurs “…when a brother or sister tries to upset you by saying nasty and hurtful things, or completely ignores you from their group of friends, hits, kicks, pushes or shoves you around, tells lies or makes up false rumors about you.” Certainly none of that is desirable behavior, but, frankly, a lot of it is pretty typical.
Is it really bullying if an older brother doesn’t want his annoying little sister to bother him when he has a friend over?
Is it really bullying if a sister calls her brother a “doo doo head”?
Is it really bullying if two siblings tussle over who gets the TV remote?
Is it really bullying if both siblings shout, “He started it!”
The standard definition of bullying is: severe, repeated, and deliberate efforts to harm someone, plus a power difference that makes it difficult or impossible for the target to protect or defend him or herself. Among siblings, except for the case of identical twins, one sibling will always be older and likely bigger, but not every conflict between siblings counts as bullying. The key word that tends to get overlooked in the standard definition of bullying is severe. Without the word severe, we risk pathologizing every silly argument between siblings and trivializing the very serious cases of sibling abuse.
Obviously, we need to protect our children from seriously injuring each other, but we don’t have to leap to intervene with ordinary squabbles. And it’s not always the older child who is the aggressor.
An interesting fact that emerged from Wolke & Skew’s review is that about one third of all siblings report that they both bully their siblings and get bullied by their siblings. Just doing the math, that means that about three out of five kids involved in sibling bullying are both the perpetrator and the victim of bullying. While the older sibling is usually bigger, stronger, and more cognitively advanced, younger siblings can be highly provocative. They may be adept at screaming to get an older sibling “in trouble.” In certain families, a younger sibling may also have tacit permission to bully an older sibling, because parents overlook the younger child’s misbehavior but come down hard if the older sibling retaliates.
Patterns of sibling bullying among boys versus girls
Overall, boys report that they bully their siblings more often than girls do. According to Erisilia Menesini, at the University of Florence, and her colleagues, the most common pattern of sibling bullying involves older brothers bullying younger siblings. Surprisingly, girls report that they bully an older sibling more often than a younger sibling. This may be because girls are often raised to have a caretaking role with younger siblings. However, for girls, bullying is mainly linked to relationship quality rather than birth order. In other words, sisters do more bullying when they have poor relationships with their sibling, regardless of whether that sibling is older or younger.
Sibling bullying at different ages
Sibling aggression is more common among younger children. A US national study by Corinna Jenkins Tucker and her colleagues at the University of New Hampshire looked at sibling aggression involving physical hurting, breaking things, or “psychological aggression.” They found that 45% of children ages two- to nine-years old had experience at least one incident of sibling aggression in the past year, but the incidence of aggression dropped to 36% among 10- to 13-year olds and 28% among 14-17 year-olds.
However, aggression between older siblings can be much more serious. Looking only at kids who had experienced sibling bullying in the past year, Tucker and her colleagues found that 23% of 14- to 17-year-olds had been injured by a sibling, compared to only 4% of two- to five-year olds, 8% of six- to nine-year olds, and 13% of 10- to 13-year olds. Children with siblings who are five or more years older were also more likely to be injured.
Menesini and colleagues found that for both boys and girls, the combination of high levels of conflict and low levels of empathy between siblings is a key predictor of sibling bullying. Arguing a lot and not caring about another person’s feelings opens the door to cruelty.
In Part 2 of this post, I’ll focus on what parents can do to minimize and prevent sibling bullying.
Is it Bullying…Or Ordinary Meanness?
Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, is an author and clinical psychologist in Princeton, NJ (lic. # 35SI00425400). She frequently speaks at schools and conferences about parenting and children’s social and emotional development. www.EileenKennedyMoore.com
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Photo credit: “Sisterly love part 1” by Doug Ford / CC BY 2.0
For further reading:
Menesini, E. Camodeca, M., & Nocentini, A. (2010). Bullying among siblings: The role of personality and relational variables. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 28, 921-939.
Straus, M. A., Gelles, R. J., & Steinmetz, S. K. (2006). Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Tucker, C. J., Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., & Shattuck, A. (2013b). Association of sibling aggression with child and adolescent mental health. Pediatrics, 132, 79-84.
Wolke, D. & Skew, A. J. (2012). Bullying among siblings. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 24, 17-25.