Being picked on by your brother or sister may seem like a normal part of
growing up, but for some kids the bullying may be a source of depression and
anxiety, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that among 3 600 kids in a US survey, those who were pushed
around by a sibling - physically or verbally - had higher scores on a measure of
depression and anxiety symptoms.
"Historically, sibling aggression has been dismissed as normal," said lead
researcher Corinna Jenkins Tucker, an associate professor of family studies at
the University of New Hampshire. "It's been seen as benign, or even good for
kids because it teaches them something about dealing with the world."
In general, parents and other adults tend to be more tolerant when siblings
smack or taunt each other - even if they would never condone it among peers. But Tucker said her findings suggest that parents should not turn a blind eye
to their kids' fights and teasing.
What the findings mean
The study has a number of limitations, Tucker acknowledged. One is that the
children and parents were interviewed at one point in time, so it's not clear
that the sibling aggression actually led to the poorer mental health.
"We can't say it's the cause," Tucker said. "But we can say there's a
An expert not involved in the study agreed that the one-time interview is an
issue. "If you're feeling bad on the day you're interviewed, you may remember
more instances of aggression," said William Copeland, an assistant professor of
psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, who
studies bullying and kids' mental health.
On top of that, it's tough to disentangle the effects of sibling bullying
from other parts of a child's life. "We don't know, for example, how parents in
the study responded to the aggression," Copeland said. "I'd like to know more
about the family dynamics."
Still, he said, the findings shed some light on an issue that has gotten
little attention compared with schoolyard bullying. "I think this shows us we
need to address aggression no matter where it happens," Copeland said.
Parents reactions matter
The findings are based on telephone interviews with nearly 3 600 children and
their parents. Tucker's team used standard questionnaires to gauge the kids'
levels of anger, depression and anxiety, and asked them about episodes of
bullying - from siblings and peers - in the past year.
Overall, one-third of kids said they'd been the target of one type of sibling
bullying: physical; verbal abuse, such as name-calling; or having their things
stolen or purposely ruined.
In general, those kids had more mental health symptoms than those who
reported no sibling bullying. And that was true, Tucker said, even when the
researchers compensated for things such as bullying at school, parents'
education levels and kids' exposure to family violence in general.
The findings leave a lot of unanswered questions, such as how severe and
lasting any mental health symptoms might be. "Is this a short-term thing, or do
these problems last?" Copeland asked.
It's also not clear whether it makes a difference if the bullying comes from
a sibling who is much older or around the same age - or whether it's between
sisters, brothers or sisters and brothers, Tucker said.
But she and Copeland both said it's safe to assume that parents' reactions to
their kids' aggression matters. "Let your kids know this is something you won't
tolerate," Copeland said. Even if the bullying doesn't stop, he noted, kids may
get a lot of comfort knowing they can turn to their parents for help.
"If there's no real escape for kids," he said, "that could make it a lot
The American Academy of Pediatrics has advice on dealing with bullying.