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article imageGrowing up scared: Siblings can be bullies, too

By Yukio Strachan     Jun 19, 2013 in Health
Durham - A new study upturns what has long been conventional wisdom: that sibling bullying—the cruel, persistent one-sided torment from one sibling to another—is simply a rite of passage. In fact, the effects are the same as those bullied by a classmates.
"My nightmares when I was a kid were not the monsters in movies but of my sister coming to kill me."
"I did not feel very safe at home."
"Growing up with my sister, who is four years older than I, was terrible. She'd latch on with her teeth and not let go until my skin broke. She'd break my eyeglasses so I couldn't see, dig her fingernails into me, rip my clothes while I was wearing them, break my craft projects, tell me how stupid and ugly I was."
These comments are from adults bearing witness to the child they once were, who experienced bullying as children from siblings. They were reacting to the new study titled “Association of Sibling Aggression with Child and Adolescent Mental Health,” to appear in the July 2013 issue of the journal Pediatrics.
While effects of peer bullying have been widely studied, this study, among the first of its kind to look at sibling aggression across a wide age and geographic range, found that more than 32 percent of children who were attacked, threatened or intimidated by a sibling had increased levels of depression, anger and anxiety, The New York Times reported.
"Even kids who reported just one instance had more mental health distress," Corinna Jenkins Tucker, lead author of the research said in a press release. "Our study shows that sibling aggression is not benign for children and adolescents, regardless of how severe or frequent."
Working out of the renowned Crimes Against Children Research Center, researchers at the University of New Hampshire surveyed a national sample of 3,599 children from National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence database who were 0 to 17 years old.
According to USA Today, four different types of victimization were assessed:
• Mild physical assault (hit, beaten or kicked without an object/weapon or resulting injury);
• Severe physical assault (hit, beaten or kicked with an object/weapon or causing injury);
• Property aggression (forcible theft, taking and not returning property; breaking or ruining property on purpose);
• Psychological aggression (feeling bad or scared because a sibling said mean things, called them names or excluded them).
Using the Trauma Symptoms Checklist for Children, kids aged 10 to 17 reported their symptoms via telephone interview. For children younger than 10, a familiar caregiver completed the interview using the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Young Children, MedPage Today writes.
According to the Times, the researchers also measured the same types of behaviors perpetrated by peers outside the home and accounted for them in their findings in order to tease apart the specific toll of sibling violence.
Over all, the Times writes, a third of the children in the study reported being victimized by a brother or sister in the previous year, and their scores were higher on measures of anxiety, depression and anger.
Often continue into adulthood
“Historically, the general thinking has been that it’s not a big deal, and sometimes it’s even viewed as being a good thing,” Corinna Jenkins Tucker, an associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire and lead study author told the Times. “There appears to be different norms of acceptability. Peer aggression is unacceptable, but it’s not the same for siblings.”
"If I were to hit my wife, no one would have trouble seeing that as an assault or a criminal act," David Finkelhor, a sociologist at the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, one of the study's authors, who suggests it is often minimized, once told the Times. "When a child does the same thing to a sibling, the exact same act will be construed as a squabble, a fight or an altercation."
The findings “should open our eyes as providers, as pediatricians, as parents to really be able to identify what's going on at home [and] to really not normalize. It's not ok for the kids to fight,” Dr. Steven Pastyrnak, from Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., who was not involved in the research, told MedPage Today.
The authors suggest that "pediatricians take a role in disseminating this information to parents at office visits, and that parent education programs include a greater emphasis on sibling aggression and approaches to mediate sibling conflicts," the press release announcing the study said.
John V. Caffaro, a clinical psychologist and the author of “Sibling Abuse Trauma,” told the Times that the effects of sibling abuse—the harm and humiliation experienced coupled often with parents who fail to intervene—often continue into adulthood. Over the years he has treated patients who struggled with emotional issues and sabotaged themselves in their careers because of repeated humiliation they experienced at the hands of a brother or sister.
“It can erode their sense of identity and their self-esteem,” he told the Times.
More about Bullying, sibling bullying, Mental health problems, Sibling victimization, Corinna Jenkins Tucker
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