Jeanne Safer didn’t need a study to tell her that sibling aggression can cause a child as much distress as being bullied by a peer.
Safer, a psychoanalyst and author of Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret (Basic Books), hears it from her patients, many of whom are carrying mental — and sometimes physical — scars from familial skirmishes well into adulthood.
“Being bullied by someone you live with 24/7 for 20 years of your life has at least the same effect as a kid on the school ground? This is news?” Safer asks rhetorically. “You’re bullied in your safe haven, in your bedroom, at the dinner table, in the backyard, when your friends come over. This is a problem hiding in plain sight.”
Not anymore. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics finds that sibling aggression is associated with “significantly worse” mental health in children and adolescents compared to kids who don’t experience it. Researchers interviewed kids ages 10 to 17 and caregivers of children up to 9 years old to measure the fallout from physical assaults, destruction or theft of property, threats, name-calling and other psychological aggression.
One-third of the children said they were victimized by a brother or sister in the previous year and reported higher rates of anxiety, depression and anger as a result.
“What has been accepted as normal or even good training between siblings is looked at very differently when the same behaviors happen between peers,” says lead author Corinna Jenkins Tucker, an associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire. “It’s a subject that’s typically been dismissed or chalked up to sibling rivalry. But you can have a natural rivalry that doesn’t end with someone feeling like a victim.”
Tucker said she hopes the results will change the way we approach sibling relationships. “There are lots of programs out there to prevent peer aggression, but rarely is there a focus on sibling aggression,” she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies bullying as a major public health concern, citing research that shows children who are bullied are at greater risk for depression and anxiety, lower academic scores and broader health complaints that can last into adulthood.
“The mobilization to prevent and stop peer victimization and bullying should expand to encompass sibling aggression as well,” the study states. “Parents, pediatricians and the public should treat sibling aggression as potentially harmful and something not to be dismissed as normal, minor or even beneficial.”
A conflict-free home is an unrealistic goal — and also an undesirable one, experts say. Conflict can be a powerful teacher.
“Brothers and sisters are going to fight,” says Tucker. “Why not teach the more constructive forms of conflict management and conflict resolution?”
Too often, says Safer, parents turn a blind eye to the sparring. “They have no clue what to do, so they justify it. ‘Oh, it’s not so bad. It toughens them up. It builds character.’ ”
If they step in at all, she says, many parents do so on behalf of the abusive sibling.
“Many times the problem child is the one who gets more help or sympathy and the healthy sibling is told to be more understanding and compassionate,” she says. “That stays with you. I see people well into middle age who feel guilty about being abused. Who feel they weren’t sufficiently compassionate” toward their troubled sibling, even in light of the abuse.”
Far better to draw a firm distinction about what’s acceptable and what’s not. “Parents need to tell the abused child, ‘You do not have to tolerate this, and I will help you defend yourself. I will get your brother or sister professional help, and I will not permit them to harm you,’” Safer says.