Almost 80% of American children grow up with a sibling. For many, siblings are lifemates, close confidants, and sharers of memories. But siblings are also natural competitors for parental attention. When siblings view parents’ love and attention as limited or skewed in favor of their sibling, rivalry can ensue.
Rivalry can motivate children to develop unique talents, abilities — such as in school, sports, or music — and other characteristics to capture their parents’ attention. However, sometimes rivalry can lead to jealousy and bickering – and too much of it can lead to aggression, bullying, and even abuse and violence.
We are researchers that focus on sibling dynamics, parenting, and mental health. Conflicts between siblings are generally considered normal but in the past decade, a new body of research consistently shows that sibling aggression and abuse are far from harmless — and can have lifelong consequences.
Aggressive behavior is characterized by the intent to cause harm, including physical pain and humiliation. Many sibling behaviors fit this definition.
In 2013, we found data on more than 1,700 American children one-third of children under the age of 18 experience it physical, material, or psychological victimization of siblings in the previous year. In fact, sibling aggression is the most common form of family violenceof more children fall victim to a brother or sister than to a caregiver. It is a form of family violence that is not talked about, despite being ubiquitous.
Great efforts have been put into it reduce peer aggression, more commonly known as peer bullying. The negative consequences of peer bullying are widely recognised. But a 2015 study of 4,000 American children found that more are being victimized over the course of a year by a sibling (21.8%) than by a peer (15.6%).
When peer bullying occurs, parents want it to stop — and experts encourage parents to talk to their kids about what happened. Corrective actions may include help the bully develop understanding and empathy.
But if the same aggressive behavior is exhibited by siblings, then so are they usually dismissed by parents And even by the victim siblings themselves. In fact, victim blaming is commonwhere the victim sibling is accused of angering the abusive sibling or being overly sensitive.
Confusion about the difference between sibling rivalry and aggression causes people to fail to recognize it. Aggressive behavior, such as pushing, hitting, or breaking cherished personal items, goes beyond mild conflict or casual bickering. But parents often rationalize sibling aggressive behavior — it’s just rivalry, it’s normal, no one got hurt. Sometimes adults even think it is good for children’s development dealing with aggressive behavior – that’s it makes them tougher.
For some, sibling aggression can be chronic and turning to sibling abuse, which can cause physical or psychological harm. Abuse includes items, weapons, multiple tormentors, or assaults. About 4% of American children report that during incidents where their sibling punched, kicked, or punched them, they were injured or a weapon was used. A widespread notion is Sibling aggression cannot be abuse. But for a surprising number of children, yes. This false belief has led many to suffer in silence.
Long term effects
Sibling aggression has been linked to poorer mental and physical health over the lifetimes of perpetrators and victims. Both experience higher rates of depression, substance use, overdue And insomnia. Moreover, data shows only one incident of victimization at the hands of a sibling is linked to poorer mental health in childhood and adolescence.
Experiences of sibling aggression also affect other relationships. Parent-child relationships can suffer. Some victims may be estranged from their sibling and parents. In addition, aggression and victimization between siblings is often reflected in equal And dating relationships.
Origins of Sibling Aggression and Abuse
The cause of sibling aggression may be rooted in family dynamics. Parents can model negative behaviors that are then repeated by children.
Our research found parental conflict, violence and harsh parenting are all associated with it sibling victimization. In another study, we showed that family adversity – such as job loss, illness and death – was also associated sibling aggression and abuse.
Certain personality traits, such as low empathy and angerare also associated with being aggressive towards a sibling.
Prevention and intervention
Parents often just want to stop the behavior and move on — or ignore it. However, this is a missed opportunity to learn important social skills. To help children build positive relationships in their lives, parents need to learn how to navigate conflict in a healthy way.
When aggressive behavior occurs, parents should interrupt it immediately. Without taking sides, parents can help their children learn skills from an early age that reduce aggression, such as listening, seeing another person’s perspective, managing anger, negotiating, and solving problems. These important skills reduce destructive conflicts And his associated with better mental health. They may also prevent aggression in other types of relationships.
In cases of sibling abuse, it is not appropriate to teach sibling conflict resolution skills. Participating in mediation can further victimize the targeted child when there is an imbalance of power and potentially or actually serious harm. Being victimized and abused is not a form of rivalry; it requires the family to seek help from a mental or physical health professional.
Research shows it’s time to change the commonplace notion that aggressive siblings are harmless. Caregivers should take this behavior as seriously as peer bullying or other forms of family violence. Addressing sibling aggression and abuse can improve children’s mental and physical well-being, as well as the quality of their relationships, both within and outside the family.