Victims of sibling aggression suffer consequences

By Susan Gonsalves
October 1st, 2013

Even one incident of sibling aggression causes mental distress among children and adolescents according to recently-published research in Pediatrics.

Study authors from the University of New Hampshire analyzed data from the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence using a random sample of 3,599 children ages one month to 17 representing all geographic regions. They conducted telephone interviews with youth ages 10 to 17 and spoke with caregivers concerning younger victims.

Lead author Corinna Jenkins Tucker, Ph.D., UNH associate professor of family studies, notes that the mental health effects of various forms of aggression were considered such as physical abuse with or without a weapon and injury; property theft or damage; and psychological abuse including name-calling, verbal threats and insults as well as exclusion.

The study also compared the consequences of sibling versus peer aggression on youth. It concluded that both types predicted worsened mental health for victims. In some cases, children and adolescents experienced both forms.

She says that the impact of sibling aggression on youth should not be dismissed. “Efforts to prevent and stop bullying and peer victimization should expand to include sibling aggression,” Tucker says. “Both cause mental distress for the victim but with siblings, it’s generally thought of as rivalry and something that everyone experiences.”

Co-author Heather Turner, Ph.D., professor of sociology and senior associate at UNH’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, says that it can be argued that conflict among siblings is more “potent and chronic, difficult to escape and therefore creates general anxiety and can be more damaging to a child’s well being.”

“The fact that many parents see the behavior as normal and not a big deal is the wrong thinking,” Turner says. “The (study) findings say we should all be concerned. All types of aggression – psychological, physical – minor or not, are damaging to children’s mental health. Violence in the household involves more than just a child witnessing it between parents. When it happens between siblings, it’s an important part of the larger picture. And we must recognize that it does occur substantially more than is realized.”

Turner says that the research’s message includes the fact that kids in the U.S. are often victims in multiple ways. They may react by internalizing deep anxiety or social withdrawal. Or, they may act out with excessive anger or other destructive behavior, she says.

“This (issue) must be elevated in the minds of practitioners and the public and addressed,” Turner says.

Tucker agrees that sibling aggression must be taken more seriously by parents and professionals, opening up opportunities for them to teach more constructive forms of conflict management, reasoning and perspective taking.

Turner adds that the next step involves conducting additional national surveys to track trends over time and looking at groups of children likely to be more vulnerable to this form of aggression.

Other study authors were David Finkelhor, Ph.D., center director and professor of sociology and Anne Shattuck, MA, researcher, also at UNH’s Crimes Against Children Research Center.

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