Brother and sisters fighting with each other is exceedingly common, but these behaviors often get chalked up to typical sibling interactions, or even a rite of passage that can toughen kids up. A new study from the journal Pediatrics, however, finds evidence that there may be real mental health consequences to these intense conflicts.
The data come the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence. In this national probability sample, over 3500 children and adolescents participated in a telephone interview from phone numbers selected randomly. Items from the Juvenile Victimization Questionnaire were used to examine three types of aggression occurring in the previous year: psychological (feeling bad or scared due to a sibling’s verbal attacks), property (forcibly taking or destroying something), and physical aggression. Mental health symptoms were assessed using the Trauma Symptom Checklist. Analyses of covariance were used to examine mental health scores between children who did and did not experience different types of sibling aggression, controlling for some demographic variables and victimization from other sources.
While not explicitly reported, it appears that 40% of children and adolescents experienced sibling aggression of some form. Furthermore, those who did were found to have higher mental health distress than those who did not report such sibling conflict. The effect of “mild” physical aggression (i.e. did not involve a weapon or lead to injury) seemed to be particularly difficult for younger children less than 10 years old. Cumulative effects were found for those experiencing greater amounts of sibling aggression and those who experienced both peer and sibling aggression.
The authors summarize that there are observable negative effects on children from sibling aggression that should not be dismissed as typical and harmless behavior. They advocated that current anti-bullying campaigns should consider explicitly including sibling aggression as a target.
This study is a wake-up call to clinicians, warning us not to dismiss sibling aggression as a benign part of growing up. For clinicians, assessment and treatment of aggressive siblings could likely have positive effects on many family members. The study would have been strengthened, however, with more anchor points regarding the prevalence of sibling aggression and effect sizes of these behaviors. One aspect that was not accounted for, as is quite common in studies like this, was genetic effects. It may be that shared genes contribute both to a child’s mental health problems and his or her sibling’s aggression. Finally, what do we make of the rate of 40% of child and adolescent subjects reporting some sort of sibling aggression in the past year? This rate seems fairly low and casts some doubt for me on how questions were asked. Eliminating all sibling conflict seems to be a tall order in my view, and more information on what things can really lead to feelings of fear and intimidation would be useful.
Tucker CJ, et al. Association of sibling aggression with child and adolescent mental health. Pediatrics 2013; 132:79-84.