By Jennifer Pinarski
Experts estimate that brothers and sisters fight up to eight times an hour. As the parent of an 8-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter, some days I’d say that number is on the conservative side.
Most fights between my children are short-lived and rarely physical, so much so that I rarely intervene when the bickering begins. After all, I fought with my brother and sister, so what’s the harm in letting my kids duke it out?
Dr. Corinna Jenkins Tucker, a professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of New Hampshire, believes that no amount of violence in the family is acceptable.
“Siblings are the most violent family relationship,” says Tucker, who has studied family relationships for 20 years.
In 2013, she published a landmark research in the medical journal Pediatrics that uncovered startling evidence of the negative impact of sibling aggression on their brothers’ and sisters’ mental health.
Being bullied by a sibling is more devastating than being bullied by a peer: Researchers found that 32 per cent of children and adolescents reported sibling victimization in the past year, and their mental-health distress was greater than that of those who had not been victimized by their sibling. The effects can last well into adolescence.
As well, children and adolescents who are victimized by their siblings are more likely to be victimized by peers.
If that’s the case, why do parents let sibling bullying slide?
Not always taken seriously
"Some parents even think it's beneficial, as good training for dealing with conflict and aggression in other relationships," Tucker says. “If siblings hit each other, there's a much different reaction than if that happened between peers.
"It's often dismissed, seen as something that's normal or harmless."
While physical confrontations between siblings is the most common type of aggression (especially between brothers), Tucker points out that parents should also watch for psychological bullying, such as exclusion and name calling.
Diane Porter was three years old when her sister Frances was born with a rare, life-threatening health condition. Her parents focused their attention on Baby Frances, who was not expected to live.
“As a three-year-old, I didn't get it,” Porter says. “I just noticed how nobody was paying that much attention to me.
Miraculously, baby Frances lived, but she still struggled, health-wise.
Porter barely coped with feelings of jealousy, and began to weave an elaborate web of lies that made her younger sister believe she was adopted. With so few photographs of Frances’ early days, it was easy for Porter to hide them away.
“I told her she was adopted because her real parents had had her by mistake and couldn't take care of her—she was so little and believed everything,” Porter recalls. “I told her that that's why she got everything she wanted and why people were always feeling bad for her.”
Porter kept up the deception for seven years. By the time the girls were in their early teens, she saw the damage she’d done to her sister’s self-esteem and her relationship with her mother, and confessed.
If three seems young to be bullying another sibling, consider this: Tucker discovered that sibling victimization can be experienced as early as at age two, and peaks just before adolescence.
What can parents do?
Because sibling aggression tends to be treated as a social norm, parents may not know how to correctly identify—and stop—the problem.
One tool Tucker used to gauge the severity of aggression among siblings was the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Young Children.
The checklist contains about 25 items, and asks children about their feelings, in particular fear, anger and anxiety. These are among the symptoms that parents should watch for if they suspect their child is being bullied by a sibling.
If getting your kids to stop fighting seems impossible, Tucker tells parents to ensure that the conflicts they do have are constructive.
“Constructive conflicts are characterized by negotiation, perspective taking, reasoning and are resolved in a way that satisfies both siblings,” she says. “Destructive conflict is noted for being affectively intense, lacking a resolution and one sibling might be feeling like they are winner or loser in the fight.”
Acting as a neutral third party when battles erupt is key.
Parents can help by training their children to manage conflict. “Your job as a parent is to create socially competent people. When you set ground rules for acceptable behaviour and let your children agree on the solution, the result will be kids who are pro-social,” Tucker says.
Now 30 and a mother herself, Porter proudly reports she has a close relationship with not only her sister, but also her mother and younger brother. But the memories she has from her childhood are still vivid, and she says they have helped her deal better with her two sons.