Why Do We Normalize Sibling Bullying?

by Zoe Ferguson

To put it simply, the sibling relationship has always been a mystery. Why do we treat each other the way we do? Why are some siblings subject to intense rivalries and some become best friends for life? Why do some siblings become estranged, and some — though not many — pull a Cain and Abel? One central aspect of the sibling relationship that might lie at the heart at some of these questions is the presence of aggression, or bullying, between brothers and sisters. According to a recent study, sibling bullying is more common than schoolyard bullying, and it can be just as damaging.

The study, which was published in December 2014 by a team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is called "All in the Family: A Retrospective Study Comparing Sibling Bullying and Peer Bullying." Researchers examined a sample of 392 young adults to see how many of them were targeted by siblings and how many of those victims reported the bullying to someone outside the family. Interestingly, the research team found that kids being victimized by their siblings were significantly less likely to report it to an outsider — a teacher, for example — than kids being tormented by, say, a classmate.

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According to the researchers, there is "virtually no research [that] has addressed the question of whether or not sibling aggression or abuse can be classified as bullying." In the study, bullying is defined as the repeated exposure of one person (usually children) to negative actions — physical, emotional, verbal, you name it — at the hands of one or more other people in a deliberate effort to cause pain. The study acknowledges that one reason why sibling aggression has been classified mostly as a "forgotten abuse" is because there is no readily apparent, established power imbalance between children.

I'm not sure this quite holds up. As I'm sure many people with brothers and sisters will agree, the power differential between kids in a family is often very clear — at least to those in the family. The "All in the Family" study says that these power differences can be linked to "naturally occurring characteristics such as age or gender." It's certainly true that traditional power dynamics may play out in the home, giving older children and/or boys more control over others. If sibling aggression plays out according to these rules, it makes sense that it is rare for children to report it to people outside the family. This kind of aggression is normalized not only within the home, but across our society — who is going to blink at reports of a senior member of a group patronizing a younger rookie, or a boy being aggressive to a girl?

It's a sad truth that aggression is so common that it often does not warrant attention. But if we are going to get at why dismissal of these abuses occurs, we need to look at aggression between siblings that doesn't follow these patterns. Sometimes girls bully boys, or middle siblings or younger siblings can hold the position of power within their family dynamic. When this happens, one might expect that the child would report it to an outsider just because of how culturally anomalous it is. Why is my younger sister being mean to me, a boy might wonder. His bewilderment at why his traditional power role is being subverted might lead him to ask questions.

The "All in the Family" study tells us that children are less likely to question or report aggression by siblings because the behavior is somehow normalized. How and why is sibling abuse normalized?

Within The Family

Interfamily relationships are super-complicated. Once a power dynamic is established, it becomes The Way Things Are. This is especially relevant when abuse between siblings is psychological. According to the study:

As Whipple (1995) noted, psychological maltreatment by siblings may be a harmful and highly prevalent form of abuse, but it is not widely researched, as most research on negative sibling behaviors focuses primarily on physical abuse. Bullying research, in contrast, often includes verbal or relational aggression. If sibling aggression can be considered bullying, researchers can benefit from using well-established definitions and measurements to study all forms of aggression, not just physical.

Whereas peer bullying research focuses on name-calling and verbal abuse, people seem to only take note of sibling aggression when it involves physical violence. The study suggests that if sibling aggression is indeed bullying — which it implies it is — then it is only appropriate to consider all kinds of abuse in research, follow-up, and policy. According to the research conducted in the study, more than 40 percent of the students questioned said that "bullying" was an accurate term for what they experienced with their siblings.

Outside The Family

According to the new study, sibling abuse is actually the most common form of interpersonal abuse in the United States, so everyone is used to it. It would make sense that this is probably one of the biggest reasons why children are less likely to report sibling aggression to outside sources — if they do say something, they might hear that bullying is just as much a part of any sibling relationship as an uneven power dynamic is.

Why It Needs To End

Even if kids might feel that their brother or sister's cruelty is just part of normal life, they need to be taught that bullying at home is just as harmful as bullying at school. We see plenty of activism in schools and in the popular media about why peer aggression is damaging and can lead to negative self-image and even tragic suicides, in some well-publicized cases. But schools don't teach — maybe because they don't know — that sibling abuse can hurt, too. According to a study by the University of Oxford, children who experience sibling bullying at age 12 are twice as likely to experience depression at age 18. The study says:

Sibling bullying may be a widespread and serious problem; however, if the problem remains within the family, it may never be discovered and adequately prevented. Current peer bullying interventions and education programs could be expanded to include sibling bullying, which might increase awareness and, hopefully, reporting.

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