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Study: Bullying by siblings damages mental health

July 25, 2013

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Bullying doesn’t just occur on the playground or in the classroom. It can happen at home between siblings.

A new study published online in the July issue of the journal “Pediatrics” found that being physically or mentally bullied by a sibling can be as damaging to the victim’s mental health as being bullied by a classmate or peer.

Often dismissed as sibling rivalry, aggressive behavior by a sibling that escalates can produce anger, anxiety and depression in the victim, whether a child or a teen.

“The mobilization to prevent and stop peer victimization and bullying should expand to encompass sibling aggression as well,” said the study, which was lead by Corinna Jenkins Tucker, associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire.

Bullying by siblings often goes unrecognized and unreported in the home.

“I think because parents expect some level of aggression between their children, they may or may not recognize when that has become a real problem,” said Tim Goldsmith, a doctor of marriage and family therapy and chief clinical officer at Youth Villages, a private nonprofit organization that helps children with emotional, behavioral and mental health issues and their families. Goldsmith has been helping families and their emotionally and behaviorally challenged children for more than 25 years.

There are three defining characteristic that determine if behavior is bullying, Goldsmith said. Parents should be aware of them when assessing sibling relationships.

How to recognize bullying:

  • It’s deliberate. The bully intends to hurt someone physically or emotionally.
  • It’s repeated. The bully targets the same victim over and over.
  • There’s a power imbalance. The child who bullies chooses a victim he or she perceives as vulnerable.

How to prevent or stop sibling bullying:

  • Set the expectation that the home is a safe place and bullying will not be tolerated.
  • Parents should model the behavior they want to see from their children. Don’t discipline aggressively or in anger; show the proper respect for each member of the family and praise your children when they do, too. Practice clear and consistent discipline.
  • Cultivate a close parent-child relationship.
  • Establish open communication and trust within the family. Listen to your children and respond if they say they are being emotionally or physically abused in any way – by any person, even a brother or sister.
  • Find out what’s behind the bullying behavior. Perhaps the child is seeking attention or being bullied at school.
  • Find positive ways for siblings to interact (family game night, outings and family meals).
  • Teach children ways to “cool down” before they react, such as counting to 10, listening to music, taking a walk – whatever strategy works best for each individual child. These coping skills are beneficial in all situations. Be sure and praise to reinforce good behavior.
  • Provide appropriate supervision and involvement in your child’s life. If bullying is occurring, increase parental supervision and don’t leave the children involved together unsupervised.
  • Make sure your children have appropriate and reliable social support everywhere they go, including at school, among friends and in community and religious environments. Caregivers and babysitters should be made aware of the bullying behavior and re-enforce parental steps taken to resolve it.
  • Let your child know he or she isn’t the only one who has ever experienced bullying, and you are going to take steps to protect him.
  • Watch carefully for any suicidal thoughts or actions. Children who are bullied are at high risk for attempting suicide, Goldsmith said. Bullies are also at risk for mental health issues, including depression and alcohol and drug use.

“I think it’s helpful for parents to recognize the sibling relationship is unique in that it is a really great opportunity to learn how to negotiate with another person, how to resolve conflict with another person, how to be empathetic with another person,” Goldsmith said. “If you set those parameters in your home, the sibling experience can be a good one and a wonderful way to learn healthy social interactions.”

Youth Villages is a private nonprofit organization dedicated to helping emotionally and behaviorally troubled children and their families live successfully. This year, Youth Villages will help more than 20,000 children, young people and families in 11 states and Washington, D.C., through its Evidentiary Family Restoration™ approach. Youth Villages’ wide array of programs, including intensive in-home services, residential treatment, foster care and adoption, transitional living services, mentoring and crisis services, centers on the five strategies of EFR: family, measurement, community, intensity and accountability. Youth Villages has been recognized by Harvard Business School and U.S. News & World Report, and was recognized by the White House as a model for data-driven social innovation. It was named one of America’s 50 Best Nonprofits to Work For in 2010 and 2011 by the Nonprofit Times and Best Companies Group.

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