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Is Sibling 'Bullying' As Harmful As Peer Bullying?

Defining all aggression as bullying becomes problematic in trying to fully understand the behavior and find effective ways to prevent it.
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Findings from a new study by researchers at the University of New Hampshire and published in the journal Pediatrics have created a media firestorm over sibling bullying. Headlines across major media outlets this week warned parents, "your children are bullying each other, and it's just as bad as when they get bullied at school."

As a researcher by training, I tracked down the original article to clarify these headlines. Even by the title of the article, "Association of Sibling Aggression With Child and Adolescent Mental Health," it's clear that there is a definitional disconnect between the research and news headlines -- the researchers specifically and clearly measure peer and sibling aggression and victimization; they never once use the term "bullying" in their research.

As we point out on our RFK Project SEATBELT website, there is little agreement about the definition of bullying. However, as pointed out by researchers at the recent American Education Research Association meeting, defining all aggression as bullying becomes problematic in trying to fully understand the behavior and find effective ways to prevent it. What typically distinguishes bullying from the more general term, "aggression," are the concepts of repetition, or fear of repetition, and power imbalance, neither of which was measured in this study.

This in no way discredits the importance of the study's findings. In fact, the study, which uses advance methods to ensure the findings represent the broad United States population, is one of the most comprehensive looks at sibling aggression to date. The researchers find that physical (assault with weapons and without), property (forcefully stealing property) and psychological (a combination of both verbal teasing and social exclusion) sibling aggression uniquely predict mental health distress, even when the same types of peer aggression are controlled for. Around 32% of youth 0-17 experience one form of sibling bullying and 8% experience 2 or more forms, meaning the majority (60%) of youth report no sibling aggression. For those who experience both sibling and peer property or psychological aggression, the resulting mental distress is not more than if they experience either on its own (for physical aggression, peer and sibling aggressions compound each other and do result in increased mental distress).

So, what do these results mean? The aggression the researchers define is not bullying nor is it typical sibling conflict -- conflict among siblings is normal and such interactions with siblings help youth develop social skills with peers. Most youth with siblings experience sibling conflict, but as evidenced by the study, most experienced no sibling aggression, as defined by the researchers. Both sibling and peer aggression that rises to the level defined in this study are both behaviors for which to be concerned. What this study gives us is a warning about what sibling conflict can grow into, and the importance for parents to be proactive and take preventative steps for both bullying and sibling aggression.

Definitions matter when it comes to talking about and reporting on bullying, conflict and aggression. Media reports that oversimplify and misrepresent these behaviors may end up being counterproductive and hurt our efforts to prevent negative outcomes in youth. This does not mean we should dismiss studies like this one, nor dismiss the experiences of our youth, just because they don't match the definition of bullying. But we need to be vigilant consumers about the information we receive and how it applies to our efforts to effectively prevent and respond to the different experiences of bullying, aggression, victimization and conflict.