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A study reported recently in the journal Pediatrics found that there can possibly be more to sibling rivalry than a little friendly competition. It can be linked to mental health problems.

Nearly 3600 children ages birth to 17 were asked to describe incidents of aggression perpetrated on them by a sibling over the past year (parents responded in place of their children ages 9 and younger).

Researchers found that children who experienced aggression at the hands of a sibling, including physical harm, intimidation, taunting, excessive teasing, and intentional destruction of toys or other property, suffered mental distress severe enough to leave lasting emotional scars.

For these children, sibling rivalry had escalated to the level of bullying. They felt unsafe in their homes.

Lead author of the study, Corinna Jenkins Tucker, concedes that “siblings are going to fight.” What was different for some of the siblings in her study was the level of animosity and seriousness of the conflict. Jenkins Tucker notes that sibling victims were much more likely than other children to be anxious, depressed, or angry, even if the hostility appeared to be “not that bad” or “only being mean, not actually hurting anyone.”

Parents come to expect sibling rivalry as a normal part of family life. But parents should be aware of what is going on between their children. They should take seriously a child’s complaints about his brother or sister and note if the rivalry has escalated into something more. Parents should definitely intervene to protect a child from being bullied at home.

What can you do if your children seriously don’t get along? What can you do if you believe one child’s treatment her brother or sister is harmful? According to Jenkins Tucker, kids can be taught to fight fair:

1. Take time to teach children how to see another person’s point of view.

2. Teach children how to negotiate a solution, instead of needing to win.

3. Model good behavior yourself: avoid shaming, sarcasm, name-calling, and hitting. Avoid using threats and extortion to control children’s behavior.

4. Model good conflict resolution skills. Remember that a child who bullies others often was bullied himself.

Being the target of a bully doesn’t make a child stronger or tougher. It only makes him sad, scared and angry.

All your children deserve to feel safe at home.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.