From Pop Strip

Lots of people ask me how my boys get along. I never know quite how to answer. They are pals most of the time, they play and invent and create games and fun together. But they also fight. I suppose I expect it as a mother but I admit that even as a pediatrician, ex school teacher, and younger sister in life, I sometimes don’t know exactly when to intervene and when to leave them alone to resolve disputes unassisted.

Our society seems to have more tolerance for sibling bullying than peer bullying whether in the schools or at the playground or at home. Traditionally we’re taught to expect sibling rivalries and often chalk it up as an expected or normal part of childhood. “Boys will be boys,” we say.

Some experts are urging us to think again.

Sibling violence is often minimized yet new research shows this violence and bullying can have lasting and serious mental health effects.

Parents and others often minimize the frequency and severity of aggressive behavior among siblings

Typically, I’m a stickler for a no-fighting-no-warzone type home. I hate the noise that comes with fighting and I hate the tension. When things escalate I tend to banish the boys to their rooms individually to help them cool off and make apologies and amends. Sometimes I let them sort it out themselves of course, as it can work wonders to plant myself squarely on the sideline. It’s luck of the draw though on how I respond from day to day–I have no clear system on when and why I intervene. I’ve been imperfect, too –in fact one tug-o-war between the boys with a bath towel landed my older son in the ER for stitches. I wasn’t even thinking about his mental health…

New research published today offers up some compelling data for we parents unsure how and when to respond or intervene when our children fight. We may need to get more involved. Researchers found that bullying at home from siblings can have lasting effects on mental health. And by the way, it isn’t always the oldest who bullies.

Research On Siblings Who Fight Or Bully

  • Researchers studied 3,500 children and teens looking at children from 1 month to 9 years of age and 10 to 17 years of age. Children over 10 were asked directly about their siblings and violence, while those under 10 years of age were represented by the parent most commonly exposed to daily routines.
  • They asked children about “physical assault with and without a weapon or injury; stealing something from a child with or without force, or breaking siblings’ things on purpose; and saying things to make a child feel bad or scared or not wanted around.” Basically they looked at hitting, stealing stuff, being made fun of, and breaking things and counted them all as an important treason of childhood.
  • The meat of it: children and teens who reported bullying from siblings in the last year had significantly worse mental health scores as indicated by results on standardized scales for depression, anxiety, and anger. The study controlled for other kinds of bullying, maltreatment, Internet victimization, ethic background, and family education.

Tips For Keeping The Peace At Home

  1. Be clear about expectations for conflict resolution in your home. Remind your children of your expectations for respect and the value of treating each other fairly. Teach children how to avoid conflict, how to walk away, how to ask for help, and how to express how a brother or sister makes them feel.
  2. Make a zero-tolerance policy for violence, destruction of property, and ridicule in your house.
  3. Keep your promise and take away privileges when your children don’t comply with the rules.
  4. We have to keep our own behavior in check. Our consistency and model of non-violent behavior and respect cannot be understated, of course.

This is likely a work in progress for most American families. Just today I ran a little faster when I heard the conflict begin…

Don’t let your own history dictate you taking sister and brother bullying seriously. My brother and I used to fight and there are many particular details that remain in my memory. I’ve previously chalked up the memories of fighting and name-calling I endured to being a younger sister. But the data out today makes me want to work more thoughtfully to ensure my boys do better. Most of us write this stuff off as just a part of birth order and something that enhances our grit (and potentially) our wit as second or third or forth children. I would suspect some of us have had a bit more suffering than we’d like.

No more reason to wait. We can improve our children’s health by ensuring we insist on keeping the peace.