Brotherly Love? Sibling Bullying Is Underestimated

The day my second son was born, a nurse — who had raised two boys of her own — offered advice: “When they get upset with each other, let them fight it out. They won’t kill each other.” She also added: “Just make sure they fight outside, so they don’t get blood on your carpet.” Fights between siblings, even physically violent ones, are expected –- and accepted –- in society, but is this attitude appropriate and healthy? A new study reports that sibling bullying is under-recognized, and it can have serious adverse consequences for mental health and overall well-being.

Researchers from the University of New Hampshire interviewed nearly 3600 adolescents aged 10 to 17 years and caregivers of children aged 9 and under. The interviews were conducted as part of the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, and the study, published online by the journal Pediatrics, is one of the first to use a nationally representative sample to address the occurrence and consequences of sibling bullying.

Each child in the study had at least one sibling under age 18 living at home. Participants were asked if the adolescent or child had been bullied –- defined as physical assault, property victimization, or psychological aggression –- by a sibling in the past year. They were also asked if the adolescent or child experienced anger, depression, or anxiety in the previous month.

In all, 8% of the adolescents and children experienced at least two types of bullying. Children who were even mildly physically assaulted had higher levels of mental distress than adolescents who were assaulted. Outcomes did not differ between groups for other types of bullying. Any type of sibling aggression predicted worse mental health.

Despite society-wide efforts to stop bullying at school and online, very little attention is paid to sibling relationships. A small survey of 27 sibling pairs reported that 78% of children reported being bullied by their siblings, and 85% reported being perpetrators of bullying at some point. Another study reported that as many as half of all siblings are bullied every month and up to 20% are bullied every week. Involvement in sibling bullying increased the risk of involvement in school bullying, and children involved in both school and sibling bullying were 14 times more likely to experience behavioral or emotional problems compared to those involved in bullying in one or no settings.

Those who love us the most can hurt us the most, and this is markedly true in relationships with siblings. Siblings will almost undoubtedly experience rivalry, jealousy, anger, and resentment at some point in their childhood and adolescence. But, these feelings should be managed by healthy communication and emotional outlets. Parents can promote and support positive sibling relationships, rather than tolerating violence or hostility that can lead to negative mental health consequences and decrease the well-being of children and the entire family.

According to the authors of the current study, parents should act as mediators in cases of sibling bullying, as well as teach and model constructive conflict resolution skills. So far, my boys haven’t spilled any blood on my carpet, or elsewhere. That I know of.


Ensor R, Marks A, Jacobs L, & Hughes C (2010). Trajectories of antisocial behaviour towards siblings predict antisocial behaviour towards peers. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines, 51 (11), 1208-16 PMID: 20584100

Menesini E, Camodeca M, & Nocentini A (2010). Bullying among siblings: the role of personality and relational variables. The British journal of developmental psychology, 28 (Pt 4), 921-39 PMID: 21121475

Skinner JA, & Kowalski RM (2013). Profiles of sibling bullying. Journal of interpersonal violence, 28 (8), 1726-36 PMID: 23348680

Tucker CJ, Finkelhor D, Turner H, & Shattuck A (2013). Association of sibling aggression with child and adolescent mental health. Pediatrics, 132 (1), 79-84 PMID: 23776124

Wolke D, & Skew AJ (2012). Bullying among siblings. International journal of adolescent medicine and health, 24 (1), 17-25 PMID: 22909908

Image via pio3/Shutterstock.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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