“Don’t touch that!”
“Get out of my—“
“Ooooow!” A yelp punctuated by a crash followed by a long burble of sobbing.
This happens in my house too many times a week to count. The 13-year-old martial arts devotee fiercely protects her privacy and her property. The 9-year-old practices boundary testing in the form of intrusive questions and uninvited hugs. Both girls, in school, are models of temperance. At home they are a perfect storm of stereotypical sibling warfare.
If this sounds familiar, you know that it’s supposed to be “normal.” You know that it’s just nature taking its course, allowing the survival of the fittest to work its logic via the Bratz dolls.
But sometimes you worry. At least I worry. Not just because my girls fight enough to drive my husband and me to spittle-flying stupidity. “You want to go to that fancy high school,” I sputtered during what should have been a perfectly idyllic berry-picking outing, but was peppered by mean girl fuselage. “How ‘bout you learn how to treat your sister with respect?”
I know how long these scars can last. I recall my mother – all grown up with three children of her own – talking vaguely about how she had to “get away” from her elder sister … by moving to another continent. I’ve listened as my younger brother – then in his 40s – explain why even as an adult he had to do certain things to avoid my older brother getting “mad” at him. (As the youngest child, separated by eight years, I got special amnesty from sibling conflict.) Somehow, the things that happened in childhood didn’t evaporate in the clear air of adulthood. They burned on.
So when a new study about the long-term reverberations of sibling aggression shot over the transom, it was like a train wreck: I couldn’t look the other way. Though our society has largely stopped explaining bullying as a healthy way for kids to learn about the real world, the sibling battlefield still has its proponents.
"If siblings hit each other, there's a much different reaction than if that happened between peers," explains associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire Corinna Jenkins Tucker. "It's often dismissed, seen as something that's normal or harmless. Some parents even think it's beneficial, as good training for dealing with conflict and aggression in other relationships."
But if Tucker's work has any effect, those days are numbered. According to a new study led by Tucker, sibling aggression leads to significantly worse mental health outcomes in children and adolescents. In fact, there are instances in which the effects of sibling aggression are as powerful as those of peer aggression – i.e. bullying.
The study analyzed a national sample of 3,599 children, ages one month through 17 years, from the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV), tracking the incidences of physical assault (with and without a weapon or injury), stealing or breaking into a sibling’s possessions, as well as verbal aggression, including disparaging remarks and insults. The research, which appears in the July 2013 issue of Pediatrics, showed that children who suffered property and psychological aggression – such as stealing things or verbal abuse – at the hands of their siblings showed the same level of increased depression, anger, and anxiety as those children subject to similar kinds of aggression from peers.
In other words, sibling aggression can be as damaging as peer bullying – no matter what we call it. It's not a new idea -- parenting guru Christine Carter argues the same in a GreatSchools’ video interview -- but it's the first time the effects of such sibling aggression have been subjected to such scientific scrutiny.
Tucker argues that the findings should trigger a change in parental and educational attitudes. “The aggression among siblings should be taken just as seriously as that among peers,” she told the New York Times, adding that programs that address bullying in schools should add a focus on sibling abuse as well.
The problem for parents? Seeing clearly what is right before our eyes. They are our beloved children, after all. Our very gaze casts the gauzy light of bias. How do we know in the moment, is a particular struggle between our children harmless acts of competition and conflict – or are they incidences of sibuse?
According to experts, the distinction comes from the power differential. If one child remains consistently the victim of the other’s physical or verbal aggression – even if it’s only name-calling – it’s abuse. It sounds very clear, but that's easier said than discerned. Sometimes I know I over react, othertimes I fear I under react – in the middle of the conflict, I rarely know who to believe. Sometimes when I think my elder has crossed a line by lashing out, and I lay down the line with her, the younger one comes to her rescue and explains that she was actually exaggerating and pretending to be hurt. It’s an ever changing Roshomon tale of slammed doors and innuendo and stolen cookies.
How do you deal with sibling rivalry? I’d love to hear your stories and your struggles. Have your ideas changed as your children grow older? Does your own childhood experience influence your approach as a parent?