Jeanne Safer didn't need a study to tell her that sibling aggression can cause a child as much distress as being bullied by a peer.
Safer, a psychoanalyst and author of "Cain's Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret" (Basic Books), hears it firsthand from her patients, many of whom are carrying mental — and sometimes physical — scars from familial skirmishes well into adulthood.
"Being bullied by someone you live with 24/7 for 20 years of your life has at least the same effect as a kid on the schoolground? This is news?" Safer asks rhetorically. "You're bullied in your safe haven, in your bedroom, at the dinner table, in the backyard, when your friends come over. This is a problem hiding in plain sight."
Not anymore. A new study in the journal Pediatrics finds that sibling aggression is associated with "significantly worse" mental health in children and adolescents compared to kids who don't experience sibling bullying. Researchers interviewed kids ages 10 to 17 and caregivers of children up to 9 years old to measure the fallout from physical assaults, destruction or theft of property, threats, name-calling and other psychological aggression.
One-third of the children said they were victimized by a brother or sister in the previous year and reported higher rates of anxiety, depression and anger as a result.
"What has been accepted as normal or even good training between siblings is looked at very differently when the same behaviors happen between peers," says lead author Corinna Jenkins Tucker, an associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire. "It's a subject that's typically been dismissed or chalked up to sibling rivalry. But you can have a natural rivalry that doesn't end with someone feeling like a victim."
Tucker hopes the results will change the way we approach sibling relationships. "There are lots of programs out there to prevent peer aggression, but rarely is there a focus on sibling aggression," she says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies bullying as a major public health concern, citing research that shows children who are bullied are at greater risk for depression and anxiety, lower academic scores and broader health complaints that can last into adulthood.
Very little public attention has been paid to decreasing the incidents of sibling bullying, though. Within their new study, Tucker and her co-authors push for a more vigorous approach to the problem.
"The mobilization to prevent and stop peer victimization and bullying should expand to encompass sibling aggression as well," the study states. "Parents, pediatricians and the public should treat sibling aggression as potentially harmful and something not to be dismissed as normal, minor or even beneficial."
A conflict-free home is an unrealistic goal — and also an undesirable one, experts say. Conflict can be a powerful teacher.
"Brothers and sisters are going to fight," says Tucker. "Why not teach the more constructive forms of conflict management and conflict resolution?
"Your sibling is one of the first people you learn to fight with," she adds. "There have been studies showing how the nature of your conflict with your siblings is related to the kind of conflict you have with your dating partners."
Too often, says Safer, parents turn a blind eye to the sparring. "They have no clue what to do, so they justify it. 'Oh, it's not so bad. It toughens them up. It builds character.'"
If they step in at all, she says, many parents do so on behalf of the abusive sibling.
"Many times the problem child is the one who gets more help or sympathy and the healthy sibling is told to be more understanding and compassionate," she says. "That stays with you. I see people well into middle age who feel guilty about being abused. Who feel they weren't sufficiently compassionate" toward their troubled sibling, even in light of the abuse.
Far better to draw a firm distinction about what's acceptable and what's not. "Parents need to tell the abused child, 'You do not have to tolerate this, and I will help you defend yourself. I will get your brother or sister professional help, and I will not permit them to harm you,'" Safer says. "(They) need to be conscious of the effects of what goes on with their children."
Noted child and family therapist Patti Criswell, who teaches graduate courses in social work at Western Michigan University, compares parents ignoring sibling bullying to superiors not protecting women in the military from being assaulted by their fellow service members.
"It's on a different scale, I realize," she says. "But the trauma of being assaulted by a comrade is another whole level than being assaulted by an enemy. And if ... your parents don't protect you from your abusive sibling — it leads to kids feeling like they aren't safe in their own homes.
"I hear parents say, 'Oh, they'll work it out on their own,'" Criswell says. "They're rolling the dice. Maybe they will, maybe they won't. But what problem-solving skills are your kids learning from being aggressive? Or from having to be passive in the face of aggression?"
Sibling conflict, by the book
Looking for some guidance on ending the sibling aggression in your own home? Start with these three titles.
"Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too" by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (W. W. Norton and Co.). Widely considered the bible of sibling relationship books, it steers parents away from behavior that feeds rivalries (comparing siblings, taking sides, etc.) and offers tips for defusing fights in healthy, honest ways.
"The Normal One: Life With a Difficult or Damaged Sibling"
by Jeanne Safer (The Free Press).
This exploration of the lasting effects of a troubled child's sibling aggression on the "normal" sibling serves as a cautionary tale for parents tempted to turn a blind eye to the sparring.
"Just Tell Me What to Say: SensibleTips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents"
by Betsy Brown Braun (HarperCollins).
Aimed at parents of younger kids, this manual has tips for building a foundation of respect and open communication among all family members, with the ultimate authority resting with the grown-ups.
— H.S.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun