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Sibling bullying may cause as much mental health damage as peer bullying

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Sibling taunting, seemingly harmless to some, may cause deep psychological scars that lead to mental health problems like depression and anxiety.

A new study shows aggression by a brother or sister was linked to significantly worse mental health in children and adolescents when compared to kids who hadn't been bullied by their siblings. The researchers said the effects of sibling bullying could be just as bad as being harassed by a peer, which has been linked to an increased risk for psychological problems come adulthood.

"Even kids who reported just one instance had more mental health distress," lead author Corinna Jenkins Tucker, associate professor of family studies at UNH and lead author of the research, said in a press release. "Our study shows that sibling aggression is not benign for children and adolescents, regardless of how severe or frequent."

Researchers looked at data from the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV), which included a national sample of nearly 3,600 children between the ages of one month and 17 years old.

Thirty-two percent of the children reported being bullied by a sibling. Steven Pastyrnak, a child psychologist at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., said to MedPage Today he was surprised at how high the number of bullied kids was.

"It's mind-boggling to know how many kids that are actually feeling that they're being bullied within their own households," Pastyrnak, who was not involved with the study, said. "That really does have a large impact on the emotional health of our kids."

The researchers looked for signs of mental health problems that signaled depression or anxiety issues. The effects of mental health distress due to mild sibling bullying were more profound for younger kids between the ages of 1 month to 9 years old than older kids between the ages of 10 to 17 years of age. However, the overall rates of mental health problems brought on by aggression perpetrated by siblings was about the same regardless of age.

Similarly, a previous study published December 2012 in Child Development revealed that teens that fought with their brothers and sisters showed more anxiety, depression and/or self-esteem issues a year later.

Although peer bullying was previously thought to cause more serious problems for sufferers, the mental health of kids who experienced property or psychological aggression was about the same, regardless if it was caused by a brother, sister or an unrelated peer.

"If siblings hit each other, there's a much different reaction than if that happened between peers," Tucker explained. "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."

John V. Caffaro, a clinical psychologist and the author of "Sibling Abuse Trauma," who was not involved in the study, told the New York Times that sibling violence happens four to five times more often than spousal or parental child abuse. It's often not reported because families often ignore physical fights, and explain it as kids just being kids.

"Our society tends to minimize child-on-child violence in general," he added. "We have these ideas that if you're hurt by a child it's less injurious than if you're hurt by an adult, but the data don't support that."

He pointed out that parents may actually increase hatred between siblings by choosing a favorite, labeling children in order to highlight differences or by not mediating problems between siblings.

The researchers said that pediatricians should bring up this information to parents during routine visits, and parents should be better educated through programs that deal with sibling aggression and teach them how to fix conflicts between their children.

The study was published in Pediatrics on June 17.