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Sibling Fights Damage Mental Health Like School Bullying, Study Suggests

Update Date: Jun 17, 2013 01:54 PM EDT

Remember the times your older brother or sister barred you from their room, and you took revenge by reading their diary or breaking their favorite toy? Now, you're probably recalling those "silly" childhood clashes and laughing them off them as a normal part of growing up.

However, a new study reveals that sibling aggression may actually cause deep psychological scars that lead to mental health problems like depression and anxiety.

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire found that sibling aggression is associated with significantly worse mental health in children and adolescents. In fact, investigators found that in some cases, the negative effects of sibling aggression on mental health were similar to those produced by peer aggression.

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

The latest study analyzed data from the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV), which involved a national sample of 3,599 children between the ages of one month and 17 years old. Each child had at least one sibling under 18 who was living at home.

Researchers found that 32 percent of children reported experiencing one type of sibling victimization in the past year. Sibling victimization included physical assault with and without a weapon or injury, property aggression like stealing something or breaking siblings' things on purpose and psychological aggression like saying things that made a sibling feel bad, scared or not wanted around.

The study also revealed that regardless of whether the aggression was mild or severe, children who were victims of sibling aggression reported significantly worse mental health than children who were not bullied.

Researchers found that mental health distress caused by mild sibling physical aggression was greater for children between the ages of 1 month to 9 years old than adolescent between the ages of 10 and 17. However the mental health of children and adolescents who experienced psychological or property aggression from siblings was similarly affected.

The latest findings published in the journal Pediatrics, support a previous December 2012 study published in the journal of Child Development. The 2012 study found that teens that fought with their siblings exhibited more anxiety, depression and or self-esteem issues a year later.

Peer aggression like bullying in school is generally thought to be more serious than sibling aggression. However, researchers in the current study found that sibling and peer physical and psychological aggression had independent effects on mental health, and the mental health of those experiencing property and psychological aggression, whether from siblings or peers, did not differ.

Researchers stress that parents and caregivers should take sibling aggression seriously.

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

Tucker and her team recommend that pediatricians tell parents about the damaging effects sibling aggression can have on their children's mental health. They say that doctors should bring up this information to parents and caregivers during routine visits. Parents should also be better educated on how to deal with sibling aggression and about mediating sibling conflicts.

John V. Caffaro, a clinical psychologist and the author of "Sibling Abuse Trauma," who was not involved in the current study told The New York Times that sibling violence happens up to five times more often than spousal or parental child abuse. Caffaro said that families often ignore physical fights and dismiss sibling aggression as a normal part of growing up.

"Our society tends to minimize child-on-child violence in general," Caffaro said. "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 added that parents not intervening, choosing a favorite, or labeling children to highlight differences might actually increase hatred between their children.

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