Going to school can be a stressful ordeal for your child if he or she is a victim of bullying. With the prevalence of open and free social media platforms, bullying often appears offline and online. However the source of bullying can be much closer to home than expected.

A study published September 8, 2014, in PEDIATRICS examines the long-term effects of sibling bullying. Lucy Bowes, a researcher at the University of Oxford specializing in the impact of early life stress on psychological and behavioral development, emphasizes that “high levels of sibling conflict are associated with an increased risk of later internalizing symptoms." With that in mind, Bowes hypothesized that sibling bullying not only affects psychopathology, but also increases the risk of psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Psychological Development Of The Victims Of Sibling Bullying

Bowes conducted the study over a course of 18 years. Expectant mothers during 1991 and 1992 were recruited to have their child participate. This way, Bowes could monitor the children's development through childhood and adolescence. From age seven and onward, children with siblings completed a series of questionnaires and one-on-one interviews to assess their psychological development. Bowes was able to collect data from 3,452 adolescents by the time the participant pool turned 18. Many of the initial participants did not have siblings or opted to not follow-up.

Over the course of 10 years, Bowes observed the development of individual characteristics of the children as well as any external factors, such as family environment, that could affect development. A few of the variables observed in parents include:

  • Occupational social class
  • Highest education
  • Maternal depression

At 12 years of age, the children completed the Olweus Bullying Questionnaire. Children with siblings were asked about any instances in which their brother of sister tried to upset them through physical, verbal, or even virtual actions. Bowes also asked the children how often they have been bullied by their siblings. Answers varied from “only once or twice" to “several times a week."

Sibling Bullying Doubles Risk Of Psychiatric Disorders

Bowes found that an older brother was the common culprit behind sibling bullying, and that sibling bullying occurred more often in families of lower socioeconomic status. Children also reported that verbal abuse, such as name-calling, was the most common type of sibling bullying. The following data was retrieved from the participants at the 18-year mark:

  • 6.4% were clinically depressed
  • 9.3% experienced anxiety
  • 7.6% had self-harmed within the past year

“Children who reported being bullied by a sibling several times a week had more than twice the odds of depression and self-harm at age 18 years compared with those who were not bullied by their siblings," commented Bowes. Those who were frequently bullied also had higher odds of anxiety. Because sibling relationships last a lifetime, with little opportunity to escape during childhood and adolescence, Bowes advocates for existing programs focusing on the sibling relationship to be altered to acknowledge and reduce sibling bullying.

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Date of original publication:

Updated: October 23, 2015