Kids Will Be Kids? The Danger of Ignoring Sibling Aggression


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Sibling aggression is he same a bullying. Image by Aislinn Ritchie.

Sibling aggression has the same negative effects as  bullying outside the family. Image by Aislinn Ritchie.

“Kids will be kids.”  Many parents utter those words as their darling children turn on each other, pulling hair, pinching, and even punching.  Is it alright to let kids fight it out?

Corinna Jenkins Tucker, Ph.D. conducted research to answer that question.  Dr. Jenkins and colleagues from the University of New Hampshire studied 3599 children with a sibling younger than 18 years old, and asked them questions about sibling aggression and their own mental health.

Sibling Aggression Study

The researchers conducted telephone interviews with children, or with the parents of very young children.  They made attempts to include children of all racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and asked children about exposure to aggression from siblings.  The researchers also tracked experiences of sibling assault with or without a weapon, whether the attack led to injury or not.

The researchers also rated the children on the Trauma Symptom Checklist.  According to Dr. Tucker in an exclusive interview with Decoded Science, “[t]his check list asks about depression, anger, and anxiety. Items assess trouble sleeping, having anxiety attacks, uncontrollable crying, trouble controlling temper.”  The research paper states that they measured for anxiety, depression and anger and totaled the results to provide a “total mental health distress score”

To avoid confounding factors, the researchers statistically controlled for exposure to other violence and “for parent education level, ethnicity, language of the interview, and child gender.”

Family Aggression Study Limitations

The gold standard of social research is to follow the same group of people over time; this longitudinal approach can better trace reactions to specific events on specific individuals at different times.  This study of sibling aggression is better described as a snapshot of children who are different ages.  Dr. Tucker states that “[c]ontinued exploration of sibling aggression over the long-term for mental health would be great”

The Results and  Implications

Unfortunately, children who experience aggression from their siblings fare no better than those who suffer at the hands of children outside the family.  Children who had a high total mental health distress score tended to be those who reported victimization at the hands of their brothers or sisters.

According to the researchers, there “are many programs to stop and prevent aggression and programs on parenting- rarely do they include a focus on sibling aggression. We think it should be included.”  Parents must ask themselves why behavior is tolerated in the home that would be considered bullying if perpetrated by a non-family member.  Bullying hurts kids, no matter who is involved.


Tucker, C. J. et al. Association of Sibling Aggression With Child and Adolescent Mental Health. (2013). Pediatrics. Vol 132, No, 1. Accessed June 21, 2013.

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