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Is Bullying Learned at Home?

By — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Feb 11, 2009

“Mum, my brother is teasing me!” “Dad, my brother won’t let me use the computer!”

Fights and quarrels are quite frequent in each family and one of the main efforts of parents is to maintain peace between siblings. Do these fights matter? How much can these disputes and conflicts help siblings to learn skills in social relationships or, alternatively, enhance aggression and negative behaviors such as bullying?

Having a sibling is frequently considered a resource for children’s development (1, 2). In fact, positive interactions as well as conflicts and disputes with a brother or a sister provide a natural context in which children can learn mediations skills, respect of the others, empathy and caring in a relatively protected environment (1). However, siblings’ relationships also have the potential to affect children’s development negatively. Especially if younger children have older brothers, they can experience a higher level of aggression and assimilate and transfer this problematic behaviour into the school context (3).

Sibling relationships are characterized by a balance of affect and conflict; if conflict is mitigated by affect, the relationship can provide a positive context for learning social skills and for understanding other people’s emotions and perspectives. In contrast, children who experience high levels of conflict and low levels of affect are more likely to show social problems in the peer context (1, 4). On the whole, a clear association emerges between sibling experiences and peer problems outside the family. If the relation is positive, children can benefit from sibling experiences; if the relationship is aggressive, such behaviour may also turn up outside of the home (4, 5).

Is this true also for bullying? Can we call the frequent conflicts and disputes between siblings bullying? Comparing sibling conflicts and school bullying we find common elements but also specific differences. To be considered bullying in either context, the interactions must show:

  • an intentional nature - the bully deliberately brings damage to the victim;
  • persistency - the attacks are repeated over time;
  • an imbalance of power – often the bully is stronger than the victim, who is not able to react effectively.

Beyond these common elements. bullying behaviours in the home and school context do differ in one important regard – in the school context, bullying is recognized as social in nature, with such behaviour often directed to the group, through the public attack on the victim. The dynamic between siblings is more direct and typically does not involve a larger group of witnesses. Furthermore, quarrels and fighting at home may be more common and therefore less disapproved than in school context.

We recently carried out a study of 195 children, aged 10-12 years, all of whom had a brother or sister who were up to 4 years younger or older than themselves (6). We found that the presence of bullying and victimization is as strong among siblings as among peers. The problem seems even more worrisome at home.

  • Children reported higher bullying and victimization at home and higher victimization by older brothers. Respectively, 38.4% and 34.4.% reported bullying and victimization experiences at home, with particularly higher levels of bullying boys (48.9%). By contrast, lower levels of bullying and victimization were reported in school: 17.1% and 23.2%, respectively. Thus, we can assume that at home it is more common to reciprocate attacks and fights among siblings, as the relationship is more intimate and less affected by the risk of loosing the relationships, as compared to interactions with peers or within friendships.
  • We also found a significant correlation between sibling and school bullying and victimization, in that some children who were bullies or victims at home seemed to maintain their roles at school.
  • With regard to gender differences, we found that children were victimized more often by brothers than by sisters. When birth order was considered, together with gender, we found that children were victimized more often by older brothers than by older sisters or by younger brothers and sisters. Bullying at home was more often perpetrated by older brothers who often provided their younger brothers and sisters with modeling and training in the use of social behaviours, including aggression.

In relation to bullying behavior, Patterson (3) underlined how older siblings tend to victimize younger siblings and how the more submissive behavior of younger siblings can reinforce older siblings’ attacks. However, at the same time, younger siblings’ exposure to aggression promotes aggressive behavior that often generalizes to children’s behavior with their peers.

We can also ask ourselves why children develop a bullying relation with their siblings. According to our research, the characteristics associated with bullying siblings varies for boys and girls. For boys, personal characteristics, particularly emotional instability, and the degree of conflicts can account for siblings tendency to bully each other more. For girls, a low level of empathy and caring between the two siblings can be a significant predictor of bullying (6).

Parents should:

  • pay more attention to sibling relationships,
  • try to mediate and to prevent high levels of conflict, especially if they have older sons,
  • mediate especially when children are more impulsive and irritable, or
  • if their relationships appear negative and full of conflict.

In conclusion, our research indicates that siblings relationships can, in some cases, serve as a “training ground” for bullying, deviancy and aggression through social learning processes or behavioral patterns that can be reinforced across contexts. In order to prevent and reduce sibling bullying.

School teachers, on the other hand, will need to adopt a multi-contextual approach to the problem, a “family – school” focus to understand bullying and to contrast its diffusion. Bullying starts at an early age and greater efforts should be made to prevent and to combat its growth both at home and in school contexts.

References

  1. Brody G. H. (2004). Siblings’ direct and indirect contributions to child development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13,3,124-126.
  2. Dunn, J. (1988). Sibling influences on childhood development. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 29, 119-127.
  3. Patterson, G. R. (1986). The contribution of siblings to training for fighting. A microsocial analysis. In D. Olweus, J. Block & M. Radke-Yarrow (Eds.). The development of antisocial and prosocial behavior (pp. 235-261). New York: Academic Press.
  4. Bank, L., Burraston, B., & Snyder, J. (2004). Sibling conflict and ineffective parenting as predictors of adolescent boys’ antisocial behavior and peer difficulties: Additive and interactional effects. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 14, 99–125.
  5. Pike, A, Coldwell, J., & Dunn, J. F. (2005). Sibling relationships in early/middle childhood: Links with individual adjustment. Journal of Family Psychology, 19, 523–532.
  6. Menesini E., Camodeca M., Nocentini A. (2008) Bullying among siblings: the role of relational and personality variables. British Journal Of Developmental Psychology, submitted.
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