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Sibling bullying is more prevalent in large families

A new study published by the American Psychological Association has revealed that a child with more than one brother or sister is more likely to be the victim of sibling bullying. According to the research, firstborn children and older brothers tend to be the perpetrators.

Study lead author Dieter Wolke is a professor of Psychology at the University of Warwick.

“Sibling bullying is the most frequent form of family violence and it is often seen as a normal part of growing up by parents and health professionals, but there is increasing evidence that it can have long-term consequences, like increased loneliness, delinquency and mental health problems,” said Professor Wolke.

The investigation was focused on data from a study of 6,838 British children born in 1991 to 1992. For the study, sibling bullying was defined as psychological abuse, physical abuse, or emotional abuse. The kids were placed into four categories: bullies, victims, bully victims, or uninvolved.

When the children were 5 years old, their mothers reported how often the children were victims or perpetrators of bullying in the household. The mothers also reported on sibling relations two years later. At age 12, the children were asked if they had been bullied by a sibling or if they had bullied a sibling within the previous six months.

The study revealed that around 28 percent of the children were involved in sibling bullying, and psychological abuse was found to be the most common issue. The majority of the children were found to be bully victims, meaning they were victims of bullying and were also bullies themselves.

“Bullying occurs in situations where we cannot choose our peers, like in families,” said Professor Wolke. “Siblings live in close quarters and the familiarity allows them to know what buttons to press to upset their brothers or sisters. This can go both ways and allows a child to be both a victim and a perpetrator of bullying.”

According to the researchers, family structure and gender were the strongest predictors of sibling bullying.

“Bullying was more likely to occur in families with three or more children and the eldest child or older brothers were more often the bullies,” said study co-author Slava Dantchev. “Female children and younger children were more often targeted.”

The experts believe that bullying often occurs in larger families because resources such as parental attention and material goods are more limited.

“Despite our cultural differences, humans are still very biologically driven. A firstborn child will have their resources halved with the birth of a sibling, and even more so as more siblings are added to the family,” said Professor Wolke. “This causes siblings to fight for those limited resources through dominance.”

“Sibling bullying does not discriminate. It occurs in wealthy families just as much as lower-income families and it occurs in single-parent households just as much as two-parent households.”

Professor Wolke said the findings may be helpful to parents as they add to their families.

“It will be important for parents to realize and understand that resource loss can affect an older child. It is a good idea for parents to manage this from the beginning by spending quality time with their firstborn or older children and by involving them in caring for younger siblings.”

The study is published in the journal Developmental Psychology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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