Bullying by Siblings Linked to Self-Harm, Depression

A boy pulls his brother off a slideMost parents are concerned about bullying at school and online, but they may not notice the bullying that takes place right in front of them: bullying between siblings. According to a new study, children whose siblings bully them are at an increased risk for depression, and may even develop self-harm behaviors.

Sibling Bullying and Mental Health

The study, which was published in Pediatrics, looked at 7,000 12-year-olds who completed questionnaires by mail in 2003 and 2004. The questionnaires asked children if they had been bullied by their siblings, and encouraged kids to detail the specifics of the bullying. The study followed up with the children when they turned 18, using a questionnaire called the Clinical Interview Schedule to evaluate the teens’ mental health.

Of 3,542 children for whom researchers were able to gain information on both sibling bullying and mental health outcomes, 1,810 children said they hadn’t been bullied. Of these children, 6.4% experienced depression, 9.3% experienced anxiety, and 7.6% had engaged in self-harm in the past year. The 786 children who reported being bullied by a sibling several times each week had higher rates of mental health difficulties. This group experienced depression at a rate of 12.3%, anxiety at a rate of 16%, and self-harm at a rate of 14%.

The study’s authors emphasize that it’s not just gentle teasing or occasional sibling squabbles that yield these results. Instead, children bullied by siblings were subjected to ongoing bullying campaigns across an extended period of time. Results of this study indicate that sibling bullying has similar effects to bullying by peers. 

Managing Bullying Between Siblings

Vicki Botnick, MA, MS, MFTI, a GoodTherapy.org parenting Topic Expert, advises parents that sibling bullying warrants immediate intervention. “All siblings fight, but I’d call it bullying if there was repeated violence, or verbal and psychological harassment that becomes so consistent and so cruel that it constitutes abuse. Some signs might be if one child is always the victim while the others is always the aggressor, if the victimized child is losing sleep or acting fearful, or if one child does not ever seem to know how to stand up for herself or say no,” Botnick explains.

Botnick emphasizes the importance of understanding what contributes to the bullying while keeping the victim safe. “The top priority, of course, is protecting the bullied child. With each conflict, give each child time and space to safely tell her part of the story. They can learn to communicate better with each other and develop empathy for one another by talking about how they feel, rather than just stating what they’re angry about and what seems unfair to them. Then help them build conflict resolution skills by asking for their input on possible solutions. Let them figure out what consequences might be fair for their actions, and be consistent and firm about house rules for safety and mutual respect,” she says.

Ruth Wyatt, LCSW, MA, also a GoodTherapy.org parenting Topic Expert, adds that bullying can make children feel unprotected by their parents, explaining, “A child that is being bullied by a sibling is a child who does not feel safe in his/her own home and, what’s more, does not feel protected by his/her parents. This is the double whammy of sibling bullying- the bullied feels scared of his/her sibling and unprotected by his/her parents. This goes for the bully as well, as the bully is often filled with shame and a sense of being out of control and unsafe.”

Wyatt cautions that in discussions of child abuse, abuse between siblings is often neglected. Parents need to take this bullying seriously. Wyatt emphasizes, “If you believe your child is being bullied by a sibling, if your child seems nervous around or afraid of his/her sibling, or if you have witnessed questionable behavior, you should intervene. You should speak separately with each of the children involved, getting information and laying down the law: Bullying will not be tolerated; bullying will have consequences. When laying down the law, be very specific about which actions are unacceptable and what the consequences will be.” Wyatt advises that family therapy may help stop sibling bullying, and is a necessary intervention when traditional discipline techniques don’t work to stop the abuse.


Sibling bullying linked to later depression, self-harm. (2014, September 19). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/09/140919100258.htm

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  • Ted


    September 29th, 2014 at 10:38 AM

    Well this must be a terrible situation for any parent to find himself in. You always think that this is happening online and on the playground but probably never even imagining that it could be happening righgt unfder your own roof.

    I have seen siblings who pick on one another mercilessly but I guess that we have always chalked that up to just being normal brother sister behavior but I guess that in some situations this can become pretty intense and could certainly be considered bullying if done anywhere else, so why not among family?

    I would have to say that this would be a difficult problem with an even more difficult solution.

  • walt


    September 29th, 2014 at 4:00 PM

    Can you even imagine having to live in a house with someone who can feel like they are out to get you all the time?

  • LeeAnna


    September 30th, 2014 at 3:58 AM

    You don’t think about this kind of behavior being characterized as bullying but in some cases it really is.

    I remember times when my brother was so mean to me and I to him and I would never have thought to do that to any other kid but that was my brother so that was ok, even though if we would have acted out like that with other people we probably could have been accused of being bullies.

    It is definitely some food for thought with some families, something that may should keep a close eye on.

  • judith


    September 30th, 2014 at 10:30 AM

    My guess is that even hen parents see that this is happening they would be fearful of reporting it because they are afraid of how this will be a reflection upon them.

    I know that this is sort of antiquated but I do think that many parents are going to think about how this will make them look if it is admitted that one child is bullying another so they would rather try to handle the problem in house instead of seeking outside help for it.

    I am not sure if this is fair or not or what others would think- I would simply want for there to be more harmony in the home and to know that one child was not being abused and bullied by their own brother or sister.

  • Pete


    October 2nd, 2014 at 1:48 PM

    You see this sort of thing happen when kids live in a house with parents who pretty clearly favor one child over another and the children definitely know what their pecking order is in the house. I don’t think that there will be a whole lot of parents who will admit to this but I think that if you look closely then you will see that this definitely happens and that much of the time when it does the favored child likes to exert even more power over the child who isn’t by bullying him. The ways might be very subtle or they could be perfectly blatant but there will still be those parents who refuse to see what is going on right underneath their nose because thta would then spoil that perfect image they have of that one child.

  • Elle


    October 7th, 2014 at 10:35 AM

    I had such a great relationship with all of my siblings growing up that it is almost impossible for me to imagine that there are others who have the complete opposite type of relationship with theirs. We were the kids who always looked out for each other and if you picked on one of us you better be ready to get from the rest of us. That’s just how we were.
    Now I know that there were other families where there was a lot of animosity between siblings and those were families that I have always found hard to understand. I hate to say it but it always feels like a lot of that comes from the parents who seem to aggitate the situation even more and don’t fully appreciate the harm that this behavior actually is doing to the family.

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