I received an email a few days ago from a reporter seeking my commentary on a secret study by the journal Pediatrics. The reporter was willing to show me the study only after I swore not to talk about the study or show it to anyone. Apparently the study was under embargo by the journal until the official release date.
As a fan of geopolitical events, I was intrigued. An embargoed study brought to mind Cuba, Iran, and North Korea and I wondered if somehow I would be able to use my psychological training to comment on some major upcoming international event impacting global peace and security.
Well, it turns out the study was about sibling relationships, not what I expected. Although as a sibling researcher I do believe that the sibling dynamic is a fascinating topic, I was hoping for something a bit more sexy.
The study, by a team of psychologists at the University of New Hampshire, suggested that sibling bullying is as destructive for child and adolescent development as peer bullying.
Once the embargo was lifted, the media reaction was overwhelming. I am not sure if this reaction was a result of the great PR for this study, creating a launch usually seen for the latest smartphone or clothing line, or if something about this topic was truly novel. From the major network morning shows to the national print media, the results of this study were everywhere.
Although I always enjoy when sibling issues make it to the front page, the media reaction to this study has been counterproductive. One medical correspondent on a morning show suggested that parents must approach this problem the way schools approach peer bullying; with zero tolerance policies. I kind of wonder how that would work. What are you going to do? Suspend the sibling from the family for a week? Call the school and tell them not to send this bully home?
Like just about any other parenting decision, I hope parents out there do not make family decisions based on what they see on TV.
The impact of sibling fighting, and how parents should approach this topic, is much more complex than what appears on a press release.
True, this important study does seem to suggest that children experiencing sibling bullying suffer from psychological distress. However, when the particulars of this study, beyond the media talking points, are examined the story becomes less simplistic.
Without boring you with a refresher of your undergraduate research methods class, the specifics of how this study was conducted limits its ability to be generalized to all parents out there. For example, the sample that this study used was overly represented by minority and low-income families. Second, the psychological distress experienced by those being bullied may have been caused by the siblings or may have been caused by another family variable such as harsh parenting practices. Third, it may be that sibling bullying caused the psychological distress or, another possibility, is that children who already have some type of psychological distress act in such ways towards their sibling that the sibling responds with bullying. So it's not that the bullying caused the distress, it's that the distress caused the bullying.
The point is that we cannot use the results of one study and the subsequent media reaction to change what sibling researchers have been saying for two decades. Sibling fighting is a normal part of growing up. It's hard to share a room or a house with someone else close in age with you, particularly when you are also sharing your parents' love. Responding to sibling fighting with zero tolerance statements and a "violence free" zone is reactionary and a missed opportunity.
True, in some cases persistent sibling bullying can lead to psychological distress, as this study shows. Parents need to monitor this. However, in the majority of cases children learn about how to negotiate, communicate, and interact with others through getting into tussles with their siblings.
Parents need to use these opportunities to help teach children how to take turns, listen to others, and compromise so that things do not develop into unrelenting bullying later on. Swooping in with a SWAT team every time you hear your kids fight and shutting it down is a missed opportunity for childhood growth and maturation.
The importance of learning about social interactions through the sibling relationship has been highlighted by many studies on siblings, studies that were released without a PR firm and an embargo.