Bullying in schools and online has received a lot of attention over the last few years, with educators, safety advocates and media focusing on the issue. But a lesser-known problem, aggression among siblings, is gaining attention. We talk with the author of a recent study on the effects of sibling aggression that goes beyond rivalries and squabbles, as well as psychologists about the implications of this research.


  • Ellen Weber Libby Licensed clinical psychologist; author, "The Favorite Child" (Prometheus Books)
  • Joseph Wright, MD Senior Vice President, Child Health Advocacy Institute at Children’s National Medical Center; Professor and Vice Chair, Department of Pediatrics and Professor of Emergency Medicine and Health Policy, George Washington University School of Medicine and Public Health Sciences
  • Corinna Jenkins Tucker Professor of family studies and Carsey Institute Fellow, University of New Hampshire


  • 13:06:39

    MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS News Hour sitting in for Kojo. Maybe it comes in the form of a pinch on the arm, a barbed insult that leaves hurt feelings or the deliberate destruction of a sibling's favorite toy. However it happens, parents will tell you that brothers and sisters have been bickering since the dawn of time. But when does an altercation between siblings cross a line?

  • 13:07:14

    MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIWell, there's been a great deal of attention paid to bullying in schools and online over the last few years. Researchers are just beginning to parse information on the effects of aggression among kids within a family. Here to explain what we're learning about fighting among siblings and where it fits into the bit picture is Ellen Weber Libby. She's a licensed psychologist practicing in Washington, D.C. and the author of the book "The Favorite Child." Hi Ellen, thanks for being here.

  • 13:07:39

    DR. ELLEN WEBER LIBBYIt's wonderful to be back. Thank you.

  • 13:07:41

    BELLANTONIGreat. And Joseph Wright. He is the senior vice president of the Child Health Advocacy Institute at the Children's National Medical Center, also a professor and vice chair of the department of pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine and Public Health Sciences. Hi.

  • 13:07:58

    DR. JOSEPH WRIGHTThank you, Christina. Great to be here.

  • 13:08:00

    BELLANTONIJoining us from the University of New Hampshire on the phone is Corinna Jenkins Tucker. You're a professor of family studies at Carsey Institute and at the University of New Hampshire.

  • 13:08:10

    DR. CORINNA JENKINS TUCKERThank you for having me.

  • 13:08:11

    BELLANTONIThanks so much. So Corinna, we're actually going to start with you. You are the lead author of a recently published study that looks at aggression among siblings, not bullying. What's the difference between the two and what kind of behavior did you track?

  • 13:08:26

    TUCKERWe looked at sibling aggression. We took a comprehensive approach where we looked at different kinds of aggression ranging from more mild to more severe. So we looked at mild physical assault that did not include a weapon or object and did not -- and may not have included an injury. We also looked at the more severe form of physical assault that did include a weapon or object and possibly an injury.

  • 13:08:54

    TUCKERWe also looked at property aggression, which was characterized as something being forcibly taken from the child or something being stolen and not given back or something broken on purpose. And we also looked at psychological aggression where the child reported feeling bad or scared in response to being called names, mean things being said to them or being excluded. The term bullying typically hasn't been applied to sibling aggression. And I know in the definition of bullying a lot of people talk about there's unequal power. And that may not necessarily always be the case with siblings.

  • 13:09:38

    BELLANTONIAnd what kind of data did you use to do this research?

  • 13:09:42

    TUCKERYep, the data came from the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence, which was information conducted through random digit dialing telephone interviews and with participants from across the nation. And so for children ages nine and younger, their caregivers reported for them. And children ages 10 to 17 reported on their own experiences of being a victim of aggression.

  • 13:10:09

    BELLANTONIAnd so Professor Joseph Wright of the GW School of Medicine and Public Health, to further parse the semantics on an issue where nuances do make a big difference, how do you define bullying?

  • 13:10:21

    WRIGHTWell, as professor Tucker has already eluded to, one of the defining features of the definition of bullying is an imbalance of power along with intent and repetition. These are the three elements that are typically characteristics of the behavior that is defined as bullying behavior. It's important to note that as professor Tucker has already pointed out that in the context of sibling relationship, there may not always be an imbalance of power. And I think that's why this work is so important. Because certainly the effects and the features of the behavior that Dr. Tucker has elucidated in her work is not terribly distinct from what I see in my practice with regard to children who bully or are bullied.

  • 13:11:12

    BELLANTONIAnd also what -- the effect it has on the parents, right, because you can easily be mad at the child on the schoolyard, but it's a little harder to be mad at one of your own children as well.

  • 13:11:21

    WRIGHTOh, absolutely. And I think that the -- this is perhaps one of the most important follow ons to this work is the way that parents and adults in general respond to children regardless of setting, whether it be in the family setting or at school or in the community.

  • 13:11:40

    BELLANTONIEllen Weber Libby, you are the author of the book "The Favorite Child." What distinction would you make between sibling rivalry and the kind of aggression that Corinna's study looks at?

  • 13:11:51

    LIBBYI think that sibling rivalry is inherent in any family. I think it's up to parents to set limits and standards and boundaries about what is appropriate and what is not. What is injurious to someone else and what is not. I think the notion of repetition and the notion of inequality strongly affects how bullying plays out in a family. And the very important role that parents have in putting boundaries, definitions in saying, this is okay or this is not okay.

  • 13:12:27

    BELLANTONIAnd you, in your book, obviously look at playing favorites and why that matters?

  • 13:12:32

    LIBBYYes. I think -- as I talk about in my book, when a child is a favorite child, by definition it doesn't mean that they're going to be a bully. It's what the parents do with the favoritism that has impact. And when a parent, when a mother or a father, whoever is the powerful parent who bestows the title on the favorite child, does that, that doesn't mean that that child has license to get away with bullying younger siblings or less favorite siblings. So the distinction of when favoritism is healthy and when favoritism is not healthy becomes very important.

  • 13:13:12

    BELLANTONIWe'd like to hear from our listeners on this. Are you a parent wondering how to distinguish between sibling rivalry and aggressive behavior in your own kids? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can always send email to kojo@wamu.org, make a comment on our Facebook page or of course Tweet to @kojoshow. And I will say, as an only child perhaps I'm, you know, a little biased here. But there has been such a reaction to this question, just talking about the fact that we would be doing this segment.

  • 13:13:41

    BELLANTONISo, Joseph, given all the attention bullying and peer aggression has received in recent years, why hasn't there been as much focus on what's happening between siblings?

  • 13:13:52

    WRIGHTWell, I think that certainly one of the reasons is that for a long time, and certainly in the generation of many parents today, that the way that siblings treat each other is considered to be normal, considered to be normative aggression. And in some cases healthy and good for the child. And there has been a great deal of attention to aggressive behavior between children, between peers and the health consequences and the behavior consequences that can occur as a result of that aggression.

  • 13:14:34

    WRIGHTBut not as much has been paid to the aggression between siblings, in my view, as I moved around the country talking to parents and adults about this, is because there has been a sense that this is a normative type of behavior that -- and the consequences are not well understood.

  • 13:14:56

    BELLANTONICorinna Jenkins Tucker at the University of New Hampshire, what prompted you to examine this aspect of sibling relationships?

  • 13:15:03

    TUCKERI've been studying siblings for a number of years and I have been doing some recent work on sibling aggression. And my colleague, Dr. David Finckel (sp?) who also has been studying child victimization for a number of years. And we started talking one day and brought up the idea of us possibly working together and giving me the opportunity to look at this issue in his data. So that's what brought us together. But I've worked on this issue with this data as well as with other data.

  • 13:15:39

    BELLANTONIYou can join our conversation. Call 1-800-433-8850. Jan in Bethesda has a question for Ellen Weber Libby and her book "The Favorite Child." Hi, Jan.

  • 13:15:49

    JANHi. I was curious, Dr. Libby, whether -- I'm a therapist in Bethesda and I work a lot with trauma survivors. And what I have found is that sometimes the favorite child in families where sexual abuse has taken place that sometimes the favorite child becomes the object of the bullying and the aggression. And actually so the reverse happens, as what you might anticipate in a lot of other families. Does your book address that?

  • 13:16:17

    LIBBYYes. My book does address the role of the favorite child. And you're exactly right, Jan. I think that all too often people think the favorite child, wow, this is really terrific. It's a status that we want. But I think upon closer examination we do see that the favorite child is brought into the void or the emptiness of a particular parent and asked to fill that void. And that void can be and often is very inappropriate to turn to the child and ask the child to fill that. So I think that what you're tracking is absolutely on track.

  • 13:16:57

    BELLANTONIWe have Beverly on the line from Burke, Va. with a story about something that happened between her and her sister. Thanks for calling, Beverly.

  • 13:17:05

    BEVERLYYou're welcome. When I was about four years old, my whole family went to visit one of my parents' friends. And I was ringing the doorbell and my oldest sister who was 18 at the time when I was four told me not to ring the doorbell anymore. I did it anyway -- I pretended to do it. I didn't really ring it. And my sister just took her fingernails and raked the back of my leg and drew blood. But what hurt me the most was that my parents didn't do anything about it. They didn't even say -- my mother said, oh my gosh, and that was it.

  • 13:17:43

    BELLANTONIEllen, you're nodding.

  • 13:17:44

    LIBBYWell, I am. It is what I was referencing a few moments ago. I think, Beverly, that the response of parents to the bullying is a very important piece of the information. And when parents don't say anything, in their own way they're condoning the bullying, which then gives license for the bullying to continue. I think that we expect a kind of safety around family members, whether it be in the house or ringing the doorbell at someone else's home. And when somebody in our family violates the safety that we are entitled to, I think that is traumatic. And I think that the silence of parents to bullying anywhere is very difficult.

  • 13:18:32

    LIBBYOne of the ongoing questions that I see husbands and wives struggling with in my practice when I do couples work is, what are appropriate boundaries? When children are fighting, are they working out a healthy developmental issue or has it become bullying? And very often mothers and fathers have great difficulty agreeing to that. And I think that is a major issue in families. But certainly when your legs are scraped the way yours were, there's no question that that crossed a boundary.

  • 13:19:05

    WRIGHTYes. And just to follow onto Dr. Libby's comment, we also experience that behavior that is not checked in the home and is in fact perhaps endorsed in the home does spill over outside of the home. And very often the kind of scenario that Beverly describes emboldens a child to then move into a school setting or a community setting and to actually perform the same kinds of behaviors with peers.

  • 13:19:35

    TUCKERAnd if I could follow up on that.

  • 13:19:37

    BELLANTONIYeah, please.

  • 13:19:38

    TUCKEROther work that I've been involved with, we have looked at parents' strategies around sibling conflict. And it is not uncommon for parents to ignore or to not intervene. And based on this study, you know, if things are deteriorating, if they get to this level of aggressive behavior, it is an opportunity for parents to teach constructive relationship skills and take an opportunity to work with both of the kids here on this.

  • 13:20:13

    TUCKERWe've found in the other work when parents don't intervene, when they don't use constructive ways of teaching about conflict and conflict management that kids are more likely to have worse physical health, lower well being. They're relationship with their brother or sister also is of lower quality as well.

  • 13:20:34

    BELLANTONIWe have a caller in Crofton, Md. who has a point right at this about his parents. One of them was an only child, the other one wasn't. Go ahead, Larry.

  • 13:20:42

    LARRYYes. My mother was an only child and my father was one of nine, mostly all brothers and one sister. They had very different perception of what was going on when my brother and I particularly -- we're 21 months apart -- when we would -- well, we didn't really do fist fighting but we did wrestling and a lot of that kind of stuff. And my mother would go bananas over it. And my father would come home and discipline us, not because he didn't like what we were doing but because he was trying to mollify his wife -- you know, my mother.

  • 13:21:26

    LARRYWhen I asked about fighting in his family, my father relayed that he never saw any fighting. He just remembered one of the brothers having a bloody nose. And considering how they behaved toward each other as adults, I figured he just simply forgot or overlooked all the stuff because he couldn't have all of a sudden become antagonistic as they were as adults verbally.

  • 13:21:53

    BELLANTONI(unintelligible) ...

  • 13:21:53

    LARRYPardon? Yeah, and my mother's issue, she had three cousins that were sisters. And they fought with each other all the time. And she would say to us that she just wished she had a brother or sister, that should be just love them so much she'd never fight with them. So it was -- it became obvious as to who was coming from where. But anyway, we seem to be all right as adults.

  • 13:22:27

    BELLANTONIThose dynamics definitely come into play. We will keep up our conversation about sibling bullying and what families can do about it after a short break. I'm Christina Bellantoni sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:24:22

    BELLANTONIWelcome back. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS News Hour sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we're having a discussion about bullying at home. Joining me here in studio are Ellen Weber Libby, author of the book "The Favorite Child," Joseph Wright who is with the George Washington University School of Medicine and Public Health Sciences. And on the phone with us from New Hampshire is Corinna Jenkins Tucker, who is a Carsey Institute Fellow at the University of New Hampshire.

  • 13:24:47

    BELLANTONIBefore we took a break we heard from Larry who had sort of two different parents who came from different backgrounds. And that influenced how he and his siblings were raised. Ellen, you have some thoughts on that.

  • 13:24:57

    LIBBYI do. Larry, your comments raised for me two very important issues. One is the difference in tolerance of mothers and fathers. All I can say is it's a really good thing that our son had his father too because my son, by nature, as many boys are, are a lot more physical than girls. And regardless of how many siblings are in the family, my tolerance for kind of what the guys called duking it out -- and I don't necessarily mean that in a particularly aggressive way, but I do mean that they're more physical -- would be very hard for me to manage.

  • 13:25:34

    LIBBYAnd thank heavens that my husband would often put his hand on my shoulder and say, there's nothing wrong with this. This is in a healthy domain. And that he and I together, meaning my husband and I together, could work out boundaries that were comfortable for both of us and appropriate for both of us. As I talk a lot about in my book "The Favorite Child," the best insurance for a healthy family is when mother and dad can talk well, they respect each other. When they can be a checks and balance for each other.

  • 13:26:06

    LIBBYSo I think that in your family, aside from the difference -- your mother coming from a small family and your father coming from a large family -- there is a difference between moms and dads. And I think that that is important to bear in mind. And the other quick comment that I do want to make in what you observe in your father, is that I think a long time ago verbal abuse wasn't considered as abusive as we have learned it to be.

  • 13:26:36

    LIBBYThat in that era, meaning when your father was a child, if you didn't draw blood, if you didn't physically hurt someone, if you just called -- if you were just shaming and humiliating, that we didn't appreciate that that -- and it was a form of psychological abuse. So I do think that we have come a long way in better appreciating the array of abuse, which I think Corinna has done a wonderful job in her study in terms of demarcating that abuse comes in many sizes and shapes.

  • 13:27:08

    BELLANTONIJoseph Wright.

  • 13:27:09

    WRIGHTAnd just quickly, what we're also learning is that there is a gender distinction in the way that verbal or relational forms of aggression are manifest in children. And one of the great concerns that we have in the pediatric community is the impact on girls and young women. This is a much more insidious way that children express aggression towards one another. And the effects can be long lasting. Much more long lasting than what we tend to see in terms of physical forms of aggression that boys are more likely, as Dr. Libby has talked about, to be involved in.

  • 13:27:55

    BELLANTONIAnd in fact, we have an email from Kathy who said, "I have two boys two years apart. The older one has always bullied the younger one ever since he was born. And nothing seems to help." You know, looking at that we've also got a couple callers on the line. But I wanted to ask Corinna actually about this perception idea. Because you might -- you hear this and think, well my brother or sister was a terror and I turned out okay. It toughened me up. But how important is perception when the involved parties are feeling aggressed?

  • 13:28:22

    TUCKERYou know, that's a great question. A lot of times people are chalking up this type of aggression between siblings as just another example of rivalry. And rivalry and aggression are not necessarily the same things. This -- what we looked at here was, you know, a child or the caregiver reporting that the child felt victimized by this behavior. Or that it was perceived as something negative and destructive. And so I think that is an important point. I mean, there can be good natured rivalry that does not include aggression at all that happens between siblings. So I think that is something that's important to think about.

  • 13:29:01

    TUCKERI also want to go back to Dr. Libby's point about parents talking with each other and having agreement about what's okay and not okay in the house. I think this underlines the important point of parents modeling constructive kinds of behavior and being able to manage conflict and conflict resolution. And showing ways of interacting that are constructive that children can emulate as well.

  • 13:29:30

    BELLANTONIEither of you. So we have a couple different callers that are talking about children with autism. We're going to start with Laura in Arlington. You have two sons. Tell us your story, Laura.

  • 13:29:42

    LAURAHi. I have three children. The problem lies with my oldest one who is 18. I'm wondering if you have any advice for a type of intervention in regards to the jealousy that he perceives that the disparity of attention that his younger brother gets. He's 12 years old and he has high functioning autism. And last year was a really horrible year for this child. And there was a lot of interventions and attention given to him.

  • 13:30:10

    LAURAThis information was shared with his older brother and yet the 18-year-old said he felt jealous of the attention that the brother was getting. And he felt slighted. And we tried to reason with him and talking that his brother may not have an independent life and he has so many opportunities and possibilities and his brother's are very limited. And that didn't seem to turn any lights on for him. And I just really feel stuck with trying to break through to the older child.

  • 13:30:39

    BELLANTONIEllen, some advice for Laura?

  • 13:30:42

    LIBBYYour situation is indeed difficult. And if anybody gives you an easy answer, it's probably not to be believed. What is true is that when one child in a family has many needs, many physical emotional psychological needs, it does often define many ways in which the family functions. And even though your older son is 18 and may cognitively understand what goes on in the family, it doesn't mean that he has any -- it doesn't mean that he has fewer needs for attention himself, to get attention from you and your husband, which I'm sure is difficult. Because I certainly appreciate that you're probably pulled in many, many different ways.

  • 13:31:36

    LIBBYBut I would imagine that your older son is asking for a kind of affirmation that he is requiring to know that he is not overlooked. That he doesn't need to have the scope of issues as his younger brother to get from you the kind of affirmation or attention or specialness that in the moment he may be feeling.

  • 13:32:05

    BELLANTONIAnd Louisa from Washington, D.C., you have two children and also have a question. Go ahead, Louisa.

  • 13:32:10

    LOUISAYeah, hi. I have two children and my older child has special needs which include behavioral issues. And as a result he lashes out a lot at his younger sister. She's a year younger, they're eight and seven. And, you know, what you were saying about bullying really struck me because I think from the outside, well, it is bullying behavior but it's due to his -- you know, his various special needs. And we do intervene and say that, you know, this behavior's not acceptable and try to stop -- sorry that's my son.

  • 13:32:49

    LOUISABut, yeah, I'm just -- I'm concerned about the message that we're sending to our daughter if we do not stop him. And that's my question.

  • 13:33:00

    BELLANTONIGo ahead, doctor.

  • 13:33:02

    WRIGHTYeah, I think that it's very important above all else to have a child feel protected and that -- protected in the context of the adults in their space, and in this case, in the household. And I think that your concern is well placed to have an environment for your younger child in which he does feel that the adults, the parents in your case are providing a cocoon of protection so that she feels safe.

  • 13:33:40

    WRIGHTAnd this is a critically important concept, particularly for young children to experience. And there is obviously the challenge of the behavior of your son but I think there does have to be an extra focus on having your daughter feel that she is safe and protected and not vulnerable in the home situation.

  • 13:34:10

    BELLANTONIIt sounds like communication is a big part of that. We have Lukshade (sp?) Tweeted to @kojoshow, "We've never had family discussions about aggression, which I surely will have with my own kids when I have them, my brother and I had to deal alone." You can join our conversation as well. Send us a Tweet to @kojoshow. Send an email to kojo@wamu.org or give us a call at 1-800-433-8850.

  • 13:34:33

    BELLANTONICorinna Jenkins Tucker, you have this study looking at aggression in families. You're with the University of New Hampshire. How can parents distinguish between something normal -- every child might bite here and there, certainly did that myself as a young kid -- and something that's severe or something that's worse. And you found in the study that there's no real safe level of aggression, whether it's physical or psychological, no matter how subtle. It can be lasting, right?

  • 13:35:00

    TUCKERYeah, I mean, I think, you know, as we teach academic skills, we teach sport skills, we need to teach relationship skills to children. You know, you want to be able to have them demonstrate some of their independence in learning at relationship skills and giving them an opportunity to try to work things out. But when things start escalating or deteriorating, there's an opportunity here for parents to intervene.

  • 13:35:24

    TUCKERYou know, brothers and sisters, they spend a lot of time together typically. They are going to fight. It's one of the places where we first learn how to fight. And I think, you know, having this knowledge and really thinking about sibling aggression versus peer aggression, what we accept between siblings we oftentimes would not accept between peers.

  • 13:35:49

    TUCKERAnd so if something is -- you know, if there's an interaction where it's escalating and the siblings are not able to work it out, there is this opportunity for parents to teach about negotiation, about listening to each other, about each other's perspective and helping them learn some of these skills that hopefully they'll be able to apply as they grow and in other relationships as well.

  • 13:36:15

    BELLANTONIJoseph Wright of GW University, how do you see the effect of this on kids and their mental and physical health? You know, there's a big difference between requiring stitches or, you know, just feeling upset. But it's affecting children. Talk about that.

  • 13:36:28

    WRIGHTOh, absolutely. And I practice in an emergency department and see the effects -- the physical effects of children fighting and aggression that is manifest in terms of a direct and more physical way. But the concern of most emphasis with the attention that's been paid to bullying behavior is what you don't see. The more subtle, the what we call relational or indirect forms of aggression, the verbal abuse, the rumor mongering, the isolationism that you see quite typically on an elementary school playground.

  • 13:37:15

    WRIGHTThose effects are, again, much more difficult to see, much more difficult to recognize. And in the context of even health professionals who deal with children and families, sometimes much more difficult to tease out. And the impact of those unrecognized effects can be long lasting and can be quite serious. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that risk for depression, suicidal ideation are linked to the unattended impact of behavioral aggression in young children.

  • 13:37:53

    BELLANTONIAnd you also, you know, take a look at the educators and doctors who are talking to these children. You know, what is their role in all this?

  • 13:38:01

    WRIGHTYes. And, you know, Professor Tucker has pointed out the critical role of parents. It's really a critical role for all adults, particularly adults who are responsible for the care of children during the course of the day, educators, health professionals. And one of the sobering realizations that I have found in the last decade of doing this work is that we have a steep learning curve in this country. Many of us grew up with a very different lens on the type of behavior that we're talking about here this afternoon.

  • 13:38:38

    WRIGHTAnd in fact, in my household when I was struck at school, my father told me to, well you go back to school and retaliate. That was the attitude. That was the sense of what the proper thing to do is. So I have really been quite surprised at some of the teaching and learning among adults that needs to take place. But at the same time, I think there's a great opportunity for young people to influence the way that we think about this issue in this country. And I'm excited about the fact that adults and young people can work together to educate the entire society about this issue.

  • 13:39:27

    BELLANTONIEllen Weber Libby -- sorry to cut you off Corinna.

  • 13:39:30

    TUCKERThat's fine.

  • 13:39:31

    BELLANTONIGo ahead with your point.

  • 13:39:32

    TUCKERI was just going to say, I mean, there's been a lot of emphasis on reducing or preventing peer aggression. There's a number of programs that have been created. And I think, you know, going back to the point I made before, that we have different norms of acceptability when it comes to aggression between siblings versus peers and expanding some of these stop aggression programs to think about siblings. And even some of the parenting programs that are out there often don't include a focus on sibling aggression. And promoting that to be included I think is important.

  • 13:40:04

    LIBBYBut I think that that in part is a reflection that mothers and fathers want more privacy about what goes on in their family. When kids are bullies at school, there's a social pressure that comes to bear, so that I -- unfortunately what goes on at home often doesn't get exposed. Children are not as apt to expose a family secret, and it's often when couples come to see me for couples work that once we get into it we understand that their fights about money, or their fights about a sexual relationship really are covers for their great disagreement about what kind of limits to impose on the kids or, as Dr. Wright was talking with me before he went on the air, when somebody comes into an emergency room for some reason, that's really when you begin to get a feel for the bullying that goes on in the family.

  • 13:41:01

    LIBBYI think for me, one of the high points of Dr. Tucker's study was that it covers children who were from, I believe your younger category was basically newborns to nine, I think if that's correct.

  • 13:41:14

    TUCKERYes. Yeah.

  • 13:41:16

    LIBBYAnd, you know, Dr. Wright also commented a few minutes ago about the impact of bullying on younger children. Younger children don't have the mental sophistication to defend themselves against the pain of being bullied. By the time kids are older, they can tell themselves a story about it which will minimally diffuse the impact. But when kids are younger, they're much more primitive, and what they feel they feel, and I think that's part of what this study and Dr. Wright's comments point to, which is to really appreciate that even though little kids may not show us the way big kids show us, that the impact on bullying on them in some ways is even more profound.

  • 13:42:03

    BELLANTONIYou can join our conversation. Tell us how you diffuse tense moments between your kids. We will get back to this conversation about bullying in the home in just a moment after a short break.

  • 13:43:57

    BELLANTONIWelcome back. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS News Hour sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're having a conversation about bullying in the home. I'm joined in studio by Ellen Weber Libby, a licensed psychologist in Washington D.C., and author of the book "The Favorite Child," and Joseph Wright who is senior vice president of the Child Health Advocacy Institute at the Children's National Medical Center. He's also with the George Washington University School of Medicine and Public Health Sciences.

  • 13:44:21

    BELLANTONIAnd joining us from New Hampshire is Corrina Jenkins Tucker. She's a professor of family studies and a Carsey Institute fellow at the University of New Hampshire. You can join our conversation. Tell us your story and your experience at -- by calling 1-800-433-8850, or send an email to kojo@wamu.org. We have an email from Kory who says, "It wasn't until today that I saw my child's behavior towards an older sibling could be considered bullying. Can your guests give some techniques to work with younger siblings that excludes an older sibling while getting the other younger siblings on that exclusive bandwagon?"

  • 13:44:57

    BELLANTONIAnd we have a caller who also has a point along these lines. Jenny in Silver Spring, thanks for calling us.

  • 13:45:03

    JENNYHi. Thank you for taking my call. Can you hear me?

  • 13:45:06

    BELLANTONIYes. Go ahead.

  • 13:45:07

    JENNYGreat. I -- just like the person who emailed, I have three sons, and the middle one is -- is very sensitive, and the youngest one is more of a typical -- what you call a typical boy and is very aggressive, and tends to physically beat up on the older one who is loath to stop him. And unlike when the older siblings are beating up on the younger ones, my husband and I shut it down immediately.

  • 13:45:36

    JENNYWhen the younger one is beating up on the older one, our first inclination is, well, the older one is bigger, he should be able to handle it. And I was just wondering if your guests had any ideas on how to manage that?

  • 13:45:47

    BELLANTONIJoseph Wright?

  • 13:45:49

    TUCKERThat is actually an interesting scenario because one of the interpretations, the most common interpretations of the quote unquote "imbalance of power" that is part and parcel of bullying behavior is size, is physical stature as representative of an imbalance of power. Yet, the -- for the older child, although he may be bigger, if he is being the victim of aggressive behavior, he is just as likely to -- just as prone to experience the same kinds of negative effects as your younger child.

  • 13:46:32

    WRIGHTSo the dynamic, just because there is a size differential, if there is the ability for a child to express aggression towards another child independent of size, it still -- it still can manifest in the kinds of effects that we're talking about today and should not be condoned.

  • 13:46:59

    LIBBYI also think that age is a factor, that sometimes we think that if somebody is older that they should be able to take care of themselves, and what your middle son thinks about his age, relative to his younger brother might also be important to consider. That just because he is older doesn't mean that he should not be encouraged to take care of himself in ways that you and he together determine to be appropriate.

  • 13:47:28

    LIBBYI think that for parents to put language to what's happening is important, and I think that why the younger child is feeling that kind of aggression, and believes that he can target his older, stronger brother might also worth putting mild language to within the context of the family.

  • 13:47:49

    TUCKERI think this brings up a good point that it's not always the older sibling. A lot of people think that is often -- which is who is most often, you know, in the situation maybe doing this, but there are cases where the younger sibling is the aggressor due to personality differences, due to cognitive differentials. There is a number of reasons. It's not just age and birth order.

  • 13:48:13

    BELLANTONIYeah. We have people emailing in kojo@wamu.org talking about the long lasting effects of bullying, and how it's affected their decisions even in adult life. So, you know, Ellen, do you have thoughts about how this -- this really transcends many, many years, not just what happens to you as a child.

  • 13:48:29

    LIBBYFor sure. Being a victim of being bullied has lifelong implications, and when people don't feel the freedom to put language to it, to get the support they need, it comes out in so many destructive ways. It comes out in eating addictions, it comes out in drug addiction, it comes out in drinking, it comes out in what so many people describe as depression or anxiety. But we have to remember that depression and anxiety have become big labels and there are a lot of behaviors that undermine functioning that all are a part of that.

  • 13:49:09

    LIBBYSo yes. I mean, it can be lifelong. In my book, "The Favorite Child," I talk about adult relationships, meaning adults maybe 60 and older, where in caring for an aging parent that the bullying all gets reenacted again, that people have gone on and lived lives but here they are at 60 and taking care of an aging parent, and the bullying and the hurtfulness and the destructiveness is all reenacted all over again.

  • 13:49:38

    BELLANTONIWe have an email from Kelly in Washington DC getting at this, you know, saying, "You're talking a lot about children, no one's talking about the pattern of sibling bullying and power imbalances and how they don't end with childhood. It's something that's in our lives forever. It may morph from physical bullying to emotional bullying, but it often endures. My sisters and I are in my mid-40s to mid-50s and we're still living out these challenges from childhood." Joseph Wright, of the Children's National Medical Center, go ahead.

  • 13:50:01

    WRIGHTYes. And we can't forgot that it goes both ways. Children who are victimized, as well as children who are the aggressors. If unattended, we know that children who bully are more likely to experience academic poor performance, more likely to being involved in crime, and frankly, more likely to be drug users. This is something that is pervasive that has to be addressed on both sides of the equation, and I think we often pay a great deal of attention to the victims and we also need to pay attention to children who are aggressors and bully as well.

  • 13:50:44

    BELLANTONIYou can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850. Doris in Washington DC was bullied as a child. Tell us your story Doris.

  • 13:50:54

    DORISWell my brother started bullying me at a very young age. He's about 18 months older than me, and it just -- my personality was just not one that was going to take it. And, you know, I have to confess that I was the one who picked up the knife eventually and chased him in the bathroom, and he had to lock himself in. And I think after that, we were about eight or nine or ten that -- that he stopped.

  • 13:51:22

    DORISSo, you know, and he was the favorite child, and I understand that, and I really didn't have a problem with it, and even -- I remember one time I was in church and we were talking about it and if you think about it all through the Bible we have these sibling rivalries that are displayed, and I said, well, you know, I know that my brother was the favorite, but I don't hold that against him. He didn't do that, my parents did that. I love my brother very much, and we're very close. So, you know, people carry that stuff on, but I guess I was just fortunate enough to be able to look at it and say, you know, that's what he did, but he did not do that, and, you know, and deal with exactly what happened, not what -- a story around what happened.

  • 13:52:12

    BELLANTONIEllen Weber Libby.

  • 13:52:13

    LIBBYWell, what you talk about, Doris, feels like a lesson to all of us. I mean, you understood what happened and you, in essence, said, this may be the story, but he still needs to be held accountable for his behavior. And I think that's what so many parents are struggling to do when a child is bullying, how to hold them accountable for their behavior.

  • 13:52:36

    DORISAnd I will say that he was held accountable because, you know, after, you know, there was some things that he tried to do at a later date, and my father told him in no uncertain terms that he was never to hit me. He was never to hit me. And that was it. And I really kind of felt bad for him, because as we got older, my father, who was very sexist and chauvinist, but he said, you know, you are her protector. That's your role and you're responsible for her.

  • 13:53:06

    DORISAnd, you know, but once -- so he knew that he wasn't suppose today do it. My parents did not condone it, but early on because I wanted -- I did -- I loved my brother, I used to follow him around like a little puppy dog, and that's probably why he would hit me, because he wanted me to go away, but, you know, we worked it out.

  • 13:53:30

    BELLANTONIThank you Doris. Corrina Jenkins Tucker, You have this study that looks at aggression among siblings and I wanted to ask you what next steps are you planning, or what would you like to see taken in both research and addressing these issues?

  • 13:53:45

    TUCKERYes. I've within hearing anecdotally from a lot of adults who have been emailing me and calling me about, you know, that there are still experiencing the effects of this childhood sibling aggression. I think it would be very interesting to continue to look at that. Also, I'd like to focus on more of what parents can do. That's where we're thinking about going next to look at sort of the family characteristics and what are some effective strategies that parents can do to prevent or stop this behavior from happening.

  • 13:54:21

    TUCKERAnd just to continue to promote recognizing sibling aggression is not rivalry. It is real, and it shouldn't be dismissed as benign, or something that maybe even is good for children, and really rethinking, lastly, those norms of peer aggression versus sibling aggression.

  • 13:54:43

    BELLANTONIJoseph Wright with the Children's National Medical Center and George Washington University's School of Medicine and Public Health Sciences, what would you like to see in terms of policy or practice?

  • 13:54:53

    WRIGHTWell, in terms of professional awareness, we have a community of people who interface with families, particularly when children are young, pediatricians, child psychologists and the like, who do not have, as part of the armamentarium the kind of tools that Professor Tucker is describing, and I really, really believe that we, as members of that community owe it to ourselves to become educate, become skilled, and be able to provide these skills to the people and families that we take care of.

  • 13:55:33

    BELLANTONIEllen Weber Libby?

  • 13:55:34

    LIBBYI agree with everything that Dr. Wright is saying. It really is about parents understanding the implications of their ability to work -- talk between themselves and set boundaries in a family, and realize that what they're putting in place is for the rest of their children's lives and generations to come.

  • 13:55:54

    BELLANTONIAny resources that you would particularly recommend? Obviously reading the book, "The Favorite Child," which Ellen Weber Libby wrote, but anybody, Corinna in New Hampshire, do you have any thoughts?

  • 13:56:06

    TUCKERI don't have a specific resource to recommend, but, I mean, one of the reasons we sent this paper to pediatrics was because we wanted to get this information out to pediatricians. The pediatricians are often the first person that parents go to about family issues and things that they're not quite sure about, and so, you know, that's why we sent it there and are hopeful that pediatricians will read this and, you know, discuss this with the parents and children that they see in their practices.

  • 13:56:38

    WRIGHTAnd I thank you for that, Dr. Tucker.

  • 13:56:40

    BELLANTONIWe have an email from Mary asking about "What about when an adult within the family bullies a child?" Do we see this happen?

  • 13:56:50


  • 13:56:50

    BELLANTONIGo ahead.

  • 13:56:50

    WRIGHTYeah. Well that -- let me just say, an adult -- that's child abuse. I -- as...

  • 13:56:57

    TUCKERPlain and simple.

  • 13:56:57

    WRIGHTRight. Right. We're not -- we're beyond bullying there. That is child abuse, and that is not -- totally not acceptable, and frankly, needs to be reported.

  • 13:57:08

    LIBBYAnd absolutely if one parent sees another parent bullying a child, the parent who observes is has a real responsibility to remove the child from the danger. I think unfortunately what happens sometimes is that a parent will allow a child to be bullied rather than for that parent to be bullied themselves, and I think that that is part of how abuse perpetuates itself.

  • 13:57:34

    BELLANTONIThank you all for such a great discussion. Ellen Weber Libby is a licensed psychologist, and the author of the book "The Favorite Child," here with me in studio. Also, Joseph Wright, senior vice president of the Child Health Advocacy Institute at the Children's National Medical Center, a professor in emergency medicine and health policy at George Washington University School of Medicine and Public Health Sciences.

  • 13:57:53

    BELLANTONIAnd on the phone with us was Corrina Jenkins Tucker who is a Carsey Institute fellow at the University of New Hampshire. I'm Christina Bellantoni. I've been sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi for the last three days. Thanks so much for having me. It's been a pleasure. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, and Elizabeth Weinstein, with help from Stephannie Stokes.

  • 13:58:16

    BELLANTONIThe engineer today is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website kojoshow.org.

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