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Sibling Bullying: A risk factor for addiction?

Bullying is currently a hot-button issue, which is great but, bullying between siblings continues to go unnoticed or is considered to be “normal.” In general, parents seem to turn a blind eye when their own kids are bullying each other, unlike instances in which their child’s peer is the aggressor. That is, when “outsiders” are involved, aggressive speech and behavior is seen as a problem that should be addressed; when it happens among siblings, it’s considered to be typical. Sibling abuse is not the same as sibling rivalry.

What is Sibling Bullying?

Sibling bullying, or sibling abuse, is a real thing. It is defined as the physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse of one sibling by another. It is believed that sibling abuse is far more common than other forms of family abuse but, it has only recently begun to be researched.

Corinna Jenkins Tucker, an associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire and lead researcher, says, “Historically, sibling aggression has been dismissed as normal. It’s been seen as benign, or even good for kids because it teaches them something about dealing with the world.”

Although it tends to go unnoticed, unlike spousal or child abuse, and thought to be less dangerous, sibling bullies may in fact be capable of lethal violence towards their brothers or sisters. And then there are the psychological implications to consider.

As part of the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, researchers from the University of New Hampshire interviewed over 3,500 children (aged 1 month to 17 years), or their parents about different types of aggression demonstrated by siblings and peers. The research showed that, among the subjects who experienced bullying at the hands of their siblings in the 12 months leading up to the study, there was a significant link to a state of worse mental health. Increased mental distress was noted in both children and teens that experienced severe and mild forms of sibling aggression.

Is Sibling Bullying a Risk Factor for Addiction?

Since research has only just begun when it comes to sibling abuse and its implications, it’s difficult to say definitively that there is a connection between sibling bullying and addiction.

However, knowing what we already do know about people who develop alcoholism and other drug addictions – that there is a prevalence of child abuse in their background – we can see how abuse among siblings may also factor into substance abuse issues later on.

Early Childhood Abuse and the Development of Alcoholism

A study released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse confirmed that children who were abused face a higher risk of becoming alcoholics later on in life. This really isn’t “news;” Childhood trauma, which includes physical, emotional, and sexual abuse or neglect, has long been considered a risk factor in developing alcohol addiction. This study, however, shows just how powerful of an influence childhood trauma could be.

Sibling Studies

And we now know that there are genetic links between siblings when it comes to – among other things – developing substance abuse issues.

Dr. Andrew Saxon, an addiction psychiatrist at the University of Washington, said the study provides strong evidence that the brains of drug abusers were different before they started taking drugs. But he also said more research is needed to understand how their siblings were able to resist using drugs.

Drug abusers and their siblings share a vulnerability to drug addiction.

“The experiences you have in life could change the structure of the brain, affecting them on a microscopic level,” Saxon said.

“People who are addicted to drugs aren’t bad people or weak-willed,” he said. “They have a disease in their brain that they were either born with or formed during early life that makes them susceptible to using substances in excess.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135.



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