Sibling bullying associated with poor mental health outcomes years later

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Young people who are repeatedly bullied by siblings are more likely to suffer from poor mental health and wellbeing issues later in adolescence, a new study has suggested.

The new research, which analyzed data from over 17,000 participants, found that as the frequency of bullying increased in early-to-middle adolescence, so did the severity of mental health outcomes in their late teens.

The paper also found that sibling bullying in early adolescence, irrespective of whether the individual was a victim, perpetrator or both, has a long-term effect on both positive and negative mental health in late adolescence.

Previous studies showed that adolescence is a particularly vulnerable period for the deterioration of mental health, and problematic sibling relationships can be a key factor in the development of mental health difficulties during adolescence.

Lead author, Dr Umar Toseeb from the University of York’s Department of Education, said: “While sibling bullying has previously been linked to poor mental health outcomes, it was not known whether there is a relationship between the persistence of sibling bullying and the severity of mental health outcome, in the longer term. In the first study of its kind, we comprehensively investigated a whole range of mental health outcomes, which included measures of both positive (e.g. wellbeing and self-esteem) and negative (e.g. symptoms of psychological distress) mental health. Of particular note was the finding that even those who bullied their siblings, but weren’t bullied themselves (i.e. the bullies) had poorer mental health outcomes years later,” Dr Toseeb added.

Finally, the paper suggests that prevention and clinical interventions aimed at reducing mental health difficulties and promoting positive mental health during late adolescence are likely to benefit from reducing sibling bullying in early adolescence.

The study made use of data from the UK-based Millennium Cohort Study. The study was set up in the early 2000s to investigate the lives of children in the new century. Young people completed questionnaires about sibling bullying at age 11 and 14 years, and further questionnaires about their mental health and wellbeing when they were 17 years old. Parents completed questionnaires about their child’s mental health difficulties when they were 11, 14, and 17 years old.

Children who are exposed to abuse before they are eleven years old, and those exposed to abuse both in childhood and adolescence may be more likely to develop conduct problems (such as bullying or stealing) than those exposed to abuse in adolescence only and those who are not exposed to abuse, according to a study published in the open access journal BMC Psychiatry.

A team of researchers at the Universities of Bath and Bristol examined data on 13,793 children and adolescents (51.6% boys), who were followed from ages four to 17 years, included in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, a cohort of children born in South-West England in the early 1990s.

Andreas Bauer, the lead author said: “Conduct problems refer to antisocial behaviors in childhood and/or adolescence, such as fighting, bullying, lying or stealing. They are associated with various negative outcomes, including mental and physical health problems, and it is important to understand their possible causes and to develop effective prevention and intervention programs. Although we know that child abuse is an important factor linked to conduct problems in children, much less is known about when child abuse is most harmful and how it relates to the development of serious behaviour problems over time.”

From the children included in this study, the authors identified three groups who developed elevated levels of conduct problems. There was an early-onset persistent group who developed conduct problems in childhood which continued into adolescence (4.8% of the sample), an adolescence-onset group who developed conduct problems in adolescence (4.5%) and a childhood-limited group who developed conduct problems in childhood only (15.4%). The majority of children (75.3%) did not develop serious conduct problems.

Andreas Bauer said: “We assessed whether abuse was more common in the backgrounds of these three groups than in those who did not develop conduct problems. Our findings showed that abuse was more common in the early-onset persistent group who showed conduct problems in childhood and adolescence, and also in the adolescence-onset group who developed conduct problems in adolescence.”

The authors also looked at the timing of child abuse, comparing those who were exposed to abuse only in childhood or only in adolescence with those exposed to abuse in childhood and adolescence. They found that children exposed to abuse in both childhood and adolescence were 10 times more likely to be in the early-onset persistent conduct problems group and 8 times more likely to be in the adolescence-onset conduct problems group. Abuse in childhood was associated with a 4- to 6-fold increase in risk for showing early-onset persistent or adolescence-onset conduct problems. In contrast, abuse in adolescence only was not linked to an increased risk of showing severe conduct problems.

Child abuse


Conduct problems were measured at ages 4, 7, 8, 10, 12, 13, and 17, by asking parents to rate their child’s behavior over the last six months. At age 22, individuals were asked to report physical, psychological, or sexual abuse experienced in childhood (before age 11 years) and adolescence (between ages 11-17 years). Complete data for conduct problems as reported by parents and children, and physical, psychological, and sexual abuse as reported by children was available for 3,127 participants. Out of those, one in five (19.6%) participants reported experiencing some form of abuse, with 11.3%, 8.9%, and 8.1% of participants reporting physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, respectively.

A limitation of the study is that experiences of abuse in childhood and adolescence were measured when the participants were aged 22 years, so there may be issues with recall biases and issues surrounding disclosure of earlier abuse. Relying on parent-reported conduct problems in adolescence may have underestimated the level of behavioral problems, as parents may not be aware of their child’s behavior outside the home.

Andreas Bauer said: “Our results suggest that abuse is more common in the backgrounds of young people with conduct problems and that conduct problems starting in adolescence may be linked to adverse experiences in childhood, rather than being an exaggerated form of teenage rebellion or due to peer pressure. Preventing child abuse may also help protect children from developing serious behaviour problems. However, it is important to note that many young people who experience abuse do not develop conduct problems, and conduct problems can also occur in the absence of child abuse.”

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