"These are children who don't have a safe place anywhere."
May 15, 2016 6:22 PM   Subscribe

Dieter Wolke has been studying the effects of sibling bullying. He was recently interviewed by CBC Radio (transcript). He and colleagues have been published in The Lancet (pre-publication free access version) and Pediatrics. What they found "is that those who were regularly bullied by their siblings were twice as likely to have developed clinically significant depression and anxiety disorder by 18 years of age." Wolke was interviewed by the BBC a couple of years ago, in a segment which drew over a thousand letters.

"The worst outcomes we found for those children who are bullied at school and bullied at home - just imagine that child. You go to school and you get victimized there and then you go home and the same thing happens again, because these are children who don't have a safe place anywhere."
posted by clawsoon (32 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
This post dovetails nicely with this weeks Pseudopod Episode: Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown. I feel like that guy knew whereof these others speak.
posted by Gyre,Gimble,Wabe, Esq. at 6:46 PM on May 15, 2016


This weekend, my wife and I agreed that both of us thought that middle school was awful for us, and it sucks for most everyone, and is currently sucking for those of our kids now in it.

We haven't talked too much about our own experiences of bullying before, TBH, despite having four of our own kids in the house! But there it is: the first time we really bring up middle school suffering, it's to say that we were unhappy then. And we are both the youngest of four kids, who were "the baby" in our respective households, usually shielded from the worst.

Why, oh why, are people so damn awful to each other, especially adolescents, who are mostly the unhappiest of all?
posted by wenestvedt at 7:32 PM on May 15, 2016 [4 favorites]


why are people so damn awful to each other, especially adolescents, who are mostly the unhappiest of all?

The question answers itself.
posted by El Mariachi at 7:42 PM on May 15, 2016 [7 favorites]


There was something bad about 70's and early 80's Canadian suburban culture. Maybe it was an after-effective of the drug culture of the 60's, but whenever I see photos of that 70's look—long hair, chunky glasses, checked flannel shirts―it just bring back bad memories of growing up in suburbia, and the early 80's were not better. Denim jackets with Metallica or Venom backpatches, unoffical smoking areas at junior high school.

I went to a junior high school that reminds me of something out of the River's Edge. In fact, the River's Edge really does capture the milieu of 70's and 80's suburbia, at least to me. Indeed, a girl was murdered in my town in the 90's, and her body lay floating under the bridge for days. I was in teacher-training school then and a teacher who was guest-lecturing a class said that the all the kids at the school had known about the murder for several days before telling an adult.

My own experience in junior high school about ten years earlier was not great. I narrowly escaped being severely beaten by a mob of kids and I had to change schools. I did not look forward to going to school. I wish I could say that my home life was happier, but it could be pretty volatile at times, depending on how well things were going with my father's business. Canada was experiencing a recession and housing correction back then, similar in scope to 2007/08.

But my home life was not terrible, and I had my room, I had my sci fi books (mostly Harry Harrison and Silver Age writers), and my radio. I could escape and listen to KISW and KXRX.

My oldest son is just finishing middle school and he's had a great time. He goes to a public school and there is a big mix of kids at the school. It seems to me that kids these days have a higher EQ, since there doesn't seem to be as much bullying, and nothing like the sort of violence I experienced during that one awful year in Grade 8.

My son is in a French Immersion program, however, and I've learned that the "English kids" (those kids who attend the normal stream of English-language classes) behave in ways that I would have recognized thirty years ago.

The "English kids" can't really take French Immersion for a variety of reasons. They may be uninterested or may have a learning disability that makes it harder (they would, however, qualify for a teaching aide for help... if there were any teaching aides available who can speak French).

So the English track is a bit of a zoo, it seems. One friend we've known since our kids were in kindergarten has pulled her son out of the school entirely because he's not learning anything. It's too chaotic, so he just studies online.

When I was training to be a teacher there was also the idea that "bullying culture" can be tied to the prevalence of learning disabilities. Or it could be a cognitive or emotional disability. These kids have difficulty connecting with their peers and difficulty communicating, so this makes them isolated and more susceptible to bullying—or more susceptible to becoming bullies.

With our kids at home, they do fight but we try to discourage that sort of behavior.
posted by My Dad at 9:34 PM on May 15, 2016 [4 favorites]


One of these days, someone is going to say something that makes me reconsider the assumption that forcing siblings on a child is unspeakably cruel. I continue to wait.
posted by eotvos at 11:05 PM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


The thing that scares me as a parent is the possibility of not noticing. My kids are still very young (10 months and 3 years) so it's not an immediate concern yet. And I myself growing up had only the typical spats with my siblings, nothing I would characterise as bullying of the sort they talk about here.

But my husband was bullied by his older brother, despite the fact that his mum was pretty caring. The brother was just a master at doing it in ways that were invisible to the parents, or for which there was plausible deniability if it was observed. It is very obvious to me how harmful that early bullying was to him. But as a parent, that terrifies me. How do you stop something you don't see?
posted by forza at 11:12 PM on May 15, 2016 [9 favorites]


This brought up a lot of stuff for me. I want to point out that it's not always the oldest kids bullying the youngest, it's whichever kid has the most power. My Mom actively supported my younger sister bullying me because for some reason she detested me, but liked my sister. My sister knew she had my Mother's permission to do just about anything she wanted to me and that gave her emense power. She and another girl stole clothes and other items out of my room, destroyed things like my bicycle and my locker at school, and spred lies and rumors about me to kids, teachers, and coaches. When I told my Mom what was happening she only sneared and said, "You deserve it." Finally, my boyfriend's mother intervened. She called my parents and the parents of the other girl together and basically said, "I want you to know I'm seeing this happen, and I'm seeing you let it happen and you should be ashamed. This is abuse." That helped a bit, but eventually I just went to live with my boyfriends family because my life in my biological families home was pure hell. I am pretty certain that my boyfriend' s mom is the reason I didn't wind up being one of those kids who were abused and bullied to death.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 11:23 PM on May 15, 2016 [29 favorites]


I think I'm a kind person now, but when I think back on my relationship with my brother growing up, I fear that I bullied him. I was never violent, but I certainly did a fair amount of older-sister ignoring, I'm-better-than-you type stuff, and our relationship never really grew - we are still distant as adults, although I tried repeatedly to improve our relationship throughout my teens and 20s. He struggled as a young adult and I blamed myself. I think my parents are good people, but I wish that they had intervened differently - both with me, to call me on my bullshit and teach me to be kind (even to people who don't think like me), and with him, to help him learn how to better manage his impulses toward socially non-normative behaviors (that made me, and frankly many others, feel uncomfortable and unsure).

I fear for my future children, because I think I'm a good person, but I still held and acted with cruelty. Today, when I meet people who are a bit of an oddball, I am genuinely interested in an unusual new person; as I kid, I didn't always feel or act that way. I don't know how to make it better for myself, my family member, or my future kids.
posted by samthemander at 11:49 PM on May 15, 2016 [8 favorites]


One of these days, someone is going to say something that makes me reconsider the assumption that forcing siblings on a child is unspeakably cruel. I continue to wait.

Uh... I get along well with my sisters and am glad to have them as part of my family? Does that work?
posted by No-sword at 12:10 AM on May 16, 2016 [5 favorites]


Uh... I get along well with my sisters and am glad to have them as part of my family? Does that work?

I've always thought having a sibling makes your socialization different from being a single child. Some contemporary psychologists theorize that the sibling bond can be stronger than other relationships, because of the amount of time that you spend and will spend with them. That makes a lot of sense to me.

Absolutely there downsides to having siblings--the burden on parents is bigger, which has drawbacks in terms of investment, resources and the developmental implications of that. But there's no clear universal reason to believe "creating siblings is unethical". Just because economic conditions demands something from the nuclear family is just a point about the status quo of society. An actual sibling can be your greatest source of happiness, and that's reason enough.
posted by polymodus at 1:14 AM on May 16, 2016


My brother bullied me unremittingly from when I was about 10 until I left home at 17. He called me names, kicked, punched, tripped and pinched me when adults weren't watching, told me I was stupid and ugly and a bitch and a loser and that it was no wonder no one wanted to be my friend. He told people at school that we weren't related. He refused to call me by my name ever at all during those years and my parents thought that part was cute and funny.

Somehow I took away from the media that this is just how siblings are, and that it wasn't abnormal or wrong behaviour, so it never occurred to me to complain to someone about it, beyond stuff like, "my brother is annoying" or "we had a fight".

The weird thing is, after we didn't talk at all between when I was 17 and 30 or so, we are now kind of friends. He seems like a nice dude. We commiserate about how insane our parents are. I tried to talk to him once about what it was like for me as a teenager, and he can't remember any of it at all, which is kind of upsetting, because it makes me doubt a little how accurate my memories are. But I think his teenage years must have been pretty traumatic in other ways, because he claims not to have any memories from before the age of about 16 or 17 at all, and is in therapy for depression and other issues relating to that.
posted by lollusc at 2:18 AM on May 16, 2016 [5 favorites]


One of these days, someone is going to say something that makes me reconsider the assumption that forcing siblings on a child is unspeakably cruel. I continue to wait.

I think that in families where arguments/fights among children are frequently resolved, either through parents' guidance or by the kids themselves, strong bonds can be created. Then you will have an invaluable strength as a family when life is hard - whether because of illness, losses, economy or whatever.
All siblings argue, it is how you handle it that matters.

I've seen bullying as it is described here at friends' homes, and it has always been in dysfunctional families.

I'm from a generation where most people have multiple siblings (and cousins), but the few of my friends who don't have all strived for big families. They have felt lonely when things went bad.
posted by mumimor at 3:14 AM on May 16, 2016


I tell people I was Lisa with three Barts growing up. From middle school on, my brothers bullied me, and many years later when I went into therapy my therapist figured it out.

As adults, my brothers all realized on their own what they did, and have really gone out of their way to make amends. We have very good relationships now, and I wouldn't trade them for the world. My parents totally knew what was going on, but they were of the "kids will be kids" school. My brothers weren't devious, they just had poor impulse control, as kids do.
posted by maggiemaggie at 4:08 AM on May 16, 2016 [3 favorites]


This brought up a lot of stuff for me. I want to point out that it's not always the oldest kids bullying the youngest, it's whichever kid has the most power. My Mom actively supported my younger sister bullying me because for some reason she detested me, but liked my sister.

And only 2 decades later was my younger sister diagnosed as bi-polar. It took another decade and a half after that for me to detach completely for my own wellbeing. Much better and healthier place now. Time zones and continents help a lot. Later, one of my aunts said something that offered insight on the weird dynamic, I was born far too early to a very young newly married mother still in the limerance phase.

This is the firstyear of my 50 years of life that sister didn't even send birthday greetings. Its over now, I guess.
posted by infini at 4:20 AM on May 16, 2016 [3 favorites]


As an only child with an only child, I get told a lot--explicitly and implicitly--that having siblings is a way to ensure that one's children have a support system as they grow older, but like have people met real families? There's no guarantee there at all.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:25 AM on May 16, 2016 [22 favorites]


soren_lorensen: I'm also an only child - and was born in an era where that was rare. People always copped a superior attitude - I must be spoiled, lonely, etc. - even when their own relationship with their siblings was fraught or nonexistent. And now that I'm older, the notion that siblings will all pull together and chip in to take care of elderly parents? Hahaha, in what world are they living in?

I'm not saying all families are like this; there are many where the siblings get along and are close, and a few where everyone pitches in with no squabbling when elderly parents need care. (IME, the latter is very rare; mostly it's one daughter who does all the caregiving, but everyone wants a piece of the estate!) What grinds my gears is the attitude that "siblings are a gift! They will always be there for you!", that the Faaaaaamily Fairy always sprinkles magic faaaaaamily pixie dust over everyone so they get along with no effort on the parents' part, and that only children are to be pitied.

Siblings aren't always, or even usually, a gift and a treasure and a set of lifelong friends, as this article demonstrates.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:05 AM on May 16, 2016 [6 favorites]


I was bullied by my sister for years — first at home, then when we shared an apartment in college. It shaped my self-image to the point where I thought myself unlovable, and I tried for a very long time to compensate, (or, to my twisted mind, to "trick" people into liking me, since my authentic self was so intrinsically awful). I had no idea people could live in generally harmonious households. When I moved in with friends in my fourth year of Uni it was the first time in my life that I wasn't actively scared of the people I shared a space with. Ten years later, I still revel in that.
posted by third word on a random page at 5:23 AM on May 16, 2016 [9 favorites]


When I moved in with friends in my fourth year of Uni it was the first time in my life that I wasn't actively scared of the people I shared a space with. Ten years later, I still revel in that

Wow, yeah, that's it. That's it exactly.
posted by lollusc at 5:59 AM on May 16, 2016 [5 favorites]


mumimor: I think that in families where arguments/fights among children are frequently resolved, either through parents' guidance or by the kids themselves, strong bonds can be created. ... I've seen bullying as it is described here at friends' homes, and it has always been in dysfunctional families.

This is echoed by the research:
But the strongest factor that was actually related to how the parent relationship was. So if parents were warm, who were fair, who had very clear rules in the family, the less sibling bullying you found than if you had one which used aggression themselves, for example, hitting their children, then the children were doing it more frequently between themselves as well.
The interviewer had asked whether socioeconomic status was a predictor, and Wolke said that, to his surprise, demographics had a "very small" effect compared to how parents dealt with conflict.
posted by clawsoon at 6:17 AM on May 16, 2016 [5 favorites]


I grew up essentially an only child; the youngest of my half-siblings was eight when I was born and with them sharing households, I didn't really have a full-sibling experience. They always did treat me like the baby and my brothers certainly teased the crap out of me as I got older, but I never ever felt like it was malicious or unkind. They'd stop when I demanded it, and they really did (and do) love me.

My husband is the youngest of four boys, all born within six years. The family moved when my husband was in kindergarten, and the oldest boy 11. Up til then, he (the eldest) had been educated in small, loving parochial schools with all of his cousins and siblings. The move turned him into a cruel, vindictive person. He had to go to public school for the first time in his life, in a poor neighborhood/district. He was bullied mercilessly at school and would come home and literally kick the dog. He tormented my husband daily, especially when they had to share a room. Once, when my husband was a teenager, his brother riled him up so much that he (my husband) punched a hole in the wall of their room. Their dad punished the brother for that one. But the parents never really intervened, other than reactively. It was definitely "boys will be boys" and "let them work it out," even though there was no way they could work it out themselves. The oldest brother clearly needed therapy or help of some kind. He never really got his life together, and although he repeatedly apologizes for the way he was as a kid, my husband never really got over it. It didn't help that he was also bullied at school.

My kids have an amazing relationship. I think because I didn't know what to expect, raising two kids, I never fell into the "they'll work it out" trap. I never let them really truly fight (because I couldn't take the chaos! It was abnormal to me!) and I helped them work out their bigger issues with kindness and respect. And my husband's experience made him very, very sensitive to any hint of bullying by either one of them and he never let it slide. But the thing is, we really didn't have to intervene much. My son adored my daughter from the day she was born (he had just turned three). They've had their issues (like going through puberty at the same time...rough on any relationship), but my son is now home from his first year of college and seeing them just delight in each other's company makes my heart sing. I'm so happy that they have each other, and always will have each other.

But yeah. My poor husband had the brunt of a mean older brother plus school bullying. It effects (affects? I can never remember) him to this day.
posted by cooker girl at 7:18 AM on May 16, 2016 [3 favorites]


Never thought about this "safe place at home" angle.

My brother bullied me growing up -- one time I was kidnapped and tortured by a neighborhood sociopath, who would end up going to federal prison for god knows what reason. My parents thought it was hilarious, of course, even though I had to escape from it like in a thriller movie.

A year or two later my brother decides to start hanging out with this guy, and my brother was pretty popular, so he had his choice of people. One day my brother brings this guy home. My parents welcomed him in, of course, and they all chuckled and got along warmly. So here's me in 7th grade trying to do my homework while my kidnapper is roaming around the house acting menacing towards me. There's got to be laws against that, right?

Then as we got older this brother started acting nicer towards me. I thought he had changed. Unfortunately, he did not, he just realized after a lot of retaliation from people that if he wants to do fucked up things to people, then he needs to cultivate a good image of himself to cover up his real personality. He was basically just using me to make himself look like a "good brother" in front of people, and he had no qualms about tricking me into thinking he loved me to do it. Which isn't surprising since he would do things like bringing my kidnapper home to meet me for shits and giggles. I just had a hard time sorting it all out because I had a wicked case of PTSD by that point and my family encouraged this demented garbage.

Family's can be pretty fucked up.
posted by gehenna_lion at 7:24 AM on May 16, 2016 [6 favorites]


I tried to talk to him once about what it was like for me as a teenager, and he can't remember any of it at all, which is kind of upsetting, because it makes me doubt a little how accurate my memories are.

Me and my brother bullied my sister. We were much older than her so the bullying was psychological (exclusion, name calling, body shaming - she was a pudgy child). We would have forgotten all of that shit had she not called us out on it when she was a young adult, explaining to us how our "jokes" led to her brush with anorexia and permanently hurt her self esteem. Do not doubt yourself for one second just because your brother does not remember. We tend to forget the pain we cause.
posted by hat_eater at 7:51 AM on May 16, 2016 [13 favorites]


It often seemed like brother's abusive behavior was something he did for his own passing amusement. Cruelty as a kind of frivolous game. Something to do just because he could, because there was some mild thrill to be had from overpowering me, or some entertainment to be had from upsetting or humiliating me.

It didn't mean anything to him, not enough to remember most of it. It meant a lot to me. It still means a lot to me.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:00 AM on May 16, 2016 [3 favorites]


That study... explains a lot about me, actually.
posted by Space Kitty at 10:25 AM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's not just not having a safe place to go. It's also not learning how to resolve conflict, when and how to push back, boundaries, etc. How to be in the world. Even with hindsight and space, finally, it's still a lifetime of second-guessing your own thoughts/perceptions/words/choices.

I didn't even recognize it for what it was until my children started getting the shaft from the same people, and were rejected by their older cousins. Then a light bulb went on and I pushed back (quite unskillfully) like nobody's business. My protective instincts for myself are broken, but not for my kids.

Even in middle age I still tend to ignore the 99% of people in the room who like me/are neutral about me and instead focus my energy on trying to win over the one person there who ignores/doesn't like me.
posted by headnsouth at 11:28 AM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


I love my older brother and younger sister fiercely and I am gloriously happy to have them and have all grown up together in a great family and they are the very best friends to me.

One time when I was 12, my brother said "nice mustache." and I STILL think about it when I wax my upper lip obsessively from that day into my 30s.

I can't even imagine the effect that real bullying from that guy who I love and admire so much would have had, when his one sarcastic jerk-comment has made me self-conscious about something my whole life.

Me and my sister fought like street cats our teenage years, but I don't think there was ever any kind of bullying. I once told her she wasn't my friend, she was my sister, when we were in highschool, and she cried reminding me about it when she was 23 and we lived together and were best friends. Your siblings have pretty intense powers over you, I really feel terrible for kids who that isn't a relationship that has that basis of love/respect.
posted by euphoria066 at 11:40 AM on May 16, 2016 [6 favorites]


Subtle bullying, like taunting, is harder to recognize and realize the damage it does to you. Being the youngest of six I got a lot of it but only later realized that's one reason I had so many social problems growing up. Their game was to get me to cry so they could laugh at me. I never thought of it as abuse because it's not obvous, it's "joking" and I was "sensitive". They still think like that and of course to point it out to them would be 'too sensitive, taking myself too seriously". When kids, especially cool kids, would be nice to me I always thought it was a setup for some kind of humiliation.

I sometimes see my nephew doing it to his little brother who has a speech impediment. Even though he also loves his little brother, he clearly takes his current middle-school angst* out on laughing at his baby brother who is significantly younger. My brother does not stop it and I want to say something but don't know how. Taunting is like a contagious disease that some people think is fucking normal and part of having a 'good sense of humor". It's pathetic.

*he's currently failing all his classes and is having some major problems at school
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 12:37 PM on May 16, 2016 [3 favorites]


It often seemed like brother's abusive behavior was something he did for his own passing amusement.

It seems like some parents see this as 'playing' or something. Like it's normal when all they have to do is step in and teach respect. I think it's normalized a lot in some families, especially from what I'm seeing here from people's comments on atrocious behavior in families, such as the case of letting the kidnapper hang around and the parents thinking it was 'hilarious'. Man, people are fucked up. I'm surprised anybody grows up normally anymore.
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 12:41 PM on May 16, 2016


I don't think anyone's grown up normally since the first time people said to each other, "We got so much wheat left over from planting seeds in that field, why don't we settle down right here?"
posted by Countess Elena at 12:53 PM on May 16, 2016 [5 favorites]


true, true..what is normality? But I think there are degrees of fuckedupness and I'd say laughing off a kidnapping is on the deep end of fucked. I get what you're saying, I'm a cynic too, but I get a little tired of "everybody's crazy, nothing is normal" because then everything is fine and nothing is worth bothering about. Just like nobody used to care about bullying in school, it was just 'boys being boys, finding their pecking order etc". No one talked about it and no one differentiated between scrapes and protracted harassment. But I get what your're saying.
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 4:00 PM on May 16, 2016 [2 favorites]


"Why, oh why, are people so damn awful to each other, especially adolescents, who are mostly the unhappiest of all?"

Because some people get off on making others feel like shit, because it make them feel superior, smart, badass, etc. You can't get up unless you put everyone else down.

"As an only child with an only child, I get told a lot--explicitly and implicitly--that having siblings is a way to ensure that one's children have a support system as they grow older, but like have people met real families? There's no guarantee there at all."

*highfives* I can't speak for the aunt who died before I was born, but my parents' siblings have tended to be nothing but difficult and you canNOT get close to those people.

"And now that I'm older, the notion that siblings will all pull together and chip in to take care of elderly parents? Hahaha, in what world are they living in?

Seconded. It's always the female living closest to the parents, period. If there's only sons, it's the daughter-in-law living closest to the parents.

"What grinds my gears is the attitude that "siblings are a gift! They will always be there for you!", that the Faaaaaamily Fairy always sprinkles magic faaaaaamily pixie dust over everyone so they get along with no effort on the parents' part, and that only children are to be pitied.

Hell, my parents, who should have known better, raised me to think that family were the only ones who'd ever be there for you because family is everything. Honestly, dad's side doesn't talk to me since he died (except for the one time I ran into my cousin after almost 9 years and didn't recognize her) and I'm 100% sure my mom's side won't talk to me either if/when she ever goes, same reasons.

But back to bullying: there's gotta be a special hell out there for parents who won't fucking protect one of their kids from another one of their kids. The only way to make that shit worse is to make sure the kid literally has nowhere to go that's safe.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:51 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


This happened to me with one of my husband's relatives. Everyone ignored it -- to the point where they erased it from their memory. "Oh, do you remember when we went to ____?" No, I don't. (Relative) did not want me to go, so I stayed at home.

I was also being bullied at work at the time, although I preferred being at work, so I worked extra hours.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 3:17 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


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