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Family Bullying in Childhood: Consequences for Young Adults

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Family Bullying in Childhood: Consequences for Young Adults
This study investigated childhood family bullying and explored any ongoing impacts for young
adults. Research has demonstrated that peer bullying leads to contemporaneous poor
consequences and some inquiries establish adverse effects of peer bullying lasting into adult life.
However, family bullying is much less studied and the effects are not well understood. While
there is urgency to intervene in peer bullying, this does not extend to family bullying. The aims
of this inquiry were to discover what types of childhood bullying occur in families, any ongoing
consequences, and how young adults define bullying. The study was a retrospective qualitative
inquiry with a purposive sample. There were 43 participants: the majority were female, mean age
24.3, and 27% represented minorities. A qualitative description approach based in naturalistic
inquiry was employed for data analysis to understand the lived experiences of young adults.
NVivo 11 was used for data storage and analysis. A multi-phase coding process was utilized
along with thematic analysis. Types of family bullying and participants’ definitions of bullying
were generated. Thematic analysis revealed lasting consequences in a) low self-esteem and
shame b) eating disorders c) behavioral issues and relationship problems. Outcomes indicate the
importance of further research on childhood family bullying as it affects young adult life and the
need for researchers as well as practitioners to understand its lifelong impact.
Keywords: sibling bullying, parental bullying, family bullying, relationship problems, LGBQ,
mental health
Bullying at school is an international issue and is considered a public health concern. While at
the same time, the bullying of children in families is an underappreciated phenomenon and much
less studied. It includes bullying among siblings and bullying by parents. Sibling and parental
relationships are typically the first substantial relationships children experience and as such they
are a highly influential aspect of development. The primary purpose of parental relationships is
for the care, well-being, and protection of their children. When this is compromised, the
consequences both immediate and long-term are enormous (Cook, et al., 2017; Hildyard &
Wolfe, 2002). There are various definitions of bullying in use by researchers, educators, and,
importantly, by those most affected: victims. Olweus (1978) originally asserted that a person is
being bullied when he or she is exposed repeatedly over time to negative actions by one or more
individuals who have more power than the victim. This definition is significant in thinking about
family interactions. The Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Education
provide this definition for application to children when they are at school:
“Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior by another youth or group of youths who
are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power
imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may
inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or
educational harm” (Gladden, Vivolo-Kantor, Hamburger, & Lumpkin, 2014, p. 7).
It is noteworthy that this definition excludes siblings even though siblings often attend the same
schools. Though there are a number of different descriptions, the Olweus definition remains the
one in use by most researchers and educators. The issue of differences in definition of bullying is
important. Consequently, the question of how children, adolescents, adults, and all victims define
bullying is significant. Vaillancourt, et al. (2008) conducted an inquiry to determine if adults,
researchers in particular, and children were describing the same construct. In their study of
students ages 8 to 18, they found that “students' definitions of bullying rarely included the three
prominent definitional criteria typically endorsed by researchers: intentionality, repetition, and
power imbalance” p. 486. Other research has found similar results (Cheng, Chen, Ho, & Cheng,
2011; Cuadrado-Gordillo, 2012; deLara, 2016).
Statistics and prevalence rates of bullying in families vary widely as a result of
inconsistencies in the literature in terms of defining bullying, aggression, violence, or conflict.
Further, the terms are often used interchangeably (Hoetger, Hazen, & Brank, 2015). This is not
due solely to researcher preference or epistemology but also due to study participants’ use of
designations interchangeably. However, an early study by Vissing, Straus, Gelles, and Harrop
(1991) indicated that 63% of parents in the U.S. admitted to insulting and swearing at their
children under age eighteen. Straus and Field (2003) reported a prevalence rate of over 90% of
parents in the U.S. who admitted to regularly using one or more forms of psychological
aggression, specifically calling their children derogatory and humiliating names. Regarding
siblings, Wolke and Skew’s (2012) literature review of quantitative investigations among
siblings concluded that up to 50% were engaged in bullying at least once a month. Skinner and
Kowalski (2013) interviewed twenty-seven sibling pairs and determined from their accounts that
78% were bullied by their sibling and 85% reported engaging in bullying themselves. More than
half considered the behavior normative. Large-scale studies conducted in the U.S. and
internationally demonstrate a range of 16% to 78% of children of all ages experience bullying by
a sibling (Dantchev & Wolke, 2019; Skinner & Kowalski, 2013). Up to 40% of children are
subjected to sibling bullying on a weekly basis exclusive of socio-economic status and typically
correlated with parenting style and quality (Datchev & Wolke, 2019; Wolke, et al., 2015).
Sibling relationships can be supportive and serve as a safeguard against difficult
circumstances throughout life (Bowes, Maughan, Caspi, Moffitt, & Arseneault, 2010; Gass,
Jenkins, & Dunn, 2007). However, many siblings engage in bullying behavior and this is a
common form of family violence adversely affecting sibling relationships with consequential
poor effects on individual well-being (Dantchev & Wolke, 2019; Skinner & Kowalski, 2013;
Wolke, Tippett, & Dantchev, 2015). Bullying can be allowed and inadvertently encouraged by
parents who believe it is normal behavior, mere sibling rivalry, or who embrace it as part of their
parenting style (Dantchev & Wolke, 2018). Of significance, in most states in the U.S. there is no
legal protection for children who are the recipient of bullying or violence by a sibling regardless
of severity (Caffaro, 2013).
The impact of children bullied by siblings includes anxiety, depression, self-harm, and
behavioral disorders (Bowes, Wolke, Joinson, Leyera, & Lewis, 2014). Along with other
psychiatric symptoms, Dantchev, Zammit, and Wolke’s (2018) study of nearly 7,000 children
bullied by siblings in middle childhood discovered a two to three-fold diagnosis of psychotic
disorders by age eighteen. Additionally, bullying by a sibling places a child at increased risk of
peer victimization at school (Duncan, 1999; Wolke, Tippett, & Dantchev, 2015).
The research literature addresses numerous negative health and mental health effects of
peer bullying on children lasting into adulthood, including the risk for eating disorders (deLara,
2018; Takizawa, Maughan, & Arseneault, 2014). However, the impacts of family bullying are
less studied and thus less well-known. Permanent neurobiological alterations are attributed to
abuse that is exclusively verbal (Tomoda, et al., 2011; Tomoda, Takiguchi, Shimada, &
Fujisawa, 2017). Teicher, et al., (2006) found parental verbal abuse had effects “comparable to
those associated with witnessing domestic violence or nonfamilial sexual abuse and larger than
those associated with familial physical abuse (p. 993).” Loh, Calleja, & Restubog, (2011)
identify put-downs, shaming, and rejection as “parental verbal abuse.” These behaviors toward
children are in keeping with a standard definition of bullying.
Studies on sibling bullying exist, but there is a noticeable dearth of research on bullying
by parents. The humiliation and intimidation of children by parents as well as other types of
bullying are rarely addressed in the research literature. Various forms of behavior that are called
bullying when they are peer to peer, teacher to student, or sibling to sibling are referred to as
“harsh parenting,” “parental verbal abuse,” “psychological aggression” (Conger, Shoffield, &
Neppl, 2012; Straus & Field, 2003), and “child maltreatment” (Shields & Cicchetti, 2001).
Actions by adults other than parents, such as teachers and coaches, are regarded as bullying
toward children and they are designated as such (deLara, 2016; McEvoy, 2005). For example,
research on teachers who bully children indicates they bully through humiliating, insulting,
ridiculing, criticizing unfairly, and purposely hurting their feelings (Datta, Cornell, & Huang,
2017; Tremlow, Fonagy, Sacco, & Brethour, 2006). In the Tremlow et al. (2006) study, 45% of
teachers admitted to bullying students in these ways.
However the same actions by parents are currently given a different designation in
research studies as stated above. Why is it important to think about parental maltreatment as
possible bullying? Naming any phenomenon is essential for research and intervention purposes.
Children and adolescents can relate to the idea of bullying. As students they are consistently
informed about the definition of bullying. It is logical to consider they might apply this definition
to interactions they experience at home. During a literature search only two references to
bullying by parents specifically were found. Napier and Whitaker (2011) describe parental
bullying as shunning, ridiculing, and blaming inappropriately. In deLara (2016), 23% of
participants stated they were bullied by parents through ridicule, demeaning, and name-calling.
The major theoretical perspectives guiding the research are Social Learning Theory,
Social Cognitive Theory, and Family Systems Theory. Social Learning Theory (SLT) is
applicable to this study because it posits that observation of interpersonal interaction generates
attitudes and norms about behavior. Using a Social Learning Theory lens, children may repeat
actions they witness both appropriate and inappropriate, particularly those of significant others
(Bandura, 1973). Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) hypothesizes that social cognitions and mental
processes facilitate our understanding of social interactions in the environment and influences
thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. Personal encounters are evaluated based on past experiences of
the individual as part of the environment (Bandura, 1986). Family Systems Theory (FST) views
the family as an emotional unit with complex interactions in context. In Family Systems Theory,
parental behavior may give implicit permission to others in the family to behave similarly
(Bowen, 1978; Titelman, 2014). These theories are pertinent to experiences of bullying within
the family and describe behavior that occurs in the context of the family. They are helpful in
looking at the ways in which people process social encounters. Perspectives from SLT, SCT, and
FST were utilized to understand the data and to formulate implications.
This qualitative inquiry investigated family bullying in childhood and outcomes for
young adults. The preceding perspectives and research inform and situate the current study. The
purpose of the study was to explore the concept of family bullying as experienced in childhood
from the perspective of the participants’ lived experience and to investigate any ongoing
consequences. The inquiry did not provide a definition of bullying to participants but rather
asked for their definitions. No definition was given to avoid prejudicing the participants’
responses to the questions asked. Research questions included: What are the types of childhood
bullying that occur in families? Are there consequences into young adult life? If so, what are
This purposive sample of 43 young adults was derived from a larger mixed methods
study of 860 students attending a large northeastern university in the U.S. All volunteered to
participate in the survey. Of those who participated in the quantitative portion, approximately
26% indicated via survey that they had been bullied at home during childhood (64% by siblings,
25% by parents). The participants for the qualitative portion self-selected by defining themselves
as having experienced bullying at home and by their willingness for individual interviews. Each
of the participants had experienced some form of bullying within the family. They ranged in age
from 21 to 27 (mean = 23.4 years). Of the 43 young adults, 36 were female and the majority of
participants were Caucasian. Approximately 27% represented racial minority groups (4 were
African-American, 4 Bi-racial, 1 Hispanic, 1 Native American, and 1 Asian). Four self-identified
as LGBQ; no one identified as transgender.
This qualitative study was part of a larger mixed methods project. It was a retrospective
study of young adults involving their experiences with bullying in their family of origin. A
researcher-designed survey, with a Cronbach’s alpha of .916 indicating reliability, was used to
collect the quantitative portion of the data. Of those surveyed, 26% indicated they were bullied at
home. After completing the survey, volunteers specified if they would be willing to be
interviewed further. Volunteers were contacted and individual interviews were scheduled.
Informed consent was obtained from all individuals in the study. A descriptive qualitative
research approach was taken to understand the lived experiences and perceptions of young adults
regarding their bullying encounters with family members and any possible aftereffects. The
Institutional Review Board of the university sanctioned the research project and all necessary
ethical requirements were followed. Semi-structured interviews were conducted lasting
approximately an hour in length. The interviews were audiotaped with the permission of each
participant and were transcribed verbatim. Examples of questions included: “Were you bullied at
home? If so, by whom? Can you provide an example? If you were bullied, do you think it had an
impact on you? How did it impact you? Do you think there are consequences now for you as an
adult? How do you define bullying?” No definitions of bullying, harassment, or violence were
given to ensure capturing the participants' own perspectives.
Data Analysis
A qualitative description approach based in naturalistic inquiry was employed for data analysis
(Lincoln & Guba, 1985). This approach is appropriate for analyzing human interactions and for
understanding people’s experience in their own words (Sandelowski, 2000). The data were de-
identified, transcribed verbatim, stored, and analyzed using NVivo 11. Once the data were
entered into NVivo, the study utilized a multi-phase coding process. The data were sorted using
open coding (Saldana, 2015). Open coding is used in qualitative data analysis methodologies to
place tentative labels on groups of data that seem to represent one concept. Open coding was
used to examine, compare, and conceptualize the data. Next the data were reassembled into
groups and categories using axial coding. The data were classified and categorized using
thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Thematic analysis is consistent with the
epistemological stance taken in this study that privileges the lived experiences of the participants.
An inductive approach was utilized indicating that the themes were solidly connected to the data
gathered (Patton, 1990). Qualitative methods of triangulation of the data, member checks, and an
audit trail were used to further substantiate credibility, authenticity, and coherence of the data
(Rubin & Babbie, 2008). Triangulation was accomplished through analysis of survey data
compared with individual interview data and review by two researchers. An audit trail
established security of the data in a chronological fashion, e.g. who was interviewed, when, for
how long. During member checks, data provided by the participant was summarized by the
interviewer and presented back to determine its accuracy. Participants could confirm, deny, or
revise and voice their own interpretations. After the interview was completed, participants could
comment on the categorical, aggregated findings. Delimited findings, arrived at through the
thematic analysis method, indicated a state of saturation was reached. Further examination of
data did not reveal any new themes or insights. Consequently, there were enough data to ensure
the research questions were answered. The delimited categories became the major themes seen in
the findings (Strauss & Corbin, 2014). The confirmability of the data was determined by
consistent themes and consistent data from one source substantiating that of another. The themes
that surfaced during the individual interviews were similar to the themes that emerged from the
original surveys thereby lending credibility to the findings.
All participants were asked: “Were you bullied at home?” “If so, by whom?” No
definition of bullying was provided to avoid prejudicing any responses. Results indicated two-
thirds of those interviewed (29) were bullied by siblings, one-third were bullied by parents (14),
and ten percent (4) were bullied by both siblings and parents. Analyses of the qualitative data
yielded descriptive information in two forms: (1) the types or categories of bullying experienced
and (2) the consequences of childhood bullying on young adults. These consequences were
analyzed and distilled into themes. It is important to note all participants distinguished between
teasing, which they considered good- natured, and bullying, which they considered mean-spirited
in nature. These themes emerged from the participants’ responses: a) low self-esteem and shame
b) eating disorders, c) behavioral effects and relationship problems.
Participants were asked: “How do you define bullying?” The majority of answers
comprised: “physically, verbally, and mentally putting someone down,” “saying mean things,”
intentionally putting someone down to create control over them,” and “verbal or physical
harassment that is done to harm someone for your own satisfaction.” All participants said they
experienced verbal or emotional bullying. Being called demeaning and derogatory names by
parents and siblings were frequent occurrences. Significantly, some denoted current and ongoing
bullying by parents and/or siblings. This should be of particular interest to mental health
professionals who may not tend to ask about current bullying in the family of origin.
Categories of Bullying
There were several categories of bullying cited by those in the study, e.g.: general
bullying, bullying based on appearance and weight, based on intellect or school performance,
and based on sex, sexual orientation or gender issues.
General bullying: bullying by a sibling.
Twenty-nine people said they were bullied by a sibling. The following examples were
cited and are exemplary of many others: “My sister- she tries to bully me even now. When we
were young she would hit me or take my things and break them.” (female) and “My older brother
called me names for years and often hit me.” (male) In the case of sibling interactions, it was
striking to see what participants considered acceptable and not “severe” bullying or abusive
behavior. One man stated: “I had verbal and physical bullying. There was nothing really severe,
just a few broken bones and black eyes from my brothers.” Another man said: “My older brother
would pick on me and beat me up. It wasn’t serious but it did cause some physical pain at times.”
This is in keeping with the idea that in the United States, sibling aggression is not seen as
remarkable or noteworthy. It is significant that participants identified being bullied by both older
siblings and by younger siblings. A response frequently expressed was: “My older brother(s)
bullied me at home and at school.” Consequently, for these children, no sanctuary existed.
Further, since the definition of bullying endorsed by the CDC and the Department of Education
excludes bullying at school by a sibling, this would prohibit sibling bullying from possible
intervention by school personnel.
General bullying: bullying by a parent.
Fourteen participants said they were bullied by a parent. One woman stated: “My mother
still exerts control through name-calling.” Another woman said: “My mother was very
emotionally abusive and occasionally physically abusive. I lived in fear (I still do!) of upsetting
her. My mother was my first and worst bully.” There were comments about parents giving the
message of being “not good enough” and pointing out flaws regularly. One woman stated: “My
parent would bully about anything. It made me feel helpless, sick, and afraid.” Participants
reported being bullied by fathers and by mothers and perpetration was about equal by either
parent. However, a small percentage were bullied by both parents. When that was the case, those
victimized were also bullied by their siblings. This is not a surprising finding in light of SLT and
FST. Children often model their behavior after their parents (Bandura, 1973) and what is deemed
acceptable in the family (Bowen, 1978). One woman bolstered this by responding:
“My father and mother and siblings were all bullies! An example? There’s too many to
give! I am the youngest in a fairly dysfunctional family. I have been bullied by my
parents, sister, and brother.”
A raw emotional atmosphere was described by respondents as common in their homes much of
the time. There was extensive and offensive name-calling. Parents were described as “critical”
“demeaning” and unable to “control their emotions.”
Bullying based on appearance, weight/eating habits.
As children, five participants were bullied and humiliated over their general appearance
or specifics of their appearance such as acne, the type of hair they had, racial characteristics, and
other features over which they had no control. One woman cited this illustration of bullying
based on appearance:
“My mother would criticize me for my hair and facial features associated with my race.
When I was growing up my siblings would constantly tell me I didn’t belong in the
family because I look different from the rest of them. I am adopted, (bi-racial), and my
family is white.”
Weight is a toxic subject in U.S. culture and weight is a central issue in the perpetration of
bullying toward many children (Puhl, et al., 2013). Consequently, those whose body type varies
from the norm are often subjected to ridicule through bullying and abuse. In this study,
participants described bullying based on weight and eating habits perpetrated by family
members. Examples of this form of bullying experienced by eighteen of the women included:
“As early as age 8, my mom called me fat and put down my physical appearance.”
“I was usually ridiculed for my weight and eating habits by my mom.”
Often, young girls in particular were encouraged by their mothers to begin to watch their food
intake and restrict foods that might add pounds. At the same time, this was not a topic from
which fathers were removed: “My dad still makes it very clear that I need to be losing weight
and he makes jokes about it.” Another woman added:
“My father and my brothers made disparaging remarks about my weight and called me
fat all of the time. They made fun of what I ate. Now that I am older, I still think I’m fat,
even though no one else does.”
Bullying based on intellect or school performance.
School performance comments was an issue affecting more than half of participants.
They were told they were not living up to expectations, or perhaps worse, that parents had very
low expectations for them. People who received these forms of criticism felt that their parents
were always disappointed in them. The following comments and examples were offered when
asked to provide an illustration of bullying in the family.
“My dad used to tell me I wasn’t very smart. Both of my parents actually put me down
saying ‘You can’t change, you can’t be a doctor because you’re not smart enough.’”
“My father called me a fat, lazy slob and said I would never amount to anything. It was
mostly emotional abuse but sometimes he would be physical like punching a wall or
ripping something and throwing it. It was very intimidating.” (female)
Another form of bullying was based on not achieving high enough grades. One man provided
this example: “I have an authoritarian father. I received a ‘B in Science. He yelled at me for
over an hour about how I was lazy and would be working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life. I
was 12.”
Bullying based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender conformity.
Five young adults described sexual harassment as a form of bullying they encountered.
They specified inappropriate comments by siblings, parents, and three were subjected to sexual
coercion by their cousins. Interviewees were called gay based on sexual orientation, either actual
or perceived. Parents or siblings were purposeful in calling attention to sexual orientation that
they found unacceptable. One young man stated: “My entire family, except my mother, made fun
of me for my identity.” Another man offered: “I wasn’t what my step-father expected. I wasn’t
straight. He mentally abused me and I ran away from home at 15 and never went back.” Bullying
by family members transpired as a result of non-gender conformity: not being “masculine” or
“feminine” enough. Sometimes bullying occurred based on clothing choices made in conjunction
with gender. Incidents included:
“I guess I was a tomboy when I was younger. I didn’t like to wear typical girl clothes. I
liked baggy pants and shirts. This was not at all okay in my family. They bullied me
about it. Maybe they thought I would change.” (female)
“My brother never physically bullied me. He was a lot stronger and I think he realized he
could really hurt me if he wanted to. But he knew the right things to say to me, the right
buttons to push to torment me. It was usually about not being masculine enough. I wasn’t
interested in sports. My parents let him call me ‘gay’ for not participating on a team. I
think they thought I might be gay too. I would often get in a rage, then he (brother) would
laugh.” (male)
“My father and my brother would call me a sissy or say I was acting like a little girl
whenever I didn’t meet certain masculine demands.” (male)
“I wasn’t an athlete in school, I liked to read, and I liked science. My father and my
brother continually bullied me about being weak and not a real man.” (male)
Being thought of as “other” or different places people at high risk of social exclusion. Kurzban &
Leary (2001) point out that anyone who fails to meet role expectations and/or is classified as part
of a marginal group is considered “beyond the protection of social norms” (p. 187). This seems
to have been the case for those who were perceived as marginal by their families either sexually
or in terms of gender expression.
Participants were asked to describe any impact or current consequences they experienced
that they attributed to bullying in their families. Three main themes emerged from analysis of the
data. These included a) low self-esteem and shame, b) eating disorders, c) behavioral effects and
relationship problems.
Low self-esteem and shame.
Most participants cited low self-esteem or poor self-image as outcomes from family
bullying whether by parents or siblings. Further, they carried a sense of internalized shame that
seemed to be central to their self-concept and identity. Examples given were:
“My father would call me ‘retarded’ as a joke. I have very low self-esteem and I am
fearful that I am annoying people. I think I am more introverted than I was when I was a
little child. I usually don’t talk to people first, but wait to see if they want to talk to me.”
“My father would ‘tease’ me constantly and my cousins did too. They (cousins) also
made sexual threats. They bullied me for talking funny and being ugly. My brother would
exclude me any time he could. As a result my self-image is not good, I have a lot of
anxiety, and I am very sensitive to criticism.” (female)
“Being the butt of jokes and the brunt of all the criticism in my family, I felt a deep sense
of shame. Like there is something really wrong with me. Many things. Even though now
I can see it as their problem, I can’t get rid of that feeling about myself.” (female)
Victims of school bullying experience a feeling of shame (Aslund, Leppert, Starrin, & Nilsson,
2009) that can extend into adulthood (Carlisle & Rofes, 2007; deLara, 2016). Similarly, in this
study, victims of family bullying carried a sense of shame that pervaded their young adult lives.
Low self-esteem and shame are cited as consequences of bullying by Ahmed & Braithwaite,
(2004) and Irwin, Craig, & Hollenstein, (2019).
Eating disorders
Almost one-quarter of the participants who were bullied by a family member were
bullied based on their weight. Interestingly, bullying occurred for those considered “too thin” as
well as for those who were overweight. All participants bullied in this way reported low self-
esteem as a result, and some developed an eating disorder which began in adolescence. One
woman reported: “I developed anorexia that I still have problems with.” Another said: “I
acquired an eating disorder and I still make poor food choices.” One woman added: “I became
more reserved and self-aware. It led to an eating disorder and depression.” Puhl et al. (2017) and
Copeland, et al. (2015) found similar results in a longitudinal study of peer bullying. In the
current study, there did not appear to be any distinction between parental bullying and sibling
bullying in the occurrence of an eating disorder. One person described this as a positive outcome
of her bullying experiences because it provided the incentive to lose weight. Of those who were
bullied due to being overweight, most continued to be bullied by family members into their
young adult lives. In their families, it was considered appropriate behavior and reveals a family
pattern consist with Family Systems Theory tenets.
Behavioral effects and relationship problems
The majority of people in the study developed avoidance behaviors with their families.
They attempted to avoid the bullying perpetrator whenever possible. One woman commented: “I
am very wary of my mother. I spend as little time as I can around her.” As children, some spoke
up for themselves or fought back, particularly with siblings. However, the victimized child
would often be reprimanded by a parent. Another behavioral response was to try to change the
issue that was the cause of the bullying, e.g.- weight, physical appearance, etc. In this way,
nineteen participants attempted to please their perpetrators in hopes that the bullying would
cease. One woman remarked: “I tried to get on their good side. I lost weight; I cut my hair.”
Some in the study found this form of people-pleasing was effective. Several participants
indicated that they understood their behavioral responses were not useful in relationships with
friends or with current intimate partners. Others described themselves as highly reactive and as
“mean” and “angry.” One woman revealed: “If I feel threatened at all, I become defensive and
angry. I am mean and verbally abusive to my partner. I think that now I tend to be dominant in
relationships and controlling.”
One of the consequences that surfaced for forty of the participants was that of distrust.
Bullied by any family member, they often felt “misunderstood” as children and they continued to
distrust members of their families. The problem of trusting others also extended to acquaintances
and friends. Both men and women who said trust was now an issue for them conveyed they were
careful who they “let in” or allowed to get close to them for fear of being hurt. One man replied:
“I don’t let people in my family or in social situations get close- to avoid being a target.” Distrust
led to social isolation or, when having to be around others, attempting to maintain an air of
confidence. Further, based on low self-esteem, learned behavior in the family and distrust,
participants reported getting into multiple unhealthy relationships starting in high school.
“I got in bad relationships in high school and college. I stayed in an abusive one for three
years after high school. I think being treated badly was what I expected.” (female)
“I was in a violent relationship as an undergrad in college.” (female)
“My younger sister was very aggressive. Actually, she still is. She lashes out emotionally
and psychologically and says terrible things about me. It has affected me. I find it hard to
advocate for myself in relationships now with others especially if I think they will
disagree with me.” (female)
These are highly undesirable outcomes in young adult relationships consequential to family
bullying. It is important that researchers and health care professionals recognize these tendencies
connected to a family history of bullying. Intimate partner violence (IPV) is thought to be a
learned behavior from witnessing interparental violence as a child (Wareham, Boots, & Chavez,
2009). However, violence between parents may be absent in the home while bullying by siblings
or by parents may exist. These forms of family bullying directed toward children may lead to
involvement in IPV later.
This study explored the types of bullying that occurred in families by siblings and parents
as well as the consequences that extended into young adult life. The outcomes are viewed in
terms of Social Learning Theory (SLT), Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) and Family Systems
Theory (FST). Being the target of ridicule, criticized, shamed and demeaned were given as
examples to the question: “Were you bullied at home?” Participants in the study said they were
bullied by siblings and parents. Further, the findings suggest that aspects of young adult life and
well-being were compromised as a result of bullying victimization by family members.
Participants suffered as children and as young adults with anxiety, low self-esteem, and trust
issues they attributed directly to their experiences with bullying in the family. The results of this
study are consistent with Wiehe (1997) whose exploratory studies reported damaging impacts of
sibling aggression lasting into adult life including low self-esteem and problems in interpersonal
relationships. Likewise, Mathis and Mueller (2015) uncovered emotional difficulties and
aggressive behavior in their study of adult victims of sibling bullying. Further, Dickson, Laursen,
Valdes, & Stattin (2019) caution that parents and practitioners need to be aware of the potential
long-term damage resulting from parental belittling, ridicule and sarcasm. Their findings suggest
this leads to “children who struggle with emotion regulation and, ultimately, with constructive
peer relationships (p. 1567).” The current study extends the literature to include adverse
consequences on young adult self-image, behavior, and relationships based on family bullying.
Interviewees described feelings of shame, helplessness, and pain.
There are numerous implications when viewed through a SLT or SCT lens. In families
where a sibling or a parent engages in bullying a child, children may learn that it is an approved
form of behavior (Bandura, 1973, 1986). This is a comparable construct to teachers who bully a
student at school. When this occurs, other children have “permission” to bully that child also
(Garbarino & deLara, 2002). Findings suggest siblings could bully one another with impunity.
From a FST perspective, the victim of family bullying may become the family scapegoat.
The scapegoat, most typically a child, is held responsible for all family misfortunes and is the
target of bullying in chaotic family environments (Bowen, 1978; Titelman, 2014). In total, these
results carry implications for interpersonal behavior at school and in adult relationships. The
relationships between siblings as children and parent-to-child are important for the positive
development of social skills and as a model in future close relationships (Conger, Cui, Bryant, &
Elder, 2000; Hughes, McHarg, & White, 2018).
As noted in the results, young adults bullied by their families demonstrated aftereffects
in terms of self-esteem, eating disorders, behavioral issues and relationship problems. The
outcomes of this study agree with the conclusions of Wolke, Tippett, and Dantchev (2015)
indicating healthcare professionals need to inquire about sibling bullying to intervene where
necessary. Healthcare professionals also need to inquire about bullying by parents. Poor
treatment by parents may be considered parental bullying by those victimized, as cited by
participants in this study. Consequently, using the term parental bullying in future research may
advance research and intervention strategies. Research has established the concepts of peer
bullying and sibling bullying and has separated these constructs from peer or sibling aggression.
This has allowed for the application of appropriate and effective interventions. In this case, it is
important for adults who may have been bullied as children by their parents, and who designate
this treatment as bullying, be afforded validation of their experience. For healthcare providers
and clinicians, treatment begins with a description of symptoms, appropriate labeling and
Without determining if family bullying by siblings or by parents is a variable in the life of
an individual an important factor influencing health and well-being is missed. The study
contributes to the literature on bullying in the family and allows for a more substantial
understanding of the impacts for individuals who have experienced sibling or parental bullying
in childhood. After many years of research, there is consensus among most stakeholders that
bullying among peers is not optimal for healthy youth development and is not acceptable
behavior. However, the same cannot be said about bullying in the family at this point. More
research in this area is needed to determine contemporaneous impacts, enduring consequences,
and efficacious interventions.
Limitations and Conclusion
There are several limitations of the study to consider. One is the small, self-selected
sample though purposive sampling does provide rich information. The majority of participants
were female and Caucasian; none indicated identification with any other ethnocultural group.
However, 27% represented minority groups in terms of race and 10% identified as LGBQ. No
data on socio-economic status were collected. The study focused on bullying victimization and
not on mutual bullying that may have occurred. As a mixed methods inquiry, impacts of
bullying, such as anxiety, shame or depression were discovered. No other measure of
psychological impact was utilized. There are the limitations that accrue to any retrospective
study in terms of the reliability of memory over time. However, participants in the study
appeared to remember bullying interactions, their associated emotions, and were able to recount
them in detail. While a qualitative approach is appropriate for this kind of inquiry, perceptions of
those in the sample cannot be assumed to characterize all who experience family bullying. A
strength of qualitative research is that it allows for the voices of those directly involved and
affected by any phenomenon to be heard. In this study, participants were able to comment freely
about the experiences in their families. No definition of bullying previously conceived by
researchers was offered. Consequently, participants presented their own observations based on
their own experiences and definitions. Several categories of bullying by siblings and parents
were found in data analysis. Taken together, findings suggest family bullying is detrimental to
healthy child development and portends poor adult outcomes. In particular parental bullying, per
se, has not received adequate attention by researchers and clinicians. Future research concerning
this construct is needed to better serve children and families. Results of the study point to an
important direction in our thinking about family bullying. If children and adolescents are being
bullied at home by siblings or by parents, there are implications for early intervention as well as
for policy. Policymakers may consider changes to the CDC and Department of Education
bullying definition to include siblings. If schools could intervene in sibling bullying at school
this may be an opportunity for siblings to figure out better means of conflict resolution. Those
who work with children can be trained to look for and ask about perceptions of family bullying.
If sibling and parental bullying are occurring, they are important aspects of a young person’s life
with contemporaneous consequences as well as consequences for adult development.
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Bullying and victimization are manifest in the peer social world, but have origins in the home. Uncertainty surrounds the mechanisms that convey problems between these settings. The present study describes the indirect transmission of hostility and coercion from parents to adolescent children through emotional dysregulation. In this model, derisive parenting—behaviors that demean or belittle children—fosters dysregulated anger, which precipitates peer difficulties. A total of 1409 participants (48% female; Mage = 13.4 years at the outset) were followed across secondary school (Grades 7–9) for three consecutive years. The results indicated that derisive parenting in Grade 7 was associated with increases in adolescent dysregulated anger from Grade 7 to 8, which, in turn, was associated with increases in bullying and victimization from Grade 8 to 9. The findings suggest that parents who are derisive, have children who struggle with emotional regulation and, ultimately, with constructive peer relationships.
Although the toxic effects of peer bullying among middle school students are widely recognized, bullying by teachers and other school staff has received little attention. This study compared the prevalence and school adjustment of students bullied by teachers/staff, students bullied by peers, and students who were not bullied. The sample consisted of 56,508 students in Grades 7 and 8 who completed a statewide school climate survey. Students were classified into four groups: (a) not bullied (87.2%); (b) bullied only by peers (9.3%); (c) bullied only by teachers/staff (1.2%); and (d) bullied by peers and teachers/staff (1.5%). In comparison to students who reported no bullying, students bullied by teachers and other school staff were significantly more likely to report lower school engagement and self-reported grades and more negative perceptions of school climate. Students bullied only by peers reported more distress symptoms than those bullied by teachers and other school staff. These findings call for more attention to the problem of teacher and other school staff bullying.
From birth, parent–infant interaction modulates fundamental brain processes, whereas more complex psychological development occurs when socializing with peers. Childhood maltreatment markedly increases risks for psychopathology and negative outcomes such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and reduced cognitive abilities. Our earlier studies elucidated potential discernible effects on the brain morphology of exposure to sexual abuse, parental verbal abuse, interparental violence or harsh corporal punishment during childhood on brain morphology, including gray matter volume (GMV) or cortical thickness in addition to the brain developmental alteration.
The general view of descriptive research as a lower level form of inquiry has influenced some researchers conducting qualitative research to claim methods they are really not using and not to claim the method they are using: namely, qualitative description. Qualitative descriptive studies have as their goal a comprehensive summary of events in the everyday terms of those events. Researchers conducting qualitative descriptive studies stay close to their data and to the surface of words and events. Qualitative descriptive designs typically are an eclectic but reasonable combination of sampling, and data collection, analysis, and re-presentation techniques. Qualitative descriptive study is the method of choice when straight descriptions of phenomena are desired. © 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Res Nurs Health 23:334–340, 2000.
Sibling relationships are characterized by familiarity and emotional intensity. Alongside frequent shared play, sibling interactions feature complementary interactions (e.g. teaching, caregiving) reflecting age-related asymmetries in socio-cognitive skills. These aspects may underpin sibling influences on prosocial behavior: theoretical accounts of social influences on prosocial behavior highlight emotion sharing, goal alignment, the intrinsically rewarding nature of social interaction, and scaffolding of social norms. Taking a fine-grained approach to prosocial behavior, we examine these processes in relation to sibling influences on children's comforting, sharing, and helping. Emergent themes include: developmental change in the nature of sibling influences on prosocial behavior, the need to consider sibling influences in the wider family context, and the importance of individual differences in the quality of sibling relationships.
Weight-based teasing is common among youth, but little is known about its long-term impact on health outcomes. We aimed to 1) identify whether weight-based teasing in adolescence predicts adverse eating and weight-related outcomes 15 years later; and 2) determine whether teasing source (peers or family) affects these outcomes. Data were collected from Project EAT-IV (Eating and Activity in Teens and Young Adults) (N = 1830), a longitudinal cohort study that followed a diverse sample of adolescents from 1999 (baseline) to 2015 (follow-up). Weight-based teasing at baseline was examined as a predictor of weight status, binge eating, dieting, eating as a coping strategy, unhealthy weight control, and body image at 15-year follow-up. After adjusting for demographic covariates and baseline body mass index (BMI), weight-based teasing in adolescence predicted higher BMI and obesity 15 years later. For women, these longitudinal associations occurred across peer and family-based teasing sources, but for men, only peer-based teasing predicted higher BMI. The same pattern emerged for adverse eating outcomes; weight-based teasing from peers and family during adolescence predicted binge eating, unhealthy weight control, eating to cope, poor body image, and recent dieting in women 15 years later. For men, teasing had fewer longitudinal associations. Taken together, this study shows that weight-based teasing in adolescence predicts obesity and adverse eating behaviors well into adulthood, with differences across gender and teasing source. Findings underscore the importance of addressing weight-based teasing in educational and health initiatives, and including the family environment as a target of anti-bullying intervention, especially for girls.
There is an increasing interest in psychological research on shame experiences and their associations with other aspects of psychological functioning and well-being, as well as with possible maladaptive outcomes. In an attempt to confirm and extend previous knowledge on this topic, we investigated the nomological network of shame experiences in a large community sample (N D 380; 66.1% females), adopting a multidimensional conceptualization of shame. Females reported higher levels of shame (in particular, bodily and behavioral shame), guilt, psychological distress, emotional reappraisal, and hostility. Males had higher levels of self-esteem, emotional suppression, and physical aggression. Shame feelings were associated with low selfesteem, hostility, and psychological distress in a consistent way across gender. Associations between characterological shame and emotional suppression, as well as between bodily shame and anger occurred only among females. Moreover, characterological and bodily shame added to the prediction of low self-esteem, hostility, and psychological distress above and beyond the influence of trait shame. Finally, among females, emotional suppression mediated the influence of characterological shame on hostility and psychological distress. These findings extend current knowledge on the nomological net surrounding shame experiences in everyday life, supporting the added value of a multidimensional conceptualization of shame feelings.