Witnessing the abuse of a sibling may impact kids' mental health, study finds

Photo (c) Romolo Tavani - Getty Images

Even when kids aren’t the direct victim of abuse, there can be lasting trauma

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of New Hampshire explored how kids’ mental health can be affected by abuse in the home. 

According to their findings, when children witness their siblings’ abuse, it can increase the risk for a number of mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and anger. 

“When we hear about exposure to family violence, we usually think about someone being the victim of direct physical abuse or witnessing spousal assault,” said researcher Corinna Tucker. “But many children witness the abuse of a sibling without being a direct victim and it turns out we should be thinking more about these dynamics when we tally the effects of family violence exposure.” 

The toll on mental health

For the study, researchers analyzed data from more than 7,000 children who were part of three different national surveys. The children were between the ages of one month and 17 years old. Parents and children over the age of 10 answered questions related to the physical abuse of a sibling. 

Ultimately, the researchers learned that less than four percent of the children involved in the study had exposure to parental abuse against a sibling (EPAS). However, of that group, the overwhelming majority of the abuse was done by fathers and, most often, to male siblings. 

The study showed that race and ethnicity didn’t play a role in children witnessing EPAS; however, the age of the child played a role, as adolescent siblings were more likely to be abused. Having two parents at home lowered the likelihood of abuse. 

Overall, witnessing abuse was associated with an increased risk of mental health concerns. These children were more likely to struggle with anxiety and depression and had a harder time controlling their anger than children who hadn’t witnessed EPAS. 

Moving forward, the team hopes that these findings shed light on how physical abuse in families can have long-term impacts on kids’ mental health -- even when they aren’t the ones experiencing the abuse firsthand. 

“In some families, EPAS may be part of a larger family climate of violence,” Tucker said. “As more family members are exposed to violence in the household, there can be less emotional security among family members and less opportunities for children to observe, listen, and practice healthy responses to stress.” 

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