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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Minding Your Mind Minding Your Mind

Children Attacking Other Children

October 17, 2012

By Michael Craig Miller M.D.

Harvard Medical School

Child-on-child violence is common, but it can't be dismissed as "normal." In a December 2006 article in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect, researchers at the University of New Hampshire reported on a study on violence in children. They conducted more than 2,000 telephone interviews with kids ages 10 to 17 and the parents of children ages 2 to 9. The results suggest that child-on-child violence should be taken more seriously than it usually is.

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The Sobering Truth

The researchers asked the children or their parents if in the last year they had been

  • attacked or hit with or without a stick, rock, knife, or other object by another child
  • hit at any time even by a brother or sister
  • hit or kicked in the private parts by another child.

Researchers recorded whether the child was injured and whether the violence had occurred five or more times in the previous year. The findings revealed that about one in five children had been assaulted by another child. About a third of these attacks came from siblings. These incidents were usually mentioned only in response to the phrase "even a brother or sister."

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Harmful At Any Age

The interviewers asked the children and parents about peer or sibling violent episodes as well as symptoms of trauma. The investigators corrected for the possible effects of other traumatic events and chronic stress, including illness, accidents, natural disasters, and family conflict, as well as social class and ethnic background. They found that child-on-child violence had more or less the same effects as adult violence. On average, injuries were as serious, chronic violence was as common, and the resulting psychological symptoms were similar.

The consequences were also similar for younger and older children. Preschoolers suffered the most physical injuries and were most likely to be hit with objects or attacked with weapons. Repeated maltreatment occurred equally at all ages. Brothers and sisters caused less physical injury, but their outbursts were more numerous and frequent, especially among younger children. Nearly 20% of children under age 10 who had been assaulted had been hurt repeatedly by a sibling. Over all, that was the source of the most trauma symptoms.

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Popular Beliefs Downplay Violence

According to the authors, when children, especially young children, were hit by others their own age or a little older, or by their own brothers and sisters, it was too often regarded as relatively unimportant.

Children are thought to be more resilient when the perpetrator of violence is another child. Child assailants are also seen to be less strong, calculating or callous than adults. Thus, an act that would be labeled an assault if it involved adults is regarded as a mere squabble, scuffle, or horseplay — terms that suggest shared responsibility. Some even think that absorbing a certain amount of violence builds character, at least in boys, who supposedly must learn to defend themselves. Violence among siblings is often ignored entirely.

This survey suggested that mistakenwe are wrong to assume that these incidents are so benign. Violence among children can be traumatic because the victims are often in continuous and intensive contact with the perpetrators. Children's aggression is often more impulsive and unrestrained than adult violence, which can make it more anxiety-provoking. In the case of sibling violence, the victim may be more at risk for developing symptoms because repeated attacks create a pervasively insecure environment.

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Taking Child-on-Child Violence Seriously

The study had important limitations. Many details were unavailable, such as the triggering conflict, the seriousness of injuries and the victims' reactions. Relying on a person's recall can lead people to inadvertently report more or fewer incidents than actually occurred.

Also, details of the family environment were not analyzed, so it's hard to know how the results might be affected by information about marital conflict, poor parenting, inadequate supervision or individual temperament.

Still, the authors believed that child-on-child violence should be taken seriously and not be discounted as mere squabbling. They suggested that schools and parents establish clear standards to discourage hitting and bullying and to protect potential victims. They should be ready to intervene with treatment recommendations for perpetrators. And they should provide opportunities for members of the community — teachers, students and families alike — to learn about the problem and how to limit its impact.

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Michael Craig Miller, M.D. is Editor in Chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. He is also associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been practicing psychiatry for more than 25 years and teaches in the Harvard Longwood Psychiatry Residency Program.

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