"I’m really good with my hands and I hit him" – Children’s descriptions of harming siblings and friends

The capacity for animosity between child siblings is legendary. Psychologist Judy Dunn has described the “devastating lack of inhibition“. Stephen Bank and Michael Kahn wrote about a relationship “emotionally charged with murderous intention.” For a new study, Holly Recchia asked 34 seven-year-olds, 33 eleven-year-olds and 34 sixteen-year-olds (all with a younger sibling) to describe a specific time that they caused harm or upset to their sibling and a specific occasion that they caused harm or upset to a friend.

There were clear differences in the kind of scenarios involving siblings or friends. Harms inflicted on friends were usually relationship-based, seen as less foreseeable, often unfortunate, unintended and frequently involved failing to dedicate sufficient time to a friend. For instance, one eleven-year-old girl described how her friend had become mad with her because she’d spent so much time doing “athletic things” with a sporty friend and her gang. “Kelsey got mad at me and thought I hated her … cuz I wasn’t playing with her. And so then we were talking on Facebook and I told her why and we, we hanged out after.”

In contrast, harms inflicted on siblings were often related to explicitly offensive behaviour, including teasing and quarrels over sharing of belongings. Many scenarios involved cycles of coercion and the descriptions frequently had a ruthless tone. “I called him a stupid, mean, nasty little elf-brother! He IS pretty short,” said another eleven-year-old girl. “I learned this from my friends … when you make somebody flinch, you punch them twice and say ‘two for flinching’. So I did that to her and I just kept on doing it and doing it and doing it,” recalled an eleven-year-old boy.

Recchia and her team think that these contrasting experiences play a complementary role in shaping children’s moral development. The experience of upsetting friends teaches children that it is not always possible to anticipate the harm you may cause even when none is intended. Harm inflicted on siblings teaches them about cycles of coercion, “the absurdity or senselessness of conflict”, and they acquire experience of remorse and regret (despite the ruthlessness, regret was also a common theme in the narratives about hurting siblings).

Regards differences with age, the seven-year-olds were more likely than older children to invalidate their siblings’ perspective; they also referred more often to the sadness of friends than of siblings. Older teens showed the same general pattern of responses as found across the whole sample, but there was a greater similarity in their accounts about friends and siblings. The researchers said this likely reflects the fact that as children mature they become less cautious about upsetting friends (they learn that friendships can be repaired), while there is a simultaneous mellowing of relations with siblings. Overall the results were largely similar for girls and boys.

“Our results provide new insight into how these [sibling and friend] relationships may make distinct contributions to children’s understanding of themselves and others as imperfect but fundamentally moral agents,” the researchers concluded.


Holly Recchia, Cecilia Wainryb, and Monisha Pasupathi (2013). “Two for Flinching”: Children’s and Adolescents’ Narrative Accounts of Harming Their Friends and Siblings Child Development. DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12059

–Further reading–
Siblings – friends or foes?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.