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We are family: the sibling's defence against bullies

One downside of being an only child is that you don't have family members to defend you against bullies in the playground. A study reported in the journal Education 3-13 shows that, however fractious their relationships at home, siblings usually come to the aid of their younger brothers and sisters at school.

The researchers interviewed 58 children between the ages of seven and 13.

Black and Asian siblings were more likely than white children to have happy relationships both at home and at school. This reflects a 2003 ChildLine report which found that these youngsters were more likely than white pupils to say they could talk to a sister or brother.

The researchers said: "Some children in our sample talked about having a different sort of relationship with their brothers and sisters at school or in the neighbourhood, compared with at home. Kate (age nine) was a white working-class girl. She had an older sister, Donna (age 13), and a younger brother, Robert (age six). Kate's sense of separateness from her siblings altered within school in the face of bullying."

The research points to a key difference between lone children and those from bigger families: "The children we interviewed often talked about their siblings in ways that showed that they were an integral part of their emotional sense of who they were. They said that having brothers and sisters meant that there was always 'someone there' for them. Arguments and fights between them and their siblings were largely accepted as occurring alongside this feeling of closeness."

But it is not universal. Some children felt a strong sense of separateness, and a few intensely disliked their siblings.

Another article in Education 3-13 suggests that teachers who want to help children with low self-esteem may not be very good at picking out the right youngsters. A study in a small rural school in Scotland, where children and their families are well-known by teachers and techniques such as circle time were used, asks if children are pulling the wool over teachers' eyes.

The teachers were not good at judging the levels of self-worth as reported by the children themselves.

"It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the children's day-to-day behaviour did not reflect how they felt inside," say the researchers. It just goes to show how complicated children actually are. How are teachers to help them? And it's no easier for parents. A 2001 study found that "even children's own parents were not very good at judging the self-esteem of their own children".

Could it be that admitting to poor self-esteem would undermine these youngsters even further? The researchers don't have answers at this point, but maybe using programmes aimed at all children rather than singling out individuals would help those most in need of them. Perhaps they need to be boosted by stealth.

Education 3-13: March 2006, Routledge "I think it's low self-esteem" is by David Miller of Dundee university, and Donna Parker, a primary teacher in Angus, Scotland. "Brothers and sisters" is by Lucy Hadfield and Melanie Mauthner of the Open university and Rosalind Edwards, director of the Families and Social Capital ESRC research group

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