It's Bullying Prevention Month—time to ask whether we've learned anything new over the past year about what contributes to bullying behaviors and what, if anything, we may be able to do to prevent them.
Since this is a blog focusing on family relationships, it makes sense for us to put aside our curiosity about what schools and communities should be doing and instead ask the question, "What can families do to help prevent bullying?"
By way of addressing this, one study published in April of this year suggests there is quite a bit we, as families, can do to help. The University of Warwick researchers who led the study found that when parents give their children opportunities to learn how to solve problems constructively in a warm, supportive atmosphere with clear boundaries (known as “authoritative” parenting) the likelihood of becoming either a victim or a perpetrator of bullying is reduced. In contrast, authoritarian parenting (characterized by harsh, negative parenting practices, including neglect) was associated with increases in bullying experiences.
While the effects of harsh (authoritarian) parenting were associated with both victims and perpetrators of bullying, children who are exposed to negative parenting—including abuse and neglect, but also overprotection—are more likely to become victims of bullying.
These findings back up research going back at least 30 years and suggest that researchers Ronald Oliver, Neal Oaks, and John Hoover were right in most of the essentials of their 1993/1994 list of six characteristics often found in families of bullies. As James R. Holmes rewords them in "The Bully in the Family: Family Influences on Bullying," families of bullies tend to have
"Cool-to-cold emotional environment" with lack of involvement from the primary caregiver;
Permissive parenting style—few rules or limits for behavior, little family structure
Isolation of family from the community, and active social life or social involvement of family is lacking;
Conflict between parents, and disharmony within the family;
Inappropriate use of discipline—parents fail to punish aggression or may even reinforce it; and fail to reward prosocial behavior or may even punish it;
Authoritarian parenting with high use of controlling and punitive discipline—parents try to maintain order with rigid household standards and rules.
Notice that two seemingly opposite characteristics are on the list: permissive parenting styles and authoritarian parenting styles. In fact, later research has likewise suggested that families of bullies may have both characteristics at the same time. They may be permissive (or even neglectful) in some circumstances and hostile and controlling in others. George Batsche and Howard Knoff's 1994 study of bullies and victims also found that parents of bullies sometimes have poor problem-solving skills and "teach their children to strike back at the least provocation."
This list notwithstanding, not all bullies come from families with poor problem-solving skills. If your child is on either side of the bullying dynamic (or both sides, as is sometimes the case) it isn't necessarily because you're doing something wrong as a parent. Nevertheless, you are likely to be the person who is best situated to help your child work toward change.
As you do so, it is important to beware of messages that will undermine your efforts. These include messages like, "Bullying is a harmless and necessary part of growing up. Kids will be kids, and you need to learn how to deal with life in the 'real world.' Don't be so sensitive."
The inescapable truth is that the best way for kids to learn how to deal with life “in the real world” is to be taught appropriate behavior toward others. Bullying is far from harmless and can impede, rather than encourage, the process of growing up. While it’s certain we will each encounter bullies at various points in our lives, children can (and should) be taught prosocial skills whether they interact on a bus, a playground, at school or online. And these are skills parents can begin to instill long before their children go to school.