Summary of a presentation by Dr. Ken Rigby, AIFS Conference, July 2012
Written by Veronica Meredith1
Studies involving Australian school children show that either being a bully2 or being a victim of bullying can predict poorer mental health outcomes. These factors place young people at higher risk of developing psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, anti-social personality, substance abuse and psychotic disorders.
Parents are the least likely to be aware their child is experiencing relationship problems at school. Research shows that parents are almost four times less likely to report knowledge of their child being frequently victimised, and six times less likely to report knowledge of their child being frequently bullied, when compared to child and teacher reports (Ronning et al., 2009).
Parents play an essential role in listening to their children’s interpersonal problems, providing empathy and emotional support as well as practical advice and modeling for handling conflict in relationships. It is important to identify parenting factors that negatively impact this supportive process and place children at greater risk of being bullied, or displaying bullying behavior.
Family functioning has also been identified as a factor associated with how well, or how badly, a child interacts with peers at school. The key areas of parenting and family functioning related to bullying and victimisation are:
Families that are too self-contained can inhibit opportunities for children to develop social skills that are necessary for establishing and maintaining good relationships with peers. Enmeshed parenting can take the form of overly anxious or controlling behavior where enormous pressure is placed on children to act right, perform right and/or look right in social situations. Under these circumstances, children can become overly involved and dependent on parents, reducing opportunities to develop confidence in peer interactions.
Authoritarian parenting styles as opposed to authoritative (democratic) parenting styles can result in bullying behaviour in children. Bullying is more common in children who believe their parents will be unforgiving if they do something wrong, particularly in boys. Highly permissive parenting can also lead to bullying behavior in some cases, with children who are unsupervised being more prone to engage in bullying behaviour.
Emotional support acts as “shock absorption” when children are hurting and this may be lacking in dysfunctional families. Suicidal ideation (which is commonly associated with chronic victimisation) and psychological stress (as a result of being bullied) are reduced for children who receive social and emotional support and have positive relationships with their parents.
Encouragement, praise and affection from a parent are vital for building a child’s self-esteem, however, these can be lacking in dysfunctional family environments. Bullying behaviour is more likely to occur when children are not shown enough affection and praise.
Parent involvement in school
Positive parent engagement with school can be a protective factor for children, reducing the harm associated with bullying. It is important that parents are encouraged to collaborate; are kept informed; and are provided with opportunities to help their children improve their peer relationships.
While it is important not to blame parents, and to recognise that bullying is usually the result of multiple factors, these family-related factors suggest important ways in which the likelihood of bullying—and its impact—can be reduced.
1. Veronica Meredith is a Research Officer at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
2. Bullying can be defined as “the systematic abuse of power in interpersonal relations”, with research showing that it is important to conceive school bullying as primarily being a relationship problem.
Dr Ken Rigby’s website: http://www.kenrigby.net/
Rigby, K. (2008). Children and bullying: How parents and educators can reduce bullying in schools. John Wiley Australia.
Ronning, J.A., Sourander, A., Kumpulainen, K., Tamminen, T., Niemela, S., Moilanen, I., Piha, J., & Almqvist, F. (2009). Cross-informant agreement about bullying and victimization among eight year olds: Whose information best predicts psychiatric caseness 10 – 15 years later? Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology, 44, 15-22.