Children who bully at school

CFCA Paper No. 27 – July 2014

Parental influences on bullying behaviour

Children who bully are more likely to come from family environments characterised by less cohesion, expressiveness, organisation, control and social orientation (Bowers, Smith, & Binney, 1994; Stevens, Bourdeaudhuij, & Ost, 2002).

The family is undeniably the pre-eminent social system in which a child is embedded. As such, much research has focused on parenting approaches, the quality of relationships between parents and children and, more broadly, family functioning as important factors related to an increase in the likelihood of children bullying their peers (see Box 4).

Box 4: Family factors contributing to bullying behaviours in children

  • The child is rejected or perceived negatively by one or both parents.
  • There is a lack of nurturing and emotional support provided by the family.
  • Often poor bonding exists between the parent and child.
  • Parental disharmony and conflict is present.
  • Harsh, physical punishment is used to coerce and control the child.
  • The parent's discipline is inconsistent and based on the parent's mood rather than on the child's behaviour.
  • The family is socially isolated and lacking in outside support.

Source: Bonds & Stoker (2000)

It should be noted, however, that not all bullies come from broken homes and unhappy families; some bullies come from loving, accepting and nurturing family environments (Ball et al., 2008). There is some evidence that child characteristics make some children more prone to bullying than others. For example, Olweus (1993) suggested that temperament (an inborn personality characteristic) could account for the development of an aggressive reaction pattern in some children. That is, a child who is naturally hot-headed and short-tempered may be more likely to use violence as a way of solving problems if they are not taught otherwise by their parents and teachers. Likewise, the crucial role of peers in bullying should not be overlooked, as peers assume many roles, including being co-bullies, supporting and being an audience to bullies, and also intervening in bullying (see Atlas & Pepler, 1998; Craig, Pepler, & Atlas, 2000; Olweus, 1999; Salmivalli & Voeten, 2004).

Parenting techniques

A substantial body of research suggests that children who come from families using authoritarian parenting techniques (such as harsh and inconsistent punishment) as opposed to an authoritative (democratic) style of parenting are more likely to bully their peers (Baldry & Farrington, 2000; Espelage, Bosworth, & Simon, 2000; Shields & Cicchetti, 2001). Others report that bullies are more likely to have experienced abusive, neglecting and/or hostile parental discipline techniques while growing up (Pontzer, 2010). Conversely, children who perceive their parents as authoritative, especially supporting their independence and autonomy, are less likely to engage in bullying behaviour at school (Rican, Klicperova, & Koucka, 1993).

Key dimensions of parenting techniques include:

  • communication and supervision - poor parent-child communication (Spriggs, Iannotti, Nansel, & Haynie, 2007) and lack of parental monitoring (Espelage et al., 2000) have been documented as increasing the risk of children bullying others. In contrast, effective parental communication with their child and parental-peer interactions (in the form of parents meeting their child's friends) has been associated with a lower risk of children bullying others (Shetgiri , Lin, & Flores, 2012).
  • support and involvement - parental support (Conners-Burrow, Johnson, Whiteside-Mansell, McKelvey, & Gargus, 2009) and parental academic involvement (Hill et al., 2004) are related to lower levels of aggressive behaviour in children. Children who perceive their parents as holding positive attitudes toward them are less likely to be involved in bullying (Rican et al., 1993; Rigby, 1993). Conversely, parental feelings that their child bothers them a lot are associated with increased bullying, as is parental anger toward their child (Shetgiri et al., 2012).

Parent-child relationships

Parent-child relationships have powerful effects on children's emotional wellbeing (Dawson & Ashman, 2000), basic coping and problem-solving abilities, and future capacity for relationships (Lerner & Castellino, 2002). Children with a parent or caregiver who is insensitive and rejecting of their needs are more likely to demonstrate antisocial traits (e.g., lack of concern for others' feelings) and callous or unemotional characteristics (Fite, Greening, & Stoppelbien, 2008).

Children who report that they bully their peers are more likely to:

  • have insecure relationships with their parent(s), characterised by inconsistent parental attention to their children's needs, and parental rejection and insensitivity; and
  • have less affectionate and supportive fathers (Williams & Kennedy, 2012).

Parents as role models

It is well established that children learn behaviours through observation and role modelling. Children who bully are significantly more likely than others to perceive their family as being less concerned about each other's problems and needs (Rican, 1995). Parental divorce (Malone et al., 2004), parental stress (Fite, Greening et al., 2008) and child maltreatment (Cullerton-Sen et al., 2008) have all been linked to aggression in children. Children living in homes with violence between their parents are at a greater risk of themselves displaying violent, aggressive and bullying behaviours outside the home (see Hong and Espelage, 2012, for a review). Other research points to the level of physical aggression between siblings - the most common form of family violence - as influencing bullying behaviour (Ensor, Marks, Jacobs, & Hughes, 2010).

Parents of children who bully can be intimidating - they may become emotionally reactive when their child's bullying behaviour is noticed, and may threaten litigation against the school (Crothers & Kolbert, 2008). Children who bully others at school frequently have parents who teach them how to retaliate and to hit back when attacked (Demaray & Malecki, 2003).

Did you know?

  • Exposure to child abuse and domestic violence is associated with an increased risk of children bullying (Shields & Cicchetti, 2001).
  • The use of physical punishment is associated with physical aggression in children, especially boys, while psychological control is associated with relational aggression (Kuppens, Grietens, Onghena, & Michiels, 2009).