Working with families whose child is bullying

An evidence-based guide for practitioners
CFCA Paper No. 26 – July 2014

Examining risk and protective factors associated with bullying

This section describes practitioner considerations for pinpointing where the problems are in the family and the child who is affected, and also identifying conditions that can protect against those problems.

Assessing risk factors

Risk assessment tools assess factors that can contribute to bullying, namely:

  • family factors;
  • individual factors; and
  • school and community factors.

The presence of multiple family factors indicates that the risk of future destructive behaviour, violence or ongoing psychological and behavioural problems is very high. While the presence of individual or school and community factors alone do not mean that a young person will engage in bullying, the presence of these factors, in combination with family risk factors, indicate that the risk of future destructive behaviour or ongoing psychological and behavioral problems is very high.

These factors are explored in more detail below. Practitioners assess not only the presence of each risk factor, but also the extent to which each applies to the family. The more factors present and the greater the extent, the greater the risk.

Further guidance on determining the risk is provided in the section What determines the level of risk? and Table 2.

Practitioner considerations

  • Bullying behaviours can arise from a number of interrelated risk factors, so it is important that each element not be considered in isolation.
  • Importantly, the presence of these factors alone does not always mean that a young person will engage in bullying.
  • Parents of children who bully may become emotionally reactive when attention and criticism is paid to their children's bullying behaviour; therefore it is best to use low-threat approaches.
  • Factors that are assessed to fall into the area of higher risk should be addressed first before moving on to other areas revealed in the risk assessment.

Family factors

Exposure to child abuse and domestic violence is associated with an increased risk of children bullying (Shields & Cicchetti, 2001).

The following questions can help practitioners assess the family factors associated with a higher likelihood of engaging in bullying behaviour. These factors are drawn from the literature (see Bonds & Stoker, 2000), and are summarised as:

  • lack of parental control;
  • poor role models;
  • lack of warmth; and
  • other family characteristics.
Lack of parental control
  • Is parent discipline inconsistent and based on the parent's mood rather than the child's behaviour?
  • Are parents over-demanding and not giving their child(ren) any say in what happens at home?
  • Is there low parental monitoring of the child's activities or whereabouts?
Poor role models
  • Is there exposure to child abuse or domestic violence in the home?
  • Is parental disharmony and conflict present?
Lack of warmth
  • Do parents use harsh, physical punishment to coerce and control the child?
  • Is the child rejected or perceived negatively by one or both parents?
  • Is there a lack of nurturing and emotional support provided by the family?
  • Does poor bonding exist between the parent and child?
Other family factors
  • Is the family socially isolated and lacking in outside support?
  • Is there stress in the family associated with parental divorce or separation?
  • Does the family have low economic and social resources available (based on income, education, and occupation)?

Individual factors

The following questions can help practitioners consider some of the individual factors associated with a higher likelihood of engaging in bullying behaviour.

  • Does the child have poor impulse control, display sensation-seeking behaviour, or show early persistent behaviour problems?
  • Does the child show signs of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anger, anxiety or depression?
  • Is the child engaging in antisocial or illegal behaviour (e.g., carrying a weapon, using alcohol or drugs, fighting, lying to parents, staying out past curfew)?
  • Does the child demonstrate poor problem-solving or blame others for their behaviour?

School and community factors

The following questions can help practitioners consider some of the school and community factors associated with a higher likelihood of engaging in bullying behaviour.

  • Is the child experiencing school failure or a low commitment to school?
  • Is the child being rejected by peers or involved with a deviant peer group?
  • Is the child socialising with peers who have positive attitudes toward aggression and bullying?


What determines the level of risk?

The level of risk depends on:

  • the prevalence and nature of the bullying behaviour (i.e., frequency or intensity, history, generalisation, seriousness and effects of the behaviour);
  • the existence of family risk factors (i.e., lack of parental control, poor role models, lack of warmth, etc.);
  • the occurrence of individual risk factors (i.e., persistent early behaviour problems, ADHD, antisocial behaviours, etc.);
  • the incidence of school and community risk factors (i.e., school failure, deviant peers, etc.); and
  • existing protective factors and the family's capacity to reduce risk (parenting knowledge, social connectedness, concrete resources, etc.).

Further guidance on determining the risk is provided in Table 2.

Assessing protective factors

Children who bully may come from homes in which family members experience above-normal stress and conflict (Smith & Myron-Wilson, 1998)

The assessment process should also evaluate whether the child and/or family has enough protective factors in place to eliminate or reduce risk.

The following are key areas to explore when assessing existing protective factors and the families' capacity to reduce risk:

  • nurturing and attachment - child experiences consistent warmth and affection
  • effective parenting techniques - including knowledge of child development;
  • parental resilience - the capacity to cope with stress and solve problem;
  • social connections - strong parent support network (i.e., family, friends); and
  • access to parental supports - financial, housing and other concrete resources and services.

Questions for exploring protective family factors

The following are examples of questions that may be helpful for the practitioner to consider when exploring protective family factors.

  • How does the parent respond to the child's challenging behaviour?
  • How does the parent demonstrate affection?
  • How does the parent model caring behaviour?
  • Can the parent provide a safe and stable home and family environment?
  • What steps has the parent taken to deal with the bullying problem?
  • Can the parent identify alternative solutions for addressing bullying behaviours?
  • How does the parent encourage positive behaviour through praise and modelling?
  • Does the parent understand the child's development?
  • What is the effect of stress on parenting?
  • How does the parent communicate with his or her spouse or partner?
  • What is the parent's ability to set and work toward personal goals?
  • What is the parent's current social support system, including family, friends and membership in any formal groups?
  • Are there other services and supports that would help the family?

Case study of risk assessment

Scott is nine years old. He lives at home with his mother and only sees his father occasionally, during school holidays. His father has a history of antisocial behaviour and of alcohol abuse. His mother's work means that Scott's after-school care has been inconsistent. His mother reports that she also has difficulty with controlling Scott's behaviour at home and often resorts to yelling and using physical punishment with Scott. Scott has attended three different primary schools due to family relocation. At each school, Scott has been in trouble for hitting, kicking and bullying behaviours. He has been reported to show disregard for the rights of others and shows a lack of concern for others' feelings. Most recently Scott hit another child at school, resulting in injuries. His mother initially blamed the school for Scott's behavioural problems. In the past she has been quite hostile towards the school when contacted.

Assessment of risk factors

  • Inadequate supervision at home and in the neighbourhood.
  • Exposure to media violence due to lack of supervision.
  • Lack of consistency in parenting styles.
  • Harsh, physical punishment used to coerce and control the child.
  • Family history of antisocial behaviour and substance abuse.
  • Poor or non-existent family networks or support.
Individual and school
  • Child has poor impulse control and shows early persistent behaviour problems.
  • Child is experiencing school failure.

Further assessment is indicated to determine the nature of the bullying problem and the risk for other problems associated with bullying.