Family Characteristics of Children Involved in Bullying

By — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Apr 17, 2009

Why do some children become victims or perpetrators of bullying? In order to answer this question, we must understand the personality and behavioral characteristics which predispose children to be involved in bullying. Although genetics and temperament are known to play important roles in a variety of behaviors, family characteristics are also important because many behaviors engaged in by children are learned through their interactions with parents and siblings. In the discussion below, we will explore what the research tells us about the characteristics of parents and siblings of children involved in bullying. As with all research which explores human behavior, the research examined below describes the behavior of most, but not all individuals of concern. Therefore, it is important that readers do not assume that all parents and siblings of children involved in bullying display the characteristics described below. Instead, readers should use the information provided to explore the dynamics of their own families and the families of children with whom they work to determine whether interventions within the family might help reduce victimization by or perpetration of bullying.

Parent Characteristics of Male Victims

Research suggests that family characteristics vary dramatically between female and male victims of bullying. Mothers of male victims tend to be overprotective (1), overcontrolling, and coddling of their sons (2). In contrast, research indicates that fathers of male victims are often distant (1) or absent (3) from the lives of their sons and tend to be critical of their boys (1). It is proposed by the researchers that the relationship between male victims and their parents predisposes the boys to becoming overly emotional and upset when faced with difficult interpersonal situations and that it is this over-emotionality and poor coping that bullies seek when selecting their victims. Indeed, bullies do not target children who fail to respond to their taunts, instead they select as victims children who cry or become overtly upset or anxious as a result of the bullying (4). Thus, it is proposed that the enmeshment of the mother/son relationship stifles the boy’s emotional growth and keeps him from developing the skills necessary to successfully cope with the typical upsets, disappointments, and interpersonal strife experienced by all children. Additionally, because boys learn from their fathers how to interact with other males and how to deal with bullies (3), the absence or emotional distance of fathers exacerbate their son’s difficulties in coping with problematic interactions with their more aggressive peers.

Parent Characteristics of Female Victims

The research that does exist suggests that families of female victims are quite different from those of male victims of bullying. Where the mothers of male victims are overprotective and overly close to their sons, female victims describe poor family functioning and inadequate family communication (5). Their mothers are also described as hostile and rejecting of their daughters and as withdrawing their love and threatening to reject and abandon their daughters when they misbehave (6). Because the mother fails to model healthy interpersonal skills, the daughter has difficulty learning those skills necessary for developing healthy relationships with other girls. Finnegan et al. (6) suggest that these girls then become victims of bullying because they have difficulty regulating their emotions, feeling or expressing empathy, and communicating effectively, all of which may make them easy targets for victimization by peers.

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