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.
Sibling Characteristics of Male and Female Victims
The research on sibling relationships has not separately examined male and female victims. The small amount of research examining siblings finds that the relationships between bully victims and their siblings mirrors the relationships seen between male victims and their mothers, in which victims typically report overly close and positive relationships with their siblings (7). Although this sibling closeness can provide a protective role for victims, East and Rook (8) suggest that this sibling closeness could lead to further social isolation of victims because they are fulfilling their affiliative needs with their siblings rather than with peers. Additionally, Stormshak, Bellanti, and Bierman (9) found that children who had moderately conflictual and moderately warm relationships with their siblings displayed more social competence and emotional control at school than children who had more negative or more warm sibling relationships. The authors suggest that when there is warmth with no conflict, the child may not learn the skills necessary to handle uncomfortable interpersonal interactions with peers.
Family Characteristics of Chronic Bullies
A great deal of research has been conducted examining parenting styles in families of bullies. Research consistently finds that families of bullies are lacking in warmth and closeness and are focused on power and dominance . Research also indicates that bullies are likely to grow up without a father figure and that they are often victims of physical and emotional abuse (5, 10, 11). There is also a good deal of sibling violence in the families of bullies, with bullies showing the same types of aggression against siblings as they do with children at school (12). Overall, the need for power and dominance in the family is expressed through verbal and physical aggression between parent against bully, bully against sibling, and bully against peer. The aggressiveness of the bully is not only tolerated by the parents but may be a reflection of the bully’s family values and family environment (10).
Family Characteristics of Bully-Victims
In families of bully-victims (those who are both victims and perpetrators of bullying) there is more aggression and less warmth. But unlike the families of bullies, in which all members are focused on power and dominance, the mothers of bully-victims are described as being powerless women who may be victims of domestic violence (7). The violence exhibited by the father is also reflected in the sibling relationships in which the bully-victim is both the perpetrator and victim of sibling aggression (12). The aggressiveness and other misbehaviors of the children in these families tend to go unpunished, most likely because of the mothers’ powerlessness and their failure to monitor their children’s behaviors (7).
Dysfunctional Parenting As a Theme
When reviewing the research literature on families of children involved in bullying, a consistent theme becomes apparent for all except the male victim. Bullies, bully-victims, and female victims of bullying report that they are emotionally maltreated by one or both of their parents. Bullies and bully-victims may also experience neglect and physical abuse at the hands of the adults in their lives and they may experience a high level of aggression and violence within the family.
Implications for Schools
Knowing that children involved in bullying may come from poorly functioning families also suggests that one way to curb current bullying is to intervene with the family. Perhaps by helping the parents learn more effective parenting skills, their children will learn how to behave in a healthier manner with their peers.
Implications for Parents
Given the research discussed above, it is very important for parents to seek support in changing their parenting style. All parents should strive to avoid over or under protecting their children, to be as consistently warm and loving as possible, and to reduce their own aggressive behaviors
Helpful links for parents:
- Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell publishers.
- Olweus, D. (1992). Victimization by peers: Antecedents and long-term consequences. In K. H. Rubin & J. B. Asendorph (Eds.), Social withdrawal, inhibition, and shyness in childhood (pp. 315-341). Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Fosse, G. K., & Holen, A. (2002). Childhood environment of adult psychiatric outpatients in Norway having been bullied in school. Child Abuse & Neglect, 26, 129-137.
- Perry, D. G., Williard, J. C., & Perry, L. C. (1990). Peers’ perceptions of the consequences that victimized children provide aggressors. Child Development, 61, 1310-1325.
- Rigby, K. (1994). Psychosocial functioning in families of Australian adolescent schoolchildren involved in bully/victim problems. Journal of Family Therapy, 16, 173-187.
- Finnegan, R. A., Hodges, E. V. E., & Perry, D. G. (1998). Victimization by peers: Associations with children’s reports of mother-child interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1076-1086.
- Bowers, L., Smith, P. K., & Binney, V. (1994). Perceived family relationships of bullies, victims and bully/victims in middle childhood. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 11, 215-232.
- East, P. L., & Rook, K. S. (1992). Compensatory patterns of support among children’s peer relationships: A test using school friends, nonschool friends, and siblings. Developmental Psychology, 28, 163-172.
- Stormshak, E. A., Bellanti, C. J., & Bierman, K. L. (1996). The quality of sibling relationships and the development of social competence and behavioral control in aggressive children. Developmental Psychology, 32 79-89.
- Olweus, D. (1994). Annotation: Bullying at school: Basic facts and effects of a school based intervention program. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 35, 1171-1190.
- Strassberg, Z., Dodge, K. A., Pettit, G. S., & Bates, J. E. (1994). Spanking in the home and children’s subsequent aggression toward kindergarten peers. Development and Psychopathology, 6, 445-461.
- Duncan, R. D. (1999). Peer and sibling aggression: An investigation of intra- and extra-familial bullying. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14, 871-886.
- Rigby, K. (1993). School children's perceptions of their families and parents as a function of peer relations. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 154, 501-513.