Key Points Made by Individual Speakers
- Relatively little research has examined the role of parents and families on issues related to bullying. (Holt)
- Parents tend to report lower rates of bullying than do children, partly because children may not tell parents about bullying experiences. (Holt)
- Youth who are involved in bullying report more mental health difficulties than their parents think they are experiencing. (Holt)
- Research is investigating how factors such as family violence, poor parenting practices, hostility within families, and family dynamics that are overprotective or conflict avoidant may increase the risk of bullying involvement. (Gorman-Smith)
- Although most bullying prevention efforts are school-based, parent training and involvement are key to the prevention of bullying and victimization. (Gorman-Smith)
- Some family-based interventions that have focused on reducing violence and aggression also may decrease bullying. (Gorman-Smith)
Families and parents—including legal guardians and other caregivers—are critical influences on the health of children and adolescents, including influencing their involvement in bullying. Parent perceptions, their responses to bullying behaviors, and family-level interventions relevant to bullying are therefore major considerations in bullying prevention.
PARENT ATTITUDES ABOUT AND RESPONSES TO BULLYING
Less is understood about parents’ role in bullying issues than about the various other bullying-related factors discussed at the workshop, said Melissa Holt, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Education. Multiple studies have found that parents tend to report lower rates of bullying than do students, she said. The discrepancies in reporting vary somewhat based on the type of bullying being assessed and on the gender of the child, she said, but youth often do not tell their parents about bullying experiences, even though parents usually think they would.
How do parents respond to bullying problems? It varies, depending on whether a child is the perpetrator or victim, Holt said. One study found that only 24 percent of children who bully said that their parents talked to them about their perpetrating behaviors, while, in sharp contrast, 62 percent of youth who were being bullied said their parents discussed those victimization experiences with them (Houndoumadi and Pateraki, 2001).
A Dutch study found that among elementary school children who said their parents knew that bullying was happening, 24 percent reported that the parents did nothing to try to stop it (Fekkes et al., 2005). Another 37 percent of the students said their parents tried to intervene, with varying levels of effectiveness; only 17 percent of the children reported that their victimization decreased as a result. However, Holt said, “when parents do become involved and provide appropriate support, often the negative effects of bullying can be diminished,” including thoughts of suicide among victimized children.
Holt described two of her own studies in this area, with the caveat that they are basic research and require follow-up work. In the first project, which focused on 205 fifth graders at 22 schools and their parents, she and colleagues collected matched datasets to examine bullying perpetration and victimization; parents’ attitudes, awareness, and responses to bullying; and student versus parent concordance (Holt et al., 2008). Family characteristics and functioning, including areas such as conflict, support, and monitoring, were also examined.
Consistent with previous research, youth in this study reported more bullying involvement than parents thought was occurring, Holt said. For instance, among the 16 percent of students who reported that they were being teased, only about two-thirds of the parents correctly believed their
child was being teased, while the other one-third of the parents did not think their child was being victimized. That is, in 5.5 percent of the cases a child was being teased and the parent was unaware. Discrepancy rates were even higher for scenarios where children reported they were bullying other youth: “In 11 percent of the cases the child said that they perpetrate bullying behaviors, and the parent said ‘No, my child doesn’t,’” Holt explained. Conversely, parents sometimes reported a problem when the child did not. For example, in one-third of the cases where students said they were not being teased, their parents thought they actually were being teased.
When such mismatches in reporting occur, who should one believe? What is the reality? Holt is not sure. But as she and Gorman-Smith emphasized later in the discussion period, what matters more is the child’s view of the situation, because research indicates that children’s mental health outcomes are ultimately influenced by their perceptions.
Holt’s study also found that about 37 percent of parents thought that schools should deal with bullying without parental interference. In addition, child maltreatment and violence in the home environments were linked to bullying involvement for both victims and perpetrators, Holt said, although only according to the self-report data from the children.
A second study by Holt and colleagues compared the views of 480 students in grades 3 to 8 and 159 of the students’ parents on bullying involvement while also investigating the link to mental health (Holt et al., 2008). The study design was limited in that it did not collect matched data sets, Holt said. Again, children reported more bullying than their parents did across a range of behaviors, from teasing and spreading rumors to cyberbullying (see Figure 5-1). There was a striking discrepancy in parents’ awareness of cyberbullying, perhaps because “parents are less aware of what is going on with the children online,” Holt said. Furthermore, many parents of bullied children were unaware their children had missed school because of fears of being harassed. Children were more likely to talk to friends about bullying than to an adult at home, but, importantly, the youth who reached out to parents or guardians found them helpful in negotiating effective solutions, Holt said.
To assess mental health, the researchers asked the students to rate themselves on emotional function, conduct, hyperactivity, social behavior, and other areas. Across all these domains, youth who were involved in bullying “are reporting more associated mental health difficulties than parents feel their children are experiencing,” Holt said (see Figure 5-2). One unfortunate implication is that parents often are “minimizing their children’s experiences, which probably leads to fewer interventions and less support,” she said. The broader research literature on child psychopathology makes it clear that these sorts of mismatches in reporting occur when children have behavioral and emotional problems—and that when greater discrepancies
exist, children can have worse mental health outcomes. The same might apply with bullying, Holt said. “When parents don’t understand what is going on for the kids, the children’s mental health might be compromised.”
In conclusion, Holt emphasized that experts need to encourage parents to get involved with bullying problems because their engagement is the key to prevention. She wrapped up by listing six points of advice for parents concerned about bullying, which she took from an article by Lovegrove et al. (2013):
- Maintain open communication with children
- Identify warning signs
- Coach children on responses to bullying
- Model kindness and leadership
- Work with the school
- Promote children’s strengths
FAMILIES AS SOURCES OF RISK AND PROTECTION
Deborah Gorman-Smith, professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, who studies aggression and violence in children, pointed out that there currently are no family-focused intervention programs that are specifically aimed at preventing bullying. The burden of dealing with bullying has fallen upon schools, she said. Given that the developmental research literature suggests “family is one of the most important developmental influences on our behavior,” she argued for an increased focus on families.
Families play three different types of roles that are relevant to bullying, Gorman-Smith said: They affect bullying risks directly (What is happening within the family that increases risk for children to perpetrate or become victims of bullying?), they influence bullying risks arising from environments outside the family (How do families help manage the contextual risks of schools or neighborhoods?), and they can act to protect children from bullying and encourage them to engage in healthy behaviors.
The relatively little research conducted so far on risks for bullying that arise from within families has looked at family violence, parenting practices, and family relationship characteristics—all factors that relate to the risks for aggression and violence more generally, Gorman-Smith said. Some research indicates that youth who live in families where there is intimate partner violence or child abuse and neglect are at significantly increased risk for engaging in bullying behavior (Smokowski and Kopasz, 2005). Other studies have examined such questionable parenting practices as harsh discipline and poor monitoring of how children spend their time and who their friends are as well as such family relationship characteristics
as hostility and conflict, Gorman-Smith said. Even when families monitor and discipline their children, she added, a lack of emotional warmth and personal connection within a family “seems to be particularly important around perpetrating aggression and violence.”
Much less is known about how family characteristics increase the risk of victimization. Two broad areas that seem relevant for being bullied, Gorman-Smith said, are families that are overprotective and families that tend to avoid conflict, “so that children don’t have the opportunity to learn to manage conflict.” However, it is difficult to disentangle cause from effect: Is a parent overprotective because the child has been victimized, or was the child more vulnerable to being victimized as a result of that parent’s overprotection? (Yet another possible factor, sibling aggression, was talked about briefly during the discussion period. Both Gorman-Smith and Holt said that there is enough research to suggest that aggression between siblings may be a risk factor for bullying and victimization in the school context.)
The overwhelming majority of bullying prevention programs are school-based, and they sometimes also include parent training, which often focuses on children as victims or bystanders while, surprisingly, giving less information on the perpetration of bullying, Gorman-Smith said. In a systematic meta-analysis of school-based programs, Farrington and Ttofi (2009) found that parent training was one of the components associated with the greatest decrease in bullying and victimization. Yet training efforts for parents were often minimal, Gorman-Smith said: “They mostly consisted of informational handouts or two or three meetings where a speaker provided information about bullying. A greater focus on parenting and family might be something that could help us move the dial a bit more.”
What do families need to do? Based on the larger body of research on family-focused interventions for general aggression and violence, Gorman-Smith listed a number of protective measures and goals that have been identified for working with families: nurturing parenting skills; building stable family relationships with emotional connections, clear communication, and support; encouraging the supervision and monitoring of children; increasing parental involvement in schools; and connecting families within neighborhoods with one another and to greater social support.
Many of these elements form the basis for two family-focused programs aimed at decreasing the risk for aggression and violence with which Gorman-Smith has been involved in over the past 15 to 20 years (Multisite Violence Prevention Project, 2009, 2013; Tolan et al., 2010). “We have some evidence that these probably have an impact on bullying behaviors as well,” she said. One program, Schools and Families Educating (SAFE) Children, focuses on kindergarten and first-grade students. In tracking how first graders in SAFE fared when they got to high school, Gorman-Smith
found a 50 percent decrease in school reports of serious misconduct including bullying, a 33 percent reduction in reports of violence, and a 20 percent increase in being “on track” for high school graduation.
The other program, GREAT Schools and Families, focuses on high-risk students in the transition from sixth grade to middle school, including students who were rated as “socially influential” (Smith et al., 2004). The researchers have observed lower reported rates of violence not only at the level of individual students participating in GREAT but also across entire schools. Other kinds of evidence-based, family-focused interventions have targeted parenting behavior, the parent–child relationship, and parental involvement in school, Gorman-Smith said.
Future research questions for exploration include the relationships between aspects of family risk and different types of bullying and victimization; ethnic, racial, and contextual differences in family risk for bullying involvement; and the developmental timing of interventions for affecting bullying behavior, Gorman-Smith said. Another question is whether existing evidence-based, family-focused interventions have had an impact on bullying; most of the well-known studies of such interventions are 20 to 30 years old and did not originally include measures of bullying behaviors, she said.
GETTING FAMILIES INVOLVED
One topic raised during the discussion period was how to get families more engaged in bullying prevention. Even if experts had effective parenting interventions available and even if policy makers decided to implement them widely, Gorman-Smith said, “parental involvement in school has been surprisingly difficult to negotiate.” One problem, she said, is that in schools in inner-city Chicago and many other places, “parents don’t feel particularly welcome.” Furthermore, she added, parent participation rates are typically very low for family-focused interventions.
For the SAFE Children study, Gorman-Smith and her colleagues had to expend a great deal of effort into regularly going into neighborhoods and knocking on doors. In a follow-up trial to confirm the effectiveness of their intervention, they partnered with a local community mental health agency. “Our biggest challenge was participation,” she said. Most social workers at schools and staffers at community mental health agencies are trained to work with people who come in seeking services and assistance. Yet many people in the communities viewed the prevention outreach as unethical and intrusive because they were not necessarily asking for help, Gorman-Smith said. Such outreach work “really does take a personal connection with people,” she added. “You can’t send a flier home and expect people to come.” One way that researchers have dealt with this challenge, she said,
is to enlist the help of families who have benefited from the intervention project to help recruit others into the program.
One sensitive issue about research into the importance of familial factors in bullying is how the information is presented to parents, said workshop participant Deborah Temkin of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. “This blame element comes in,” she said.
Gorman-Smith responded that it is important to clarify that familial factors may increase risks in only some cases of bullying involvement, not the majority of cases. “We are not saying this is true across the board or that parents are the sole contributors to what is going on,” she said. Holt suggested framing the broader conversation around “supporting healthy and positive development” of families rather than preventing bullying or violence. The idea is that parenting is hard and that parents need more support, she said, so it is okay for them to seek ideas, information, and help from other families in managing some of these situations.