Parents and Bullies

Photo Credit:  Chesi - Fotos CC
Photo Credit: Chesi – Fotos CC

A new meta-analysis shows that there is a relationship between parental behaviour and being a bully.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Virtually all the parents’ blogs I follow mention bullying at some point of the month. I decided to join in again this year, even though it is not my area of expertise, because this is a good cause, and it’s important that parents know as much as possible about this problem.

A meta-analysis that just came out[*] explored the link between parental behaviours and bullying, and I thought this is the perfect time to talk about it.

What They Did

A meta-analysis is a study of studies. It uses the combined data of published studies to provide an overview of the research question. The advantage of a meta-analysis is that more data (more information) means more power, both statistically and conceptually; we would be more confident accepting a relationship between parental behaviour and bullying if 10 independent studies reached the same conclusion than we would be if only one study found it. A disadvantage of meta-analyses is that they can only investigate questions that other people have already asked. That is, if I think that, for instance, caffeine intake is related to bullying, and no one has studied this relationship (or there is only one study looking at it) I can’t do a meta-analysis. So these authors did a meta-analysis of studies that looked into the relationship between parental behaviour and bullying.

What They Found

The authors report a small but significant relationship between parental behaviour and bullying. That is, positive parental behaviour – such as good communication, warm relationship, and parental involvement were associated with a lower likelihood of being bullied. Negative parental behaviour such as abuse and neglect were (perhaps not surprisingly) associated with a higher likelihood of being bullied and particularly with being a bully/victim, that is, someone who is both a victim of bullying and a bully him/herself. Interestingly, over-protection was associated with an increased likelihood of being victimized.

I thought there were a couple of problems with this meta-analysis. First, while the research typically looks at being bullied in a school context, children of neglecting or abusing parents are by definition victims of bullying. They are bullied by their parents – they experience repeated aggression from someone who has more power than they do. Also, I tend to think that their peers bullying them is likely the least of these kids’ worries, if they are being abused at home by their parents. Another problem is that there was an effect of age – older children (12 and up) reported a less warm relationship with their parents (regardless of being bullied or not). But the authors did not check the effect of age on being bullied. So if there is an effect of age, it’s possible that this correlation is driven by age. Personally, I find it hard to believe that the incidence rate of bullying in the 4-7 years age group is as high as the incidence rate of bullying in the 12+ age group. Also, from my experience working with children, age is almost always a factor, and it should never be ignored in a developmental study. So until I see a non-correlation between the rate of bullying and age, I’m not quite convinced of the results.

By the way, the authors themselves note that most of the studies in their sample were cross-sectional (that is, they took a “snap-shot” in time rather than followed development over time) and that this “does not allow to differentiate cause and effect.” (pp. 13). This limitation does not prevent the authors from suggesting that “intervention programs against bullying should extend their focus beyond schools to include families…”. Interesting approach.

What It Means

I think all children would benefit in many areas of life from having warm, affectionate parents with whom they have a good relationship characterized by good communication, and who do not neglect and abuse them. I can’t imagine what I would do if I find out one of my kids is being bullied, but I would probably think this is somehow my fault. This study is not helping on that front. That said, there is an ongoing debate between researchers who think that parents don’t matter at all to development and researchers who think that parents do matter. If you look at this study from that lens, you can see it sitting squarely in the latter camp, bolstering the “weapons” (read: evidence). But that’s a topic for another post.


[*] Actually, it hasn’t been published yet – it’s “in press” which means it has been accepted for publication but not printed yet – academic world is crazy sometimes

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