Most parents know that being overly negative and harsh can turn children into bullies or victims of bullies. It’s something of a surprise to discover that being overly kind and protective runs the same risks.
The link between negative parenting and bullying behavior makes sense. Kids copy what they’ve experienced at home so children who’ve been pushed around by their parents push others around themselves. In addition, children of harsh parents are at risk of becoming victims of bullies, since kids in these families have become used to being pushed around and may not know how to stand up for themselves.
A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Warwick found this lack of self-reliance a factor for children of over-protective parents. These children, who are sheltered by mom and dad from managing their own affairs, have few resources for dealing with bullies. These kids can be viewed as easy targets, who are likely to cave in to a bully’s demands, because they have had little experience in standing up for themselves.
The study’s lead author, Dieter Wolke, points out that parenting that is warmly affectionate but that also supports children’s independence leads to the best outcomes for kids. Children of these “respectful” parents have learned through experience how to handle dicey situations and they also know their parents care what happens to them. Unlike children raised in either punitive or permissive households, these children have the social skills and problem solving strategies to stay out of trouble.
Bullying, of course, is not simply a childhood phenomenon. As Wolke points out, “The long shadow of bullying falls well beyond the school playground — it has lasting and profound effects into adulthood.” Both bullies and their victims have a higher risk of developing physical health problems as adults, are more likely to suffer depression and anxiety disorders as they grow to adulthood, and are at greater risk of self-harm and suicide.
What this study confirms is that bullying behavior is not just a school problem and it cannot be solved by school interventions. Bullying behavior and its complement, victim behavior, are learned at home, in the interactions between parents and children.
Most of all, despite the worry parents naturally feel about their children becoming victims of schoolyard bullies, the solution is not overprotection. The solution lies in helping children feel confident about their abilities. Here are some hints:
1. Let children solve their own problems unless there is obvious danger or abuse.
2. Teach children strategies for negotiating conflict, including simply walking away.
3. Most of all, use parenting techniques that are neither permissive nor punitive, but that walk a middle path of guidance and support.
As researcher Wolke says, smart parents “allow children to have some conflicts with peers to learn how to solve them rather than intervene at the smallest argument.”
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.