Bullying can be defined in many different ways. In general, it refers to systematically harassing, harming, or humiliating someone who is weaker, younger, or lower in status. It ranges from almost invisible little acts of deniable meanness—like turning a back on someone, excluding them from a game, or pretending not to hear them—to committing serious acts of humiliation or abuse that prove fatal. Cyberbullying has become particularly worrisome, and has been blamed for some shocking tragedies, as children and teenagers use the anonymity or distance of social media to gang up on vulnerable classmates and others.
In The Origins of You, Jay Belsky, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt, and Richie Poulton report on their bullying research, based on methodical longitudinal research with over four thousand families. They were interested in bullying as an example of the importance of peers in children’s and adolescents’ development.
Their findings are disturbing, although intuitively sensible. They show that children who are bullied during primary school have more emotional and behavioral problems than kids not bullied. Those who are bullied have a harder time establishing and maintaining friendships, and doing well at school. The authors write, “Bullying can be part of a downward spiral of developmental functioning, cascading to influence many aspects of development.”
The researchers found that one of the terrible consequences of being bullied is a tendency to self-harm. Bullying is also associated with high levels of distress, and with obesity. The more a child was bullied, and the more serious the bullying was, the greater the degree of self-harm, distress, and obesity.
The good news in this research is that parents can make an important difference: supportive family relationships can act as protective factors, increasing a child’s resilience, and reducing the likelihood of harmful consequences. Belsky and colleagues found that bullied children did better than expected if they had a mother who was warm, siblings who were close and supportive, and a positive family atmosphere. This was true along a continuum: the warmer the mother, the closer the siblings, and the more positive the family atmosphere, the more resilient the bullied child.
These findings highlight the importance of including families in intervention programs aimed at reducing bullying, or alleviating its effects. They also highlight the double danger experienced by children who are both bullied, and also live in unsupportive family situations. Belsky and colleagues close their chapter on bullying by warning against pitting peer influences against the influence of parenting: parenting works in tandem with peer influences, each affecting a given child’s vulnerability and resilience.
What You Can Do to Increase Your Child’s Resistance to Bullying Effects
- Be warm, loving, and responsive. Parental warmth makes a big difference. Kids who experience a kind and caring parent are less likely to experience the harmful consequences of bullying.
- Create a positive home atmosphere. A family where the emphasis is on love, respect, empathy, friendship-building, and community is an important protection against the problems associated with bullying.
- Encourage sibling connections. Help your kids learn to be respectfully assertive with each other, and to deal constructively with any conflicts they experience. Support them in being kind, compassionate, and understanding with each other.
- Welcome your friends and extended family, and your child’s friends, into your home. A strong network of social support is a good resiliency factor for all problems, including bullying.
- Keep the communication lines open. Kids can be embarrassed or confused about being bullied. Reassure your child you’re available to talk, and look for opportunities to do that. Listen respectfully even to their most trivial worries; that way they’ll trust you to take it seriously if they have something bigger going on.
- Get help. As with all other serious problems, if you’re concerned your child is being bullied, and your efforts don’t lead to change, think about getting professional help. The earlier you and your child get the help you need, the likelier you are to have a happy outcome.
What Your Child Can Do to Avoid Being Bullied
- Build friendships. The stronger your child’s social network, the less vulnerable they are to bullies.
- Buddy up. A child on their own is a likelier target for a bully.
- Be assertive. Your child can tell the bully to get a life and leave them alone. A bully can sometimes be surprised or shamed into better behavior by an assertive pushback.
- Keep a sense of humor. A bully can be thrown off by an easy grin or a funny remark, if your child is able to think of one on the spur of the moment. You and your child can role-play funny responses to bullies’ nasty remarks and actions.
- Know when to walk away. Bullies can be dangerous, and being picked on is not character-building. Let your child know it’s okay to turn away from or avoid a bully.
- Tell an adult. Because of the power dynamic in bullying, there are many situations where kids can’t solve bullying problems on their own. If your child brings you a bullying story, listen thoughtfully. Don’t blame your child or do anything else to make them feel worse about themselves. Keep the emphasis on the bullying as a problem-solving challenge you’re handling together.
This is part of my blog series based on The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life, by Jay Belsky, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt, and Richie Poulton.
See also, in this series,
“Bullying Prevention,” by the National Association of School Psychologists
“Bullying Prevention,” by the American Federation of Teachers
Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child, by Mary Gordon
“Making Caring Common Project,” by Harvard Graduate School of Education
“How to Recognize Bullying,” by the Government of Canada