Parents with aggressive kids need to be involved in early prevention and intervention, study says

Childhood bullies frequently fight with their parents, feel they can’t count on them and aren’t closely supervised, a Toronto-based study shows.

That means bullies not only require counselling on how to relate to peers, but also parents – and their parents need to take part, says lead author Debra Pepler, a York University professor and scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children, considered one of the country’s leading experts in the field.

“Focusing on the child alone is not enough,” she said. “You can’t just provide support at school and hope that the behaviour changes or that the learning transfers to other contexts. These are problems parents need to deal with.”

While not blaming parents for bullying, Pepler said that as adults, “we are all in positions of power over children and youth. … One of the most important lessons is to look at if we, as individuals or adults, are using it aggressively, we are modelling it for children.”

Technology, too, has added a twist because “adults aren’t in that space, they don’t understand what’s going on.”

The seven-year study of 871 Toronto students from age 10 onwards, is published in the March/April edition of the journal Child Development.

While most children experiment with bullying at some point, about 10 per cent become “persistent bullies,” it found.

Pepler said the study is among the first “to confirm that children who use power and aggression in their relationships have relationship problems and need relationship solutions.

Let’s not have them sit on a bench for an hour to teach them not to bully. An hour on the bench is not going to teach them how to relate better next time.

Stu Auty of the Canadian Safe School Network said many bullying issues stem from a child’s home life, and the strategy should always be “early prevention and intervention.”

Involving parents “is a good idea, and not done nearly enough,” he said. “But often you can’t get the parent to agree – that’s part of the problem.”

One of the network’s programs, used by the Toronto District School Board, educates children from junior kindergarten to Grade 2 on honesty, integrity and sharing, using animated characters. Parents can have access to the program and use it as a resource at home to discuss bullying.

“The sooner you get at this issue, the fewer concerns there are down the road,” Auty said. “If it’s anything schools can provide, it’s a focus on character education, on values, the difference between right and wrong.

“So for whatever reason, if they don’t get it at home, they are going to pick it up in school – although sometimes it feels like we have our fingers in the dike here.”

The study found that 9.9 per cent of students were chronic bullies from elementary to high school; about 35 per cent were moderate bullies; 13.4 per cent began as moderate bullies but ceased bullying by high school; 41.6 per cent reported “almost never bullying.”

Youth in the first three categories tended to lack “the protective processes of supportive family relationships (e.g. those with low parent trust, poor parental monitoring) and peer relationships (e.g. those associating with peers who bullied, high susceptibility to peer pressure),” the study found.

Past research has indicated children who bully tend to come from homes with “harsh and punitive” parenting, but it’s not an area that has been looked at in depth, Pepler said.

In her study, almost three-quarters lived at home with both parents; the rest with single parents or in blended families. Most of the children’s mothers had graduated from university or college, making it a “relatively advantaged” sample.

Pepler said while bullying might start in the home, it can also “start in the peer group – youth get a lot of power by victimizing each other. That’s one of the ways of increasing their status.”

Source: Toronto Star, Canada