Parents who don't want their children to become bullies should stay positive, talk to their kids and meet their children's friends.
That's according to new research presented today (May 1) at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in Denver. Using data from a nationally representative phone survey, researchers found that some factors -- including parents who frequently feel angry or bothered by their children -- raise the risk that a child will become a bully. But other parenting behaviors protect kids from taunting others.
"The protective factors that I think can really be helpful, if we can focus on building them, is having parents who share ideas, talk well or very well with their child, and have met most or all of their child's friends," study researcher Rashmi Shetgiri of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas told LiveScience. The focus, she said, should be "helping parents to manage the negative emotions that they may have."
The devastating effect of bullying on victims is well-known, but bullies are at risk of hurting themselves, too. Research has shown that bullies are at greater risk than non-bullies for psychological problems, substance abuse and delinquency. One study, presented in 2010 at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, asked bullies why they torment other kids and found that they often hold negative views about themselves. [Read Bullies on Bullying: Why We Do It]
As part of a national phone survey, Shetgiri and her colleagues asked parents of children ages 10 to 17 whether their kids were ever cruel to other children. They also collected data on the parents' own mental health and emotions. Using data from 2003 to 2007, they found that 23 percent of children had bullied another kid at some point in 2003. In 2007, 35 percent of parents reported that their kid had been known to bully others, a 52 percent increase. In 2007, 15 percent of kids were "frequent" bullies.
Across the years, a few risk factors for bullying emerged. Children who had emotional, behavioral or developmental problems were more likely to bully. Kids of parents who said they often felt angry or bothered by their child were more likely to be bullies. And moms with mental health problems were also more likely to have kids that bullied.
Preventing potential bullies
On the other hand, parents who had communicative relationships with their children and knew most of their kids' friends were unlikely to raise a bullying child.
Shetgiri and her colleagues can't say from their research whether parental anger and impatience cause kids to act out by bullying, or whether bullies are more likely to make their parents angry. Discovering the cause of the bullying will require long-term studies of the same group of children over time, Shetgiri said.
The study also didn't look at cyberbullying, which Shetgiri hopes to research in the future. Her main goal, however, is to develop parenting interventions to either prevent or reverse the development of bullies.
"Interventions that help parents become more involved in their children's lives and that help parents communicate better with their children may be helpful," Shetgiri said.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.