Kids are more likely to step in when they see bullying at school if their parents have told them to get involved than if they’ve been taught it’s better to stay out of it, a recent US study suggests.
About one in 10 children are victims of bullying, and many anti-bullying programs are focused on getting bystanders to intervene, researchers note in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. While previous research has linked certain parenting practices to higher odds that kids will be victims or perpetrators of bullying, less is known about how parents impact what children do as bystanders.
For the current study, researchers surveyed 1,440 fourth and fifth-grade students about how their classmates behaved in bullying situations and also did home interviews to see how parents told kids to respond to hypothetical incidents.
In school, kids whose classmates said they might intervene to stop bullies and to comfort victims were more likely to have parents at home who told them getting involved was the right thing to do, the study found. At the same time, kids whose parents told them to stay out of it were both less likely to help victims and more likely to become perpetrators.
“We were surprised to find that when parents told children not to get involved, children were actually more likely to join in the bullying,” said lead study author Stevie Grassetti, a psychology researcher at the University of Delaware.
The study didn’t explore why parents’ advice to steer clear of bullying translated into encouraging or participating in this behaviour.
“It could be that when parents told children to stay out of it, children perceived this advice to indicate a lack of empathy for victims and, in turn joined in bullying because they believed doing so really was not very bad,” Grassetti said by email.
“Alternately, it could be that children believed that they were following their parents advice to stay out of bullying because they did not realise that watching, laughing or cheering a bully on during a bullying situation is actually reinforcing the bully and making bullying worse,” Grassetti added.
Kids in the study were around 11 years old on average.
During home visits in the study, pairs of caregivers and children were presented with five hypothetical bullying examples, and then parents were asked to explain to their children how they should respond if they witnessed the situation take place.
Based on the study results, it makes sense for school anti-bullying efforts to involve parents and endeavour to give children consistent messages about prevention in both settings, the authors conclude.
One limitation of the study is that during school visits, researchers didn’t define what constitutes bullying the authors note. With home visits, researchers assumed parents gave kids the same advice about the hypothetical incidents that they would offer in real life, which might not always be the case, the researchers also point out.
“Parents can talk with their kids about what experiences they may face in each of these roles of bystander, target and perpetrator, and help the child understand how the role may feel,” said Dr Megan Moreno of Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
“Parents can ask their kids to consider possible actions if they are a bystander, or a target, or if they are provided with the opportunity to be a perpetrator,” Moreno, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.
“This gives the child a way to think through their options ahead of time, and practice things to say or do with a parent when they are not in the heat of the moment of the actual situation at school,” she said.