“9 year old West Virginia boy commits suicide due to bullying.”
This is a parent’s worst nightmare. And bullying appears to be on the rise in the United States at this time. Teachers describe an increase in bullying based on racial, ethnic and religious differences and increased fear and anxiety among children of color (https://www.splcenter.org/20160413/trump-effect-impact-presidential-campaign-our-nations-schools). Many people are worried about our children growing up in this country at this time, whether they are more likely to be bullied or to bully others.
How can we inoculate our children against this kind of thing? The first thing we can do is create an environment that is nurturing and supportive of everyone. Bullying occurs in the kind of environment where people experience a zero-sum game—in order for me to win, everyone else must lose.
As the director of a Montessori school for young children, I had the opportunity to witness every day how kind and considerate children can be toward each other. In an environment where cooperation, consideration and mutual respect were the norm, children did not engage in bullying. Because it was so different from what I saw in other environments, I dedicated time every week to open-minded observation of children and adults in this environment, to learn what could be causing this difference. Now I help parents and educators learn the keys to raising caring, considerate, thinking children. There are many ways our typical modern schools contribute to bullying behavior but, aside from choosing a different school environment “What can parents do?”
Parenting style is proven to make a difference in a child’s risk for bullying. The same parenting style that is proven to produce a variety of positive child outcomes is proven to protect children from being bullies or being victimized by bullies. This parenting style is called “authoritative” and it is characterized by high expectations or demands and high responsiveness and support. Parenting this way has been repeatedly proven to produce the best child outcomes and to foster the best relationship between parent and child.
Decades of research on parenting styles have repeatedly demonstrated that strict, authoritarian parenting contributes to poor outcomes for children. This style of parenting is characterized by high demands but low support and responsiveness. Children raised in this style of parenting are prone to low self-esteem, tend to have difficulty in social situations, and are often rebellious outside of the eyes of authority figures. This style of parenting is also more likely to produce a child who ends up being bullied or bullying others. (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/harsh-parents-raise-bullies-so-do-permissive-ones)
As a child psychologist, I worked with quite a few families in which one or both parents were strict, harsh and unbending with their children. It was not surprising to me that these children experienced more bullying by others; accustomed to being bullied at home, they were just repeating their experience of being bottom of the heap. Neither was it surprising that children of unresponsive, authoritarian parents were both more aggressive and bullying; they were just doing what they observed their parents to do. To them, the world is a zero-sum game, and they look for environments where they can have the greater power, because it’s certainly not at home.
Now, I work as a parent coach, which is more a partner supporting the parents’ goals. I work with conscious parents who are dedicated to their ongoing growth and development. They tend to be educated and thoughtful and are a joy to work with! This kind of parent loves and enjoys their child and seeks positive interactions with their child. Their worries for their children’s safety are often overblown, which can lead to unduly restricting their children’s activities but, otherwise, they have no interest in being overly controlling with their children.
When parents like this lack information about child development, these open-hearted attitudes may translate to a permissive, indulgent parenting style. If the child throws food, they may identify with the playful aspect of this behavior, subsequently failing to teach their child that throwing food is not okay. Unfortunately, this does not have positive effects for the child’s growth and development.
Permissive, indulgent parenting fails to support the child’s best development and these loving parents are so sad and puzzled when their beautiful baby grows into an immature, demanding child who is difficult to live with and does not get along well with others. Although there is no shortage of love in these children’s lives, the lack of limits and expectations leaves a child insecure and self-centered, with poor self-control, poor internal motivation and weak social skills.
Maybe it’s not surprising that children raised in this permissive style are also more likely to bully or be bullied as well. They are not accustomed to being held to any standards or being told “no.” When they interact in the real world, with limits and expectations everywhere, they don’t know how to handle it. They tend to react with anger, depression, or both.
That’s why I help parents develop a middle-of-the-road, authoritative parenting style, an approach that is neither harsh nor permissive. They learn how to provide helpful limits and expectations while following their natural inclinations to be responsive and supportive of their children. This authoritative parenting approach –with high expectations and high responsiveness– produces healthier, happier children. (However, be warned that switching from a permissive, indulgent parenting style to authoritative parenting style is challenging and I recommend you get support through such a transition!)
When you strive to be authoritative with your child, with support and demands, limits and responsiveness, you nurture the child’s healthy development and help prevent bullying from being a part of your child’s life. Refuse to go along with the idea that bullying is simply to be expected and establish different norms in your home or learning environment.
Model fairness and consideration. Always remember that your child will learn a lot about dealing with social situations by observing how you handle them. Model courage and speak up when you see someone being mistreated. This will help your child learn not to tolerate bullying.
A final tip: give your child lots of opportunities to interact with people of all ages. They learn a lot by playing with older children that they can’t learn if we limit that interaction. And older children learn to be kind and caring by interacting with younger children in ways they can’t learn it by being told to be nice.
How do you nurture a sense of fair play, considerate behavior and courage in the young child or children you care for?
by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., High Regard Parent Coach