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How to Turn Your Kid Into a Bully

• September 25, 2009 • 7:00 PM

A new study links bullying behavior by adolescents to the perception they are not treated fairly by their parents.

How are bullies born? The issue has been the subject of intense study, particularly in the decade since two students who had been bullied went on a violent rampage at Columbine High School. Much of the resultant research includes the term “cycle of violence,” which has become a shorthand way of acknowledging that a youngster who is a victim of physical abuse in the home is more likely to become a perpetrator.

Now, a research team led by Michael Brubacher of DePaul University has found a more subtle connection between inadequate parenting and adolescent bullying. In a paper just published in the journal Psychology, Public Policy and Law, the academics coin the term “cycle of dominance.”

The phrase reflects their finding that, in transmitting bad behavior from one generation to the next, the issue isn’t strictly the use of physical force. It’s also a matter of whether the youngster grows up with a sense that conflicts can be resolved in a just, fair way.

In short, if a kid feels he’s being punished arbitrarily at home, he is more likely to engage in arbitrary punishment on the streets or in the schoolyard.

The researchers examined a survey of 1,910 sixth- through eighth-graders from five states. They were asked to describe a recent disagreement with one or both of their parents or guardians. The youngsters (with an average age of just over 12 and one-half) when they asked whether they felt they were treated fairly as the issue was resolved. They were instructed to rate the accuracy of such statements as “Your parents treated you with respect” and “Your parents were equally fair to everyone involved.”

After filling out a second set of questions designed to determine to what extent they had internalized their families’ conflict-resolution norms, they were asked about their own bullying behavior. They rated the accuracy of such statement as “I called other students names” and “I threatened to hit or hurt another student.”

The researchers found that “higher appraisals of procedural justice during family conflict resolution were associated with lower frequencies of bullying by the child.” The more the child believed that his parents were asserting their power over him unfairly, the more likely he was to assert his power over someone smaller and weaker by bullying.

Brubacher and his colleagues note that as of 2007, 24 states had passed legislation “either encouraging or requiring local school boards to develop bullying prevention programs.” They note their findings could be incorporated into such intervention efforts, which need to involve parents as well as the bullying students.

“Suggested strategies for family conflict resolution should affirm the notions of respect, inclusion and participation of the child,” they conclude. Or to put it more bluntly, if you want your kid to treat others with respect, there’s no substitute for setting an example at home.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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