The science: the social and emotional development of children is a family affair
Children’s social and emotional development is profoundly a family affair. How children behave outside the family with other people is highly influenced by what they experience within it. This applies very much to bullying.
For example, children who experience harsh and authoritarian parenting, conflict and aggression in the home and poor communication with their parents are more likely to be bullies. And children who experience overprotective or overly permissive parenting are more likely to be victims.
It makes sense, therefore, that any school wanting to tackle bullying should engage with parents. This includes both mothers and fathers, as well as other carers – all those who influence the child.
Limited evidence suggests that mothers and fathers may respond to bullying differently. Mothers are more likely to give advice, contact the school, seek professional help and involve the child in self-esteem activities or self-defence classes. Fathers are more likely to advocate self-sufficiency, thus normalising the behavior, or, alternatively, to go straight to the authorities. (These are tendencies, not a description of how individual mothers or fathers in diverse families would respond.)
The research found that engaging mothers and fathers helped the program to be effective
The Friendly Schools, Friendly Families program engages with parents systematically to improve six things:
- knowledge about bullying;
- confidence to talk to their child about it;
- non-toleration of bullying;
- the number of conversations with their children;
- confidence to help their children respond to bullying when they encounter it, and;
- knowledge of what the school is doing.
Parent engagement consists of the following:
- Awareness raising: 25 newsletter items, a 25-page parent booklet, five scripted assembly items, six songs and referral information.
- An annual three-hour training session for staff on how to engage parents.
- Two-hour parent workshops.
- Four six-page parent-child communication sheets.
- Six classroom-home activities.
In a study in Perth of 3,211 parents of children in three age groups — 6-7, 8-9 and 10-11 — improvements were seen in all six aims for parents. The researchers found that part of the program’s success in reducing bullying came from engaging with parents.
The program affected mothers and fathers differently, however.
The program engaged with far more mothers than fathers: 83% of the parents involved were mothers and only 14% were fathers.
Before the intervention, mothers tended to discuss bullying with their children more than fathers did – just over 60% of mothers compared to just over 50% of fathers. The intervention increased these percentages considerably when measured 10 months later. It worked more for mothers than fathers of children aged 8-9 and 10-11.
But 22 months later, the situation had reversed – the percentage of mothers’ discussing bullying with their children had dropped to around 20%. Meanwhile, fathers’ discussions had fallen much less. Fathers were two to four times more likely to discuss the topic with their children than mothers were. It should be noted that this figure comes from data on only one parent per family, so it doesn’t tell us what would happen in between two parents in the same family.
Prevalence of bullying in Australia
The prevalence of bullying in Australia is similar to that in other developed countries. 27% of students aged 8-14 years report being bullied, and 9% report regularly engaging in bullying. It peaks when children are around 10-12 years old. Being bullied, bullying and witnessing it all have negative impacts on children’s social and emotional development.
Implications for future programs
The results of this study suggest that engaging with parents, including both fathers and mothers, can play a key role in fighting bullying in schools.
Most studies recommend engaging parents in bullying programmes, but, in reality, few schools do so. Those that do focus on raising parents’ understanding, for example, through written guides and information meetings. One Australian study examined a more elaborate cognitive-behavioral program for parents of chronically bullied children and show good results. But this was not a whole school programme aiming for the prevention of bullying.
Header photo: Matt. Creative Commons.
Cross D, Lester L, Pearce N, Barnes A & Beatty S (2016), A group randomized controlled trial evaluating parent involvement in whole-school actions to reduce bullying, The Journal of Educational Research