Overprotective Parents Can Make a Kid a Target of Bullies

By Charlene Laino, Senior Writer, Gupta Guide
Published: April 25, 2013
Reviewed by Zalman S. Agus, MD; Emeritus Professor, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and Dorothy Caputo, MA, BSN, RN, Nurse Planner
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This is a systematic review of the published literature investigating associations between parenting behavior and peer victimization.
Negative parenting behavior including abuse and neglect and maladaptive parenting was related to a moderate increase of risk for becoming a bully or a victim.
It’s no surprise that children who are abused or neglected are more likely to be bullies or victims of bullying, but youngsters with overprotective parents are also at increased risk of being bullied, according to a finding from a meta-analysis of 70 studies that included more than 200,000 children.

In the studies analyzed, children of overprotective parents were 10% more likely be victims of bullying than other youngsters (P<0.01).

"I compare it to the parent who does all their child's homework. You wouldn't be surprised if the child then couldn't pass an exam," study author Dieter Wolke, PhD, of the University of Warwick, in England, said in an interview.

"Similarly, if you always try to intervene when your child is in a conflict, he won't know how to stand up for himself in the face of a bully," Wolke said.

Being overprotective may prevent the development of qualities such as autonomy and assertion that tend to turn off bullies, he said.

For the study, published online in Child Abuse & Neglect, the researchers conducted a systematic review of all prospective cohort and cross-sectional studies that investigated the association between parenting behavior and peer victimization from 1970 through 2012.

The researchers categorized behaviors such as abuse/neglect, maladaptive parenting, and overprotection as negative parenting behaviors.

On the flip side, authoritative parenting, parent-child communication, parental involvement and support, supervision, and warmth and affection were classified as positive parenting behaviors.

The effects of poor parenting were stronger for children who were both victims and perpetrators of bullying (bully-victims) than for children who were solely victims, the study showed. Among the results:

Overall, victims of bullying and children who are both victims and bully-victims were 26% and 48% more likely, respectively, to experience negative parenting (P<0.001 for both).
Victims of bullying and bully-victims were 31% and 68% more likely to have been abused or neglected, respectively (P<0.001 for both).
Overall, victims of bullying and bully-victims were 19% and 33% less likely, respectively, to live in a family with positive parenting (P<0.001 for both).
Warm and affective parents were 22% and 42% less likely to have a child that is bullied by peers or a bully/victim, respectively (P<0.001 for both).
Victims of bullying are at high risk of developing a host of physical and mental health problems, the authors noted. Among them are anxiety and depression, borderline psychiatric symptoms and increased risk of self-harm, suicidal ideation, and even suicide itself.

What do these new findings mean for pediatricians and other physicians?

"They should serve as a reminder that advising parents that being supportive and involved – though not overly involved — lowers the odds their children will be a victim of bullying," Wolke said.

"Be clear that overprotection increased this risk," he continued. "Children need support, but parents should not try to buffer their children from all negative experiences," he explained.

"Parenting that includes clear rules about behavior while being supportive and emotionally warm is most likely to prevent victimization," Wolke said.

"These parents allow children to have some conflicts with peers to learn how to solve them rather than intervene at the smallest argument," he said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers these tips for doctors to post on office walls and share with parents:

When Your Child Is Bullied

Help your child learn how to respond by teaching your child how to:

Look the bully in the eye.
Stand tall and stay calm in a difficult situation.
Walk away.
Teach your child how to say in a firm voice, "I don't like what you are doing" or "Please do NOT talk to me like that."
Teach your child when and how to ask for help.
Encourage your child to make friends with other children.
Support activities that interest your child.
Alert school officials to the problems and work with them on solutions.
Make sure an adult who knows about the bullying can watch out for your child's safety and well-being when you cannot be there.
When Your Child Is the Bully:

Be sure your child knows that bullying is never OK.
Set firm and consistent limits on your child's aggressive behavior.
Be a positive role mode. Show children they can get what they want without teasing, threatening, or hurting someone.
Use effective, nonphysical discipline, such as loss of privileges.
Develop practical solutions with the school principal, teachers, counselors, and parents of the children your child has bullied.
What tips can you share with colleagues to ensure young patients are not bullied? Click on Add Your Knowledge to express your view and see what others are saying. — Sanjay Gupta, MD

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