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Vol. LXII, No. 11
May 28, 2010

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Secure Home Life Key To Preventing Bullying Behavior

Home may be where the heart is, but it’s also where the early markers for childhood bullying may begin, according to experts at NICHD.

It happens in schoolyards throughout America— in rural and urban neighborhoods, on the playground, and even by way of electronic media. Bullying, which can involve threats, torment or physical harm involving children and adolescents and is often related to appearance or social status, is a serious, widespread problem.

The public may have first learned about bullies by watching films of Our Gang in the 1920s or the mid-1950s television favorite, The Little Rascals. In both, Butch, the neighborhood tyrant, regularly tormented other members of the fun-loving, mischievous group. Though viewed in a primitive, comical setting that only early media could provide, bullying is no joke. And it is pervasive.

  Dr. Ron Iannotti Dr. Jing Wang


NICHD staff scientist Dr. Ron Iannotti (l) and research fellow Dr. Jing Wang (r) are currently investigating bullying behaviors in a study of 6th to 10th graders.

A large survey conducted in 2007 showed that nearly one-third of school-aged children reported having been bullied during the school year. And in another study, 53 percent of teens said that they had physically or verbally harassed someone else at school within the past 3 months.

In the aftermath of the recent, tragic bullying-related suicide of a 15-year-old girl in Massachusetts, as well as several other similar tragedies across the nation, parents and educators alike may be wondering “What makes someone a bully? What are the risk factors and can such behavior be prevented or thwarted?”

Evidence indicates that the key to raising a child who does not bully or take unfair advantage of others may lie, at least in part, in the home setting.

“What we do know, unequivocally, is that a warm, nurturing environment—where the child feels loved, important, safe and secure, enabling him or her to develop positive, social relationships—may decrease the odds of violent or bullying behaviors,” said Dr. Valerie Maholmes, director of the Social and Affective Development/Child Maltreatment and Violence Program, NICHD. While there are other risk factors for bullying, Maholmes added that a strong, secure attachment with parents and other role models helps kids explore the world and establish healthy relationships with others. Encouraging empathy at an early age is paramount also. On the contrary, parental neglect, abuse or a chaotic, unstructured home life may have the opposite effect.

Another NICHD staff scientist, Dr. Ron Iannotti, agrees that supportive family members can provide a buffering effect against bullying and other aberrant child or adolescent behaviors. The home is the proper place for social skills training, which he believes is critical to proper development and maturation.

Iannotti also suggests that “children who are exposed to violence at home are not only more likely to bully, but also they are more apt to become perpetrators of violence themselves.” Some of these findings are surfacing from his collaborative efforts with NIH research fellow Dr. Jing Wang; they are currently investigating bullying behaviors in a study of 6th to 10th grade students. The research is part of a larger protocol involving investigators from 40 other countries.

Evidence indicates that bullying peaks in middle school. Although the incidence of bullying in the U.S. has fallen—a trend not seen in any other country in the research that Iannotti and Wang conduct—the problem is still widespread and serious. And it’s not only males that are committing the offense. Experts note that female bullying is currently on the rise, often taking place via girl gangs.

Meanwhile, there are some gender differences in how children respond to an unhappy or frenzied home environment, setting the stage for engaging in or being the victim of violence.

“Males are more likely to exhibit externalizing behaviors such as physical aggression, while girls tend to internalize things. They may bully, but they are also more likely to exhibit depression, withdrawal or have eating disorders,” noted Maholmes.

While bullying is often viewed as a physical or verbal attack, today’s modern technology, in particular electronic media, has yielded another mode of attack: cyberbullying. This includes harassing or intimidating someone by text message, email or postings on social media sites such as MySpace or Facebook. The act has become so serious and widespread that some states are now trying to enact laws that make cyberbullying a misdemeanor.

The bottom line is that adults can take steps to keep their children from becoming bullies. Love your children, pay attention to them, give them emotional support, security and a stable home life and it will pay major dividends in this area, NIH researchers agree. NIHRecord Icon

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