"Children who have overprotective parents are more likely to be bullied by their peers," BBC News explains.
The news correctly presents the findings of a major study on the effects of parenting on a child’s risk of being bullied, but it focuses on the weakest finding of the research.
The study did suggest that overprotective parents may increase a child’s risk of being bullied by their peers. However, the study also found that children with neglectful or abusive parents had an even greater increased risk of being bullied.
The headlines could also have focused on the more positive results – researchers found that children brought up in an emotionally warm environment with clearly defined rules about right and wrong were less likely to be bullied. This finding is interesting given the recent news about the potentially positive effects of ‘tough-love’ parenting.
Further studies into the association between parenting and a child’s chance of being bullied could shed additional light on the importance of a parent’s behaviour. While the findings of this study are interesting, it is not easy to see how it could be used to persuade people to change their parenting styles for the better.
Of course a child can engage in bullying behaviour for a range of reasons. It is not always due to parental influence. The charity kidscape has more advice if you are concerned that your child may have been bullying others
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Warwick and Kingston University London and was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Qatar National Research Fund.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Child Abuse and Neglect.
Media coverage of this review largely focused on one of eight studied parenting styles (overprotection or “mollycoddling”). While the Daily Mail at least mentioned the larger detrimental effects of other parenting styles, some outlets (including the BBC News and the Daily Express) focused solely on the impact of overprotective parents.
The fact that the study found that a more positive parenting style – combining a mixture of emotional warmth and “firm but fair” rules – was linked with reduced chance of being bullied was not highlighted in the reporting of the study.
Researchers believe that family experiences and parenting style before children start school can influence the child’s capacity to adapt and cope at school. This can influence their relationships with schoolmates, making a child less, or more, vulnerable to bullying from their peers.
The researchers pooled the results from both prospective cohort studies and cross-sectional studies. This was to investigate the association between parenting behaviour and victimisation, and from this to identify parenting styles and family relationships that may increase the risk of victimisation.
The researchers searched the available literature for cohort and cross-sectional studies of the association between parenting behaviour and peer victimisation or bullying. They included studies that were published between 1970 and 2012 and provided a measure of relational, physical, verbal or cyberbullying.
The researchers identified parenting variables that they classified into positive and negative parenting behaviours.
The positive parenting behaviours were:
The negative parenting behaviours were:
The researchers included studies that recorded two types of child outcomes – victims and those who were both bullies and victims (bully/victims). They pooled the results of identified studies for each of these parenting styles to determine whether there were specific types of parenting behaviour that were associated with either the risk of being bullied or becoming a bully/victim.
The size of the effect of parenting on a child’s risk of being bullied or becoming a bully/victim was estimated using a statistical scale called 'Hedge’s g'. This scale is widely used to assess the impact of different types of effect or effect size. For example:
A negative effect indicates a lower likelihood of victims of bullying having parents with that particular behaviour or style compared with non-victims.
The researchers identified 70 cohort and cross-sectional studies that met the inclusion criteria. These studies included 208,778 children and young people aged between 4 and 25 years. The researchers found that different parenting styles were associated with varying risk of being bullied or becoming a bully/victim.
Both victims and bully/victims were more likely to be exposed to negative parenting behaviour including abuse and neglect as well as maladaptive and overprotective parenting (effect size 0.26, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.16 to 0.37). When examining the types of negative parenting styles, the researchers found that all had a significant association with victimisation, including:
Conversely, overall, positive parenting behaviour had a small but significant effect, reducing the likelihood of the child being bullied or becoming a bully/victim (effect size -0.19, 95% CI -0.23 to -0.15). All five of their selected styles were associated with lower likelihood of being bullied:
For victims, the effects were generally small to moderate for positive parenting styles (effect size -0.12 to -22) and negative parenting styles (effect size 0.10 to 0.31). For bully/victims the effects were generally moderate for positive parenting styles (-0.17 to -0.42) and negative parenting styles (0.13 to 0.68).
The researchers concluded that negative parenting styles are associated with “small to moderate effects on victim status at school” and that “intervention programs against bullying should extend their focus beyond schools to include families and start before children enter school”.
This research suggests that certain parenting styles may protect children against bullying risk. These include:
On the other hand, negative parenting styles were linked with an increased likelihood of being bullied. The researchers defined negative parenting styles as both “caring too much” or being overprotective and “not caring enough” or being neglectful.
Most of the headlines state that ‘mollycoddling’ your children increases their risk of being bullied. While these headlines are supported by this research, overprotective parenting styles were in fact associated with the smallest effect on bullying risk of the eight styles investigated.
The researchers point out that the other two negative parenting styles (abuse and neglect, and maladaptive parenting) were far more likely to increase the risk of a child being bullied.
The review assessed the effects of these parenting behaviours on the likelihood of the child both being a victim of bullying as well as bullying others. Generally, the relationships between parenting and the child bullying others were stronger than those between parenting and victimisation alone. Sadly, this more important finding was largely ignored by the media.
The researchers suggest that, “intervention programs that target children who are exposed to harsh or abusive parenting, may prevent peer victimization”. They also conclude that “parental training programs may be necessary to strengthen supportive involvement and warm and affectionate parenting to improve family relationships and prevent or reduce victimization by peers”.
Read more advice and information about bullying.