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The Parent Coach: How Homelife Can Lead To Bullying

Dr. Steven Richfield  


A parent writes: It seems to me that kids are bullying and taunting more these days than I remember when I was young. Why is that? Is there something that parents are overlooking that is planting the seeds for this widespread problem?


The roots of bullying behaviors dig deep into the fabric of our culture, setting the stage for a host of responses our children learn from an early age. Intolerance and discrimination are two long-standing cultivators of bullying, especially when kids are confronted by obvious social or racial differences between themselves and others. When these distinctions lessen, as in many suburban communities, some children refer to other areas to polarize and foster antagonism.

Areas such as athletics, academics, appearance, popularity, habits, attire and a myriad of others become the grist for the “judgment mill” that quickly separates the “haves” from the “have-nots.” Certain kids call attention to these distinctions and reinforce them by inflicting pain upon those whom they deem lacking.

Parents may mistakenly believe that their child is not prone to such social intolerance. This is because many pathways to bullying fall outside of parental awareness even though they are apparent everyday at home:

Intense sibling conflict leaves children ripe for enacting similar social conflicts.
The callous and mean-spirited behaviors fueled by negative feelings towards one’s sibling(s) seeks expression within the peer group. This bullying pathway typically takes the form of an intense, yet groundless, dislike for another child. It appears as if the bullying child “needs” an enemy to despise and look down upon, as if trying to discharge  pent up feelings  and “even” some kind of score. Parents with children embroiled in hostile  rivalries are urged to closely examine how much  negativity is being repeated in their kids’ peer relationships. Carefully listening to how your children talk about their peers is one way to determine if rivalry has sown the seeds for bullying.    

* Feelings of low self-worth, anger, and sadness create a combustible combination when confronted by the presence of happy, well-adjusted peers. Imagine the raw frustration when angry and unhappy kids must endure the daily happiness of their peers. Bullies emerge with a “misery loves company” agenda, capitalizing upon random opportunities to deflate a popular kid, further humiliate an unpopular one, or taunt a committed teacher. Children who follow this bullying pathway are often critical and moody, fixated upon what is wrong with people and events around them.

If your child fits this description it behooves you to offer them a nonjudgmental ear and understanding voice.

Gently ask if their unhappiness ever makes them want to hurt others. Suggest that this is understandable, yet not acceptable.  Brainstorm ways to help them feel better quickly.

Exposure to judgmental, narrow-minded views plants judgmental, narrow-minded attitudes.  
Some parents overlook how their own biases and other “perceptual filters” are absorbed by their children. Just because children may not always “listen” to our requests and instructions doesn’t mean they aren’t intently listening to our views of other kids, parents, teachers, neighbors, and so on. These views may then be adopted to a more extreme degree, since kids often don’t understand the context within which they are expressed. Signs of this bullying pathway surface in the form of sarcastic and inappropriate comments that sound more like an adult’s inner thoughts than a child’s perceptions. Other adults and children may be especially struck by the “adult nature” of the child’s statements and quietly suspect that these views have been heard at home. If this circumstance exists at home it is critical to discuss it in an open and nondefensive manner, taking responsibility for unfortunate  “social programming” that has already aired. Try to do a better job at shielding children from bias and innuendo, and someday they will appreciate the freedom to accept others as they are, not as parent’s measure them.

Dr. Steven Richfield is a child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA.  He can be contacted at 610-275-0178 or