Child bullies have troubled relationships with parents and peers

A new study by researchers at York University and Queen’s University shows children who bully tend to have troubled relationships with parents and friends and may continue to bully throughout their teens if those problems are not addressed early.

"Focusing on the child alone is not enough. Bullying is a relationship problem. Children who bully are using power and aggression to control others," says the study’s lead author Debra Pepler, a distinguished research professor of psychology at York and senior associate scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children. "We need to look at their relationships with their parents and with friends who may also bully."

Right: Debra Pepler

Many children bully their peers. However, there’s a small group of children – about 10 per cent – who bully persistently, says Pepler.

"If we can identify the children who are at high risk of bullying and give them intensive support when they are in elementary school, we may be able to interrupt a ‘career path’ of bullying that can lead to many relationship problems in their teens and even as adults," she says.

The study, "Developmental Trajectories of Bullying and Associated Factors," will appear in the March/April issue of Child Development, published by the Society for Research in Child Development. Queen’s University Professor Wendy Craig, York Professor Jennifer Connolly and statistician Depeng Jiang are co-authors with Pepler.

The researchers set out to examine how patterns of bullying behaviour develop as children age. During a seven-year period, they asked 871 Toronto students, from ages 10 to 18, about their involvement in bullying behaviour and questioned them about their relationships and other factors.

Over that time period, 9.9 per cent of the students reported they consistently engaged in high levels of bullying from elementary through high school and 13.4 per cent reported moderate levels of bullying in their early years, decreasing to almost no bullying in high school. About 35 per cent reported bullying at consistently moderate levels and 41.6 per cent reported almost never bullying.

The researchers compared the groups with differing patterns of bullying on individual risk factors such as physical aggression, but also considered family-related risk factors, such as the amount of parental monitoring, parental trust and conflict with parents. They also looked at peer bullying, conflict with peers and susceptibility to peer pressure.

The study found that in addition to being aggressive, many children who bully are morally disengaged – they lack compassion for those whom they victimize, or guilt for their actions.

Persistent bullying requires two types of interventions, the study concluded – interventions that focus on the child’s behaviour and problem-solving skills, and interventions that focus on their relationships with parents and peers.

The authors also conclude that future research should examine the links between bullying and other forms of relationship aggression such as dating aggression and sexual harassment.