Understanding a Parent’s Role in Bullying: Clinical Psychologist POV

Dr. Tim Cavell headshot

Written by: Lianne Castelino

Published: Nov 9, 2021

Online or offline, at home, school or in the workplace, bullying, increasingly, appears to be on the public consciousness.

Victims, perpetrators and bystanders all play key roles in the equation, and so do parents.

Lianne Castelino of Where Parents Talk speaks to Dr. Tim Cavell, a clinical child and family psychologist, social scientist and professor at the University of Arkansas about a parent’s role in a bullying scenario.

Click for video transcription

Welcome to Where Parents Talk. I’m Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a father of three, a clinical Child and Family psychologist in practice. a social scientist professor at the University of Arkansas and author. Dr. Tim Cavell is also a prevention researcher whose work has been funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Institute of Education Sciences. Dr. Cavell joins us from Fayetteville, Arkansas. Thank you so much for being here.

Glad to be here.

I wanted to start with a fairly broad question. But I wanted to get your perspective on it as somebody that’s on the front lines of this in many ways as a researcher, and that is what concerns you most about where we are in society today, on the subject of bullying.

I think we’ve mischaracterized it a bit. I think if it’s characterized strictly as a bad kid, teasing tormenting another kid, I think we’ve we sometimes miss the boat, the complexity of it. And so it can make it difficult to counter a difficult problem to solve. And, and our research shows us that that there still is this recurring problem, and schools struggle with it still parents struggle with it. And so I think we need to be thinking more broadly, about what’s happening when kids are bullied. It’s not simply a bad actor who’s allowed to, you know, to, to, on their own torment other kids, sometimes it’s a problem of a child being excluded. And so we may need to think our take our thinking and our efforts to how can we be inclusive? Not just how do we contain the bad actor, but how can we be inclusive of a child that has been separated from the group and is therefore more vulnerable to being bullied?

So social circles, and you know, the social sort of piece around each child is important. Well, what do parents need to keep in mind about that, then?

Well, one thing to keep in mind is that it peaks bullying peaks in middle school. Now, I’m not sure about the the grade levels in Canada, but in the US, it’s primary, middle, high school, generally speaking. And, and so the middle grade level is where you have children have left elementary school, and they arrive at this big sorting part of middle school. And they don’t know where they’re fall socially. And yet, it’s really important that they feel accepted. And there’s where bullying is used most often to gain social ground, to gain status and to to dominate others. What happens after that in high school, is sort of what happens more generally in society is that people form smaller cliques or groups, and you’re you you’re with your friends, or with the people that you identify with as your people. But in middle school, there’s, there’s not these clearly defined groups, everyone is trying to be in the great middle and not be left out. But some are, and then those that are left out, or other eyes and sometimes pretty vulnerable to being bullied. So I would say the first thing to recognize is that this is going to be a child being bullied is, is not uncommon in middle school, and that if you’re a parent whose child is being bullied, then you want to think about how can I help my child feel accepted, to have a friend to have a peer group that that he or she feels connected with, that’s probably a better more productive path than simply pursuing the end of bullying. I mean, I don’t want to say disregard efforts to end bullying, that’s important to have your child be protected at school. But know that the other side of the equation is helping help your child be accepted to have friends, and to feel part of a group.

So it’s an interesting point, because you know, how much of the onus on what you just described is on the child, him or herself versus the parent or the teacher, that is to say, you know, how much of that socialization is got to be dictated by the childhood in question?

That’s a great question. So know this, that a child who’s been excluded and is being bullied, cannot himself or herself, turn the tide on that they you know, so it doesn’t do a whole lot of good to train that child to behave in a particular way. Just walk away joke alongs. You know, don’t take the teasing personally, whatever the advice typically is, it’s typically not enough to turn the tide on what they’re going through. It’s a pretty difficult story that they’re trying to battle about them. So it usually requires some interventions and changing the peer ecology in some way. You know, one way to do that is put the child in another school. So you’re actually creating a new narrative, social narrative for that child. What we do in our research is we use school based mentoring. Okay, so we have college student mentors, who, again, this is in the US, because you know, they have cafeterias at school. They eat lunch twice a week with a child that they’re being meant that they’re mentoring, and that child has often a child is being bullied. So imagine what it was what it would be like, if you’re a bully child to have a fun, cool college student visit you twice a week at the lunch table. So you may go from suddenly being a pariah social pariah someone who’s being tormented to someone who’s somewhat popular and appealing because your mentors there. And and so we have found some pretty promising results so far with that, that approach to mentoring.

Now, when we talk about the bullied child, a child who’s chronically bullied over time, could you paint a picture of what that looks like? From a broad view, when that child consistently encounters that same behavior over time?

Sure, sure, no, it’s another good question. It, it can often begin with a child who’s distinct in some way, maybe physically, the state, maybe a member of a cultural ethnic minority group, may have a disability of some time, maybe, you know, from a family with few resources, so they don’t, you know, don’t dress nicely. Anything that that in the eyes of peers, my justify setting them apart, stigmatizing that child, and once excluded, then you can have the whole group turn on you, and tease you because you’re now not one of us. Now, the other thing that can happen though, is that if you’re the child receiving that treatment, if you’re the one stigmatize excluded and bullied, that, that can take on a life of its own for you that could become your social standing. I’m that kid who’s treated this way. And and what can happen over time, unfortunately, as children start to believe that about themselves, then it becomes a rather stable self view. And they can even start blaming themselves and for the, for the bullying that they receive. And when that belief is carried forward, that this is me, this is who I am, I’m not likeable, I deserve to be treated this way. I don’t deserve any better than of course, can can predict a lot of negative outcome comes down the road, including depression, anxiety, suicide, etc.

 

So in that case, what is a parent’s role? And at what point is outside intervention by professionals required?

 

Good point. Let’s see. It’s I would say, first of all, let me just let me say it’s a difficult thing for a parent to try to deal with, it’s a difficult thing to endure, it hurts when your child is being tormented, it really hurts and your heart breaks for them. And, and, and the tendency is to want to go up to the school and say, you’ve got to protect my child and make it better. And oftentimes, schools aren’t sure how to make it better. They may not know how to make it better. And I think there’s some truth to that. So it can be a difficult thing I would say professional help comes when your child starts to show us an inclination to stay home, not want to go to school, any sort of psychosomatic sort of complaints like stomach aches, headaches, certainly any overt signs of anxiety or depression and maybe an irritability. And unfortunately, children who are bullied are not great at telling people that they want help or need help, they typically don’t trust that help will happen. There’s a tendency for the part of bullied children to not want parents to intervene because they fear parents will just simply make it worse.

And again, unless parents know what to do it, that’s not an unfounded position. You know, how can a parent help? Well, again, if you’re, if you’re an elementary school child, and that’s, that’s what’s happening, being able to increase that child’s social status at school could help you know, maybe helping that child make friends, maybe going to visit that child during the day and getting introducing him to friends that could work. You want to be creative about how can I connect my child to some of his his or her classmates in a positive way or at least establish one or two friendships. Oftentimes that can that can be enough to to prevent that child from being chronically bullied.

I’d like to turn to the child who is a bully for a moment and ask you about what are some of the tell-tale signs, hallmarks or behavior patterns that could potentially lead a child to become a bully?

I think a tendency to be aggressive and coercive in their interactions with others, which often begins at home. And what can happen is that behavior which is learned at home with, with parents, perhaps and blowing up and getting angry and defiant with parents, being aggressive with siblings can be exported to school and to the playground. And it can become a primary tool for influencing others. Oftentimes, it’s made worse when the children are also poorly regulated emotionally. So they get really angry quickly, they have difficulty coming down from their anger. And so you know, lash out at others. And so you have a child who’s irritable, who’s unhappy, who’s angry, who probably has strained relationships with family members, teachers and peers, they’re trying to find their place in the world and, and it’s hard to feel accepted. So they’re, they’re there, they may actually be difficult children to like. And so they’re using bullying as a way to find a place. Now, that said, there are some bullies who are actually rather popular, they use their social status as a way to demean others to others. And so they’ve gained some social ground and use that in a negative way. That’s, that’s more often the case with like Middle School, you know, less so and the high school, although you get some folks that are that hold on to their popularity by using bullying.

So in that vein, with a child who is a bully, what does the science say if anything about practical steps that parent of a bully can and should take to address the behavior stop that behavior, mitigate the behavior?

I think the most important thing is to have a home and a family where the cardinal rule is we don’t hurt others. We don’t bully others. Bullying is not allowed here. And we don’t want bullying used outside of here. And that it has to be said in a very unequivocal firm way. And it has to be followed through. I say that because parents may be on unaware of how children’s use of coercion in the home and aggression with siblings is going to put their child at risk. And I’m saying it’s an important risk factor. So if you can establish a home and a family that’s peaceful, where people don’t hurt others, where bullying is not allowed with our strong messages about that, that your family stands for, for treating people. Well, with respect, that’s probably one of the best things you can do. And then making them the home one where people feel loved and accepted.

You alluded to the role of the school in all of this. And I wonder, because you hear so many stories, and you read so many stories in the media about, you know, a bullying incident takes place, the parents are called into the school. There’s an exchange, either it goes well, or it doesn’t go well. But my question really is what generally, do you believe the role of a school in a bullying incident should be?

Number one is to protect the victim. And that could mean more monitoring more carefully what’s happening to this child, in the hallway, and in the on the playground and other places that are not so structured, where there’s less supervision, listening to the job, believing the child, not dismissing concerns that the child has about being bullied, providing some supportive safety, I guess, is the best thing and the most important thing that school can do. And then after that, I think it would be working collaboratively collaboratively with teachers and parents about what can we do so this child feels more a member of the community at this school, and it’s less likely to be excluded and made vulnerable to bullying.

So on that note, you had said earlier that in some cases, the only alternative may just be to move and switch schools. Is there a tipping point that then makes that decision for a family in that case?

I wish I knew that. It’s a great question. I have tried to find research on this question published. Research, I have not been able to, I may have to do some of that myself.

But it’s it’s the sort of thing that is used by families who have had to deal with this problem. But I don’t know if researchers have systematically studied, you know, when is the best time to do this? What are the what are the conditions under which it should be done? How often does it actually help? I mean, what one one alternative hypothesis is that, well, if the child moves to another school, he or she would just be bullied all over again. And my contention is that not necessarily so because it because what’s happens is, it’s not as if Now there are some children that are behaving in ways that invite bullying. But there are a lot of children who, for whom there is a social narrative, that’s being a reputation about them, that is getting them open to bullying. And when you move to another school, you can, you can write a new narrative, there’s, I mean, unless you go to a school where there’s kids who know the other kids back at the school, that’s unlikely to happen. So it’s, it’s an area of research that needs to be pursued. And unfortunately, it’s not. It’s not an established area research at this point.

On the subject of bystanders, and this is something we’re increasingly hearing about because of the prevalence of bullying, I would imagine. But what generally should a parent suggest to their child, if he or she has witnessed a bullying incident, and they are a bystander, because, as you know better than I, that role of a bystander brings with it a whole, you know, litany of different questions and fears, and all kinds of things. So I’m wondering what advice you would give to parents to then give their children

Be a good friend. I think that’s the simplest way to put it be a good friend.

And it goes back to this, you know, what is your family value, you value respecting others, treating others well, supporting others. And being a friend to those who might need you. That’s not an easy thing to do, in a social situation where kids are,

want to be seen as a part of the group, who don’t want to be mean, there’s a price to pay for, for kids who try to come in and befriend or defend someone who’s being bullied. There’s a term that’s used, called social contamination, that if you’re being bullied, then I risk social contamination by interacting with you and trying to be your friend and defend you. If it could harm my social status. Okay, it’s a it’s an odd thing to describe. But that’s that’s essentially what can happen is that Oh, you’re you’re putting your you’re planting your flag over there with that person, you know, you’re not part of us anymore. You can see where there’s some social risk to being supported by standard.

Yeah, definitely. I want to talk to you about mentorship. And you alluded to the research that you’ve done, and the programs that you’ve run in schools around mentorship. But is there anything else that you think parents need to know about? Being good mentors, or surrounding their kids with strong mentors?

Well, let me just briefly describe our program, we run a bit evaluating a mentoring program that involves placing college student mentors, pairing them with a student who’s being bullied at school. And these mentors go visit these kids at school twice a week. And the idea is that if a child can’t change how peers perceive him or her, a friendly mentor can a friendly, cool mentor can and change the way other kids see that chart. And so we insert the mentor into that period ecology as a way to, to shake things up. So it’s the child’s not seen in the same way. So I would say to parents, you know, think about how a mentor, particularly a school based mentor could be quite a useful strategy for your child. Now, here’s the interesting thing to note about this. So you may or may not know that most mentoring programs are described as one on one. So you have a child meeting with a with a mentor, and they they typically meet apart from other people, it’s a one on one. And the supposition there is that while you want there to be a close bond, and the quality of that bond determines whether children benefit.

The kind of mentoring we do, the child and the mentor almost never meet alone. They’re almost always with their peers with the with. And the idea is that the target is not the relationship between the child and the mentor. It’s really more of that relationship between the child and his or her peers. Right and the mentor can come in and shake that up and make that better. And so if you isolate the activities of the mentor

Charge, you won’t have that. So it’s sort of counterintuitive. If that makes sense.

It does. And and the way you describe it, it sounds game changing right to, to go from that one on one relationship to the group. And anyhow, I’m not a research scientist, but just the way you explained it makes perfect sense to me. I wanted to close with a quote that I read on your website, Dr. Cavell, which really did strike me. And it says, quote, parenting is less about managing our children’s behavior in the short term, and more about managing our relationships with them in the long term. I wondered if you could shed some light on what you mean, in that quote, as it relates to what we’ve discussed today. 

Yeah, so I just finished writing a book that’ll be coming out soon, with my co author called, “I love my child, but.” and it’s a book for parents that basically lays out this this theme that you just mentioned, about a long term relationship with your child. That’s what parenting is, it’s a relationship that, you know, lasted for most of us 18 plus years. And oftentimes, when we read about good parenting or effective parenting, it’s often portrayed in I think, in rather narrow terms, using this particular technique, or that particular skill, and, and having the, you know, children who comply or obey at every single command. Well, children are different, some are much easier to parent than others, parents differ. Some are some parents are much chillier than others. And so the idea is for the parent and the child to find a way to be in a relationship over time, where aggression is not what’s used. coercion is not what you use, but there’s respect mutual respect, and kids can parents can enjoy each other. So that requires that parents have some capacity to manage that relationship over time. And and we write it about it as involving being accepting of the child limiting or containing the child’s misbehavior when it crosses the line, although in a selective way, so it’s important to be selective about which misbehaviors you go after. Because if you go after too many, you can weigh the relationship down. And then the third piece is leading being an example to your child. So if your behavior is such that you don’t hurt others, you treat others with respect, you’re a good friend, and you are respectful of your child accepting your child, you set firm limits on your child, then that example that you provide will be followed and will be carried forward. And that’s what the job of parenting is, is providing a relationship that exists over time that a child wants to be part of the child is held accountable. And the parents provide a good example.

I’d like to end on an optimistic note, because clearly, these are, you know, heavy topics that do weigh heavily in families and on children and individuals and educational institutions. But why wondered what gives you hope, in this sphere, when we’re talking about bullying?

It gives me a lot, I think there’s a lot of great people invested in trying to understand and do something about bullying. I know, researchers all over the world, and very clever, very impressive work that’s being done. So that makes me optimistic gives me hope. But I would also say to parents and families that I meet, give me hope.

If there’ll be one message I would give to parents is don’t underestimate the power of your love for your child. Don’t underestimate that as a tool that you can use to guide your child, your children to behave better to treat others with respect. Sometimes I think parents are reluctant to risk that that relationship, they may see it as too frail and they’ll they’ll allow things to happen that aren’t warranted. But I would say use the relationship, make it good and then use it to your loves so that your child can can have a beacon to follow. So be that beacon lead your child. And, and I think that’s that’s my advice.

Lots of wonderful food for thought Dr. Tim Cavell Child and Family psychologist, University of Arkansas professor and research scientist. We really appreciate you taking the time to join us today.

It was fun. Thank you

As a prevention researcher, Dr. Cavell has worked with troubled children and families, rebellious adolescents and teens suffering with mental health challenges.
His work has been funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Institute of Education Sciences. He is also a father of three.

Here is an excerpt of the video interview:

What concerns you most about where we are in society today, on the subject of bullying?

I think we need to be thinking more broadly, about what’s happening when kids are bullied. It’s not simply a bad actor who’s allowed to, on their own torment other kids. Sometimes it’s a problem of a child being excluded. And so we may need to shift our thinking and our efforts to how can we be inclusive. Not just how do we contain the bad actor, but how can we be inclusive of a child that has been separated from the group and is therefore more vulnerable to being bullied?

When it comes to the social piece around a child, what do parents need to keep in mind?

Well, one thing to keep in mind is that it peaks bullying peaks in middle school. The middle grade level is where you have children who have left elementary school, and they arrive at this big part of middle school. And they don’t know where they fall socially. And yet, it’s really important that they feel accepted. And there’s where bullying is used most often to gain social ground, to gain status and to dominate others. What happens after that in high school, is sort of what happens more generally in society is that people form smaller cliques or groups, and you’re with your friends, or with the people that you identify with as your people. But in middle school, there’s not these clearly defined groups. Everyone is trying to be in the great middle and not be left out.

If you’re a parent whose child is being bullied, then you want to think about how can I help my child feel accepted, to have a friend to have a peer group that that he or she feels connected with, that’s probably a better more productive path than simply pursuing the end of bullying. I mean, I don’t want to say disregard efforts to end bullying, that’s important to have your child be protected at school. But know that the other side of the equation is helping help your child be accepted to have friends, and to feel part of a group.

At what point is outside intervention by professionals required?

It’s a difficult thing for a parent to try to deal with, it’s a difficult thing to endure, it hurts when your child is being tormented, it really hurts and your heart breaks for them. And, the tendency is to want to go up to the school and say, you’ve got to protect my child and make it better. And oftentimes, schools aren’t sure how to make it better. They may not know how to make it better. And I think there’s some truth to that. So it can be a difficult thing.

I would say professional help comes when your child starts to show an inclination to stay home, not want to go to school, any sort of psychosomatic sort of complaints like stomach aches, headaches, certainly any overt signs of anxiety or depression and maybe an irritability. And unfortunately, children who are bullied are not great at telling people that they want help or need help. They typically don’t trust that help will happen. There’s a tendency for the part of bullied children to not want parents to intervene because they fear parents will just simply make it worse.

You want to be creative about how can I connect my child to some of his or her classmates in a positive way or at least establish one or two friendships. Oftentimes that can be enough to prevent that child from being chronically bullied.

What are some of the tell-tale signs, hallmarks or behaviour patterns that could potentially lead a child to become a bully?

I think a tendency to be aggressive and coercive in their interactions with others, which often begins at home. And what can happen is that behavior which is learned at home with parents, perhaps and blowing up and getting angry and defiant with parents, being aggressive with siblings can be exported to school and to the playground. And it can become a primary tool for influencing others. Oftentimes, it’s made worse when the children are also poorly regulated emotionally. So they get really angry quickly, they have difficulty coming down from their anger. And so lash out at others. So you have a child who’s irritable, who’s unhappy, who’s angry, who probably has strained relationships with family members, teachers and peers, they’re trying to find their place in the world and, and it’s hard to feel accepted. They may actually be difficult children to like. And so they’re using bullying as a way to find a place. Now, that said, there are some bullies who are actually rather popular. They use their social status as a way to demean others to others. And so they’ve gained some social ground and use that in a negative way. That’s, that’s more often the case in Middle School, less so in high school, although you get some folks that are that hold on to their popularity by using bullying.

During his interview with Where Parents Talk, Dr. Cavell also discusses:

  • The role of educators and a school in a bullying scenario
  • Strategies to manage bystander behaviour
  • The use of mentorship to address bullying behaviour

Related links:

DrTimCavell.com

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