Do your parenting practices contribute to bullying behaviors?

Pressuring kids to “fit in” and be popular can contribute to issues of bullying.

Most parents don’t want to think that their own parenting practices are contributing to issues of bullying in the lives of their kids. In her book Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear, author Carrie Goldman draws from the work of several scholars and shares information on parenting practices that can help prevent bullying – as well as those that can actually foster bullying behaviors.

Goldman cautions parents to be mindful of the ways that they may inadvertently put pressure on their children to be “popular” or to be liked by other kids, which can put kids at risk for being involved with bullying.

For example, if we have a habit of judging others (or ourselves) based on appearance (saying for example, “She has put on so much weight and is getting really fat!”), we model for children that being disrespectful and judging others based on their appearance is okay. One of the reasons this is so critical is that children in one comprehensive study said that physical appearance is the number one reason kids get bullied or called names.

Children take in verbal and non-verbal messages (for good or for ill) from their parents and other adults around them. These messages too often make young people feel pressured to “fit in” in ways that are not healthy to their overall identities around physical appearance, gender, skin color, sexuality and other aspects of themselves. Feeling pressured to fit in at all costs can lead youth (and adults) to participate in unhealthy relationships – or go along with the crowd in the face of hurtful, mean-spirited behaviors.

When kids are the target of bullying behaviors, they may feel shame, assume it’s their fault, blame themselves or internalize the damaging messages. Parents, families and adults in kids’ lives have important roles to play in helping kids develop resiliency by understanding the difference between fitting in and belonging.

Another way parents can foster resilient kids in the face of bullying is to practice what researcher and educator, Brené Brown calls “wholehearted parenting.”  Dr. Brown’s research on shame, vulnerability and courage illuminates several ways that parents can engage in wholehearted parenting with a focus on raising children who move through the world with courage and resiliency in the face of bullying and other challenging situations.

Goldman encourages parents to take issues of bullying seriously and resist the urge to label or dismiss their kid’s concerns as childhood “drama.” She urges parents to be present with their children by asking them open-ended questions, allowing them to talk, listening deeply and encouraging discussion about mutually acceptable solutions.

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for parents, youth workers and other adults to learn more about issues of bullying and ways to create safe, affirming and fair environments with and on behalf of young people.  For more information, check out a new initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.

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