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The Connection Between Parenting Style and Bullying

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

We’ll open this article with an assertion we found in several blog posts and articles while researching this topic:

Children who get bullied by their parents will bully other kids when they get a chance.

Next, we’ll ask you a question:

Do you agree with that statement?

If you do, research supports your opinion. Studies show that parenting styles that resemble bullying, meaning they involve insults, mockery, and a lack of empathy for the feelings of the child, are associated with increased bullying behavior in children. However, a new study shows that sometimes this type of parenting has the opposite effect: mockery, insults, or derision from parents increases the likelihood that a child will be the victim of bullying.

It’s possible that both are true. After all, each child is unique and responds to the dominant parenting style in their family in their own way.

What the new study shows is that both engaging in bullying behavior and being the victim of bullying behavior are potential consequences of a parenting style that includes mockery, derision, and a lack of emotional support and empathy for the feelings of the child.

Further, the paper describes a common consequence of the derisive parenting style, which unites the bully and the bullying victim: dysregulated anger.

Derisive Parenting and Dysregulated Anger

Parenting experts identify four distinct parenting styles: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and neglectful. In the authoritarian style, everything is black and white. Parents rarely explain the rules and consequences. This is the classic my way or the highway approach. The authoritative style is different. Parents establish and maintain authority, but they don’t rule with an iron fist. They set firm boundaries but take the time to explain to kids the whys and wherefores of the rules. Rules and consequences are still firm, but the children have more agency than in an authoritarian household. In the permissive style, parents set few boundaries – outside of those directly related to physical safety – and allow children to make their own decisions with regards to things like bedtime, curfew, after-school activities, and peers. Finally, the neglectful style of parenting is characterized by low parent engagement and a near-complete lack of rules, guidance, and emotional support.

The new research establishes that the authoritarian style of parenting often includes a derisive element. Parents who are derisive may respond to their children’s attempts to engage with them in the following ways:

  • Criticism
  • Sarcasm
  • Put-downs
  • Hostility

In addition, an authoritarian parenting style with derisive elements may include the following tactics for enforcing family rules:

  • Threats
  • Physical coercion
  • Emotional coercion
  • Threat of physical and emotional coercion
  • Physical or emotional dominance

The result of these types of parent-child interactions – for the child – is an increased likelihood of developing emotional dysregulation. In particular, children who experience bullying from their parents are more likely to have problems processing and expressing anger than children who do not experience bullying from their parents.

A Victim Mentality

Most people understand why kids who get bullied by their parents might become bullies themselves. They simply mimic the behavior of their parents. When they interact with peers, especially those who may be weaker and more vulnerable than them – parallel to the weakness and vulnerability they experience in relation to their parents – they treat those peers the same way they’re treated by their parents. They default to derision, criticism, sarcasm, put-downs, and hostility. They may also engage in threats of physical coercion or outright violence, such as pushing or hitting.

In short, they develop a bully mentality because they learned it from their parents.

There’s another potential consequence of derisive parenting, though. Instead of learning how to be bullies, children bullied by their parents may learn how to become victims. And this learned behavior may manifest in peer relationships when the child is away from the home.

Here’s what the study authors have to say about this phenomenon, known as socialized victimization:

“When children regularly experience what they perceive to be threatening or coercive parenting, their sense of self may be undermined, and they may feel powerless and ineffectual as a result. Ultimately, when faced with threatening behaviors from peers (whether real or imagined) these children will likely similarly default to a subordinate, or passive role which is unlikely to be an effective interpersonal strategy given that it does little to prevent further victimization.”

We now see two sides to the coin of derisive parenting: on the one side, a child learns to be a bully, whereas on the other side, a child learns how to be a victim.

What Parents Can Do

If you’re reading this article, we’ll go out on a limb and presume something about your parenting style. It likely falls somewhere in the authoritative or permissive categories. We say this because an authoritarian parent might not be interested in anyone else’s opinion (ours, for instance) about their parenting. A my way or the highway type person already knows what their way is. They don’t need outside input. On the other side of the parenting style spectrum, a neglectful parent is probably not engaged enough in the life of their child to take the time to find and read an article like this.

We may be wrong, though. In fact, we hope we are. We encourage both authoritarian and neglectful parents to read about the effect their parenting style may have on their children. Then they can decide if they need to make adjustments or continue parenting the way they are now.

For the rest of the parents – those who fall somewhere between the two extremes – the takeaway from the new research we present above is this: pay close attention to the content and manner of your interactions with your children. It’s surprisingly easy to watch your child do something – a chore or a sport, for example – and drop a casual, semi-sarcastic comment that your child may interpret as critical, fully sarcastic, insulting, and hostile all at the same time.

Here’s something important to know: even the best parents on earth do this, on occasion.

Be Mindful of Your Words

That’s why all parents need to monitor the way they interact with their kids. All parents, without exception, need to understand this point. Critical, belittling, and sarcastic comments, which in the moment may seem harmless or all in good fun, can have cumulative, detrimental effects on the emotional health of children. Those effects can persist well into adolescence and beyond. Therefore, before you speak, take a moment to consider the effect your words may have on your child: what you say today has a significant influence on who they become tomorrow.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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