Bullying: A Problem That Starts and Ends at HomeUnless it’s happening to your child, you probably haven’t given bullying a lot of thought. A bold Wisconsin town is trying to change that by hitting parents where it counts: in the pocketbook. Under the town’s “parent liability” approach, parents of bullies who do not cooperate with authorities in addressing their child’s behavior can be fined up to $177 for each instance of intimidation or abuse.

While this approach sends a strong anti-bullying message, it has left the rest of the nation asking: Are parents to blame if their child is a bully? If so, is punishment the best way to get parents’ attention?

Home Is Where the Lesson Is

When people think about bullying, their first question is, “What’s happening at school?” But bullying is an issue long before children step foot on campus. For many children, bullying is a learned behavior. Parents, caretakers and relatives can be bullies, and their influence is even stronger than peers because it comes from people who purportedly love the child and are the ultimate authority in the child’s life.

Research shows that a harsh or negative parenting style is more likely to produce children who are bullies and victims of bullying than an emotionally warm environment with clear rules and supervision. Negative parenting includes obvious offenses like abuse and neglect, but also subtler forms of negative role modeling such as name-calling, threatening, manipulating and persistent teasing. Children learn from the way they’re treated, as well as the way their parents treat each other and the way their parents talk about other people.

Home is where empathy is learned or not learned, and school is where the lessons learned at home get played out. If relationships at home are based on fear and intimidation, children are more likely to use the same tactics with their peers. School bullies and victims are significantly more likely to report being physically hurt by a family member or witnessing violence at home than children who had not been bullied. Kids who are involved in bullying are also more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol and are at higher risk for depression and suicide.

To a lesser extent, children of overprotective parents – those who buffer their children from all negative experiences – are also at increased risk of bullying. Similarly, parents who have difficulty saying “no” to their child or foster a sense of entitlement may also inadvertently contribute to bullying behavior.

Mediating Sibling Disputes

Even if you’re a model parent, have you given much thought to the other influences in your home, including the interactions between siblings? While rivalry is part of siblinghood, a new study reveals that ongoing, targeted harassment directed at one sibling can come at the expense of the child’s mental health. Sibling bullying is not relationship-building or training for the real world, as some parents think. It can have the same effects as school bullying by peers, including depression, anxiety and anger, even after just one incident.

This is yet another area where parents can model problem-solving, communication and conflict resolution skills. When siblings fight, bloodshed shouldn’t be the only impetus for parental involvement. While parents can’t (and shouldn’t) attempt to solve all of their children’s interpersonal conflicts, a little mediation can turn squabbles into a learning opportunity rather than a lifelong emotional scar. It can also help parents detect any emotional and behavioral issues early on and prevent frustrations from getting acted out at school.

Is a ‘Bully Tax’ the Answer?

Parents play a critical role in how their child behaves, but should they be held responsible if their child turns into a school bully? After all, there are a number of factors beyond parenting that impact behavior, including social, cultural and economic issues, as well as other influences that could contribute to bullying behaviors, such as teachers and other authority figures.

We all want our children to be protected from bullies, but we must take care not to become bullies ourselves or inadvertently make the problem worse. For instance, once they incur a penalty, will parents address the problem and their role in it, or will they turn around and threaten or abuse their child for drawing negative attention to the family? Is this “bully tax” distinguishable from throwing an addict in jail rather than addressing the underlying issues? Ideally, parenting classes, therapy or support groups would be a plausible alternative that offered education rather than just punishment.

Even if bullying isn’t solely attributable to parents, parents are in the best position to do something to resolve the problem. Although punishment may not be the best answer, the Wisconsin law might encourage those parents who are the biggest contributors to the problem – those who don’t see a problem at all – to take a closer look.