Parents May Be Teaching Teens to Be Bullies

Kelsey Sheehy

When Wisconsin news anchor Jennifer Livingston was called fat by a viewer, she got a firsthand taste of the kind of bullying many high school students confront on a daily basis.

More than 20 percent of teens report being the target of name calling, 18 percent say they were the subject of rumors, and 17 percent reported either physical harassment--shoving, tripping, or being spit on--or the threat of violent actions, according to a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Education.

[Get tips to help your bullied teen.]

This behavior is often learned by example, Livingston said during an on-air response to her bully, noting that October is National Bullying Prevention Month. And more often than not, parents are the ones setting that example, experts say.

"If you are at home and you're talking about the fat news anchor, guess what, your children are probably going to go to school and call someone fat," Livingston said.

While few parents aim to instill bad habits in their children, there are several ways they may inadvertently teach their teens to bully, says Jeff Brown, a licensed psychologist and assistant clinical professor of psychology in the psychiatry department at Harvard University.

Students pick up on how parents talk about others, but they are also tuned into how their parents treat one another, he says.

"Do they see mom bullying dad, or dad bullying mom? Man, that is a powerful way ... to influence behaviors," Brown says.

Bullying between parents can take the form of overt verbal abuse, but it can also be a more subtle over-extension of power, he adds.

"[If] dad is demanding and things need to be done for him all the time, and mom has to see about everything ... almost like his personal assistant, the kid might go out and try that as well just because it was modeled," he says.

Fostering a sense of entitlement in teens who excel academically or athletically is another way well-intentioned parents may inadvertently breed bullies, says Nicole Yetter, an educational consultant and high school guidance counselor in the Philadelphia suburbs.

[Learn why school buses can be hotbeds for bullying.]

Common perceptions of teens who bully is that they have low self-esteem, but recent research shows the opposite may also be true, Yetter says.

"Some of the kids who demonstrate that bullying behavior actually are very entitled. They feel very empowered; they feel very grandiose," she says.

In some cases, those teens even bully their parents, says Harvard's Brown.

"If you've not had limits, your kid hasn't been able to hear the word 'no,' that's scary because that is definitely a breeding ground for bullying," he says. "When a kid can bully parents, the sky is the limit for them at that point."

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