A new UNIVERSITY of Michigan study shows that for girls, however, receiving a mother’s support and warmth significantly reduced the harmful effects of being victimized by peers.
For boys, though, early negative peer experiences led to a significant increase in antisocial outcomes, regardless of their mothers’ love.
The researchers evaluated more than 1,000 children over 8 years of age and looked at which family and parental factors lessened or intensified the impact of negative peer relationships.
“Children who develop hostile and distrustful relationships with their parents due to low parental warmth and responsiveness may adopt similar patterns of negative expectations when engaging with peers, as a result of their greater fear and anxiety,” said Grace Yang, Ph.D., a U-M research fellow and the study’s lead author.
Yang collaborated with Dr. Vonnie McLoyd, the Ewart A. C. Thomas Collegiate Professor of Psychology.
For the study, participants answered questions about whether they had been bullied in school or in the neighborhood during the previous month. They rated if someone “picked on me or said mean things to me,” “hit me” or “purposely left me out of my friends’ ACTIVITIES.” About 68 percent of the kids reported being a target.
During the home visit, researchers measured the mother’s warmth in how she talked to her child, showed pride or pleasure toward him or her, and if she was cold, harsh or hostile to the child. Family conflict, such as physical and verbal aggression, was also factored.
Male victims of bullying had higher levels of antisocial behavior five years after the initial interview despite family or parenting factors. How girls responded to bullying, however, was related to the parent and family dynamics.
Researchers suggest that gender differences may be due to how boys and girls behave with peers and where they spend their time. If boys have larger friendship and peer networks than girls, the peers may exert a greater influence in boys’ emotional lives. As a result, boys’ response to bullying would depend less on family interaction patterns and more on peer interactions, Yang said.
Mothers also reported less communication with sons than daughters. “This difference probably reflects a lesser tendency for sons, compared with daughters, to initiate discussions with their mothers,” McLoyd said.
Since boys communicate less with their moms, they tend to receive less maternal support and intervention that would otherwise help decrease the negative effects of bullying.
The researchers said future studies will need to factor in the fathers’ and siblings’ influences on bullying.
The study is published in the journal Social Development.