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How Can We Prevent Bullying? Involve Parents and Start Early

Baby waving at camera with parents in the background

By Michele Knox, PhD and Kimberly Burkhart, PhD

Did you know that nationwide, nearly 1 in 3 U.S. students say they have been bullied at school? Does it make you wonder what we’re doing wrong? What are we missing?

Maybe we’re missing parents. Research has shown that youth violence prevention and intervention are most effective when parents are involved. Further, interventions that have the goal of preventing violent behavior are best implemented in early childhood, before major problems occur.

This makes sense because early childhood is a time when developmental milestones such as the development of secure attachments, emotion regulation, and development of peer relationships and interpersonal skills occur. Violence prevention happens when kids have the capacity to understand and regulate their own feelings and possess a repertoire of appropriate non-violent responses. Kids learn these things from parents.

Adults and Children Together: Raising Safe Kids (ACT-RSK) is a group parenting program for parents of children aged birth to 8 years. It was developed by the American Psychological Association, and is directed by the APA Office of Violence Prevention. ACT uses several Motivational Interviewing strategies to help parents make behavioral changes that lead to effective, nonviolent parenting.

ACT provides parent education on child development, nonviolent discipline, effects of violent media on children, anger management, and prosocial problem-solving. Parents learn to effectively manage their own anger, and how to guide their children in learning to do the same. They learn how to use, and to teach their children to use, nonviolent social problem-solving skills. As such, we were not surprised that our earlier research on the ACT program found that children’s aggression and conduct problems decreased after their parents completed the program (Knox, Burkhart & Howe, 2011).

If ACT seems to reduce aggression and conduct problems, we wondered whether it could prevent or reduce bullying behavior. We decided to investigate and our current study suggests exactly that: the children of parents who completed ACT engaged in less bullying than children whose parents received treatment as usual (Burkhart, Knox & Brockmyer, 2013).

Another interesting finding was that bullying happened equally among boys and girls. Also, it started early, and occurred often. Based upon parent/caregiver reports, 24 % of children often fight with or bully other children and 25 % sometimes fight with or bully others. What is more, the majority of parents reported bullying/fighting to occur in very young children (5 years and younger). We concluded that bullying prevention can effectively involve parents and should occur early.

Unfortunately, we were not able to follow the children over time to see if the changes will last long-term. We do not know if the ACT program is “sufficient” or if ongoing or at least periodic intervention needs to occur to fully prevent bullying.

Our guess is that, to fully prevent bullying, interventions need to start early, but also should occur periodically, as the child reaches different stages of development, and as parents face new and different challenges.

Furthermore, programs that involve bystanders training, teacher and school personnel education, and other methods seem critical. Instead of singling out one program, or a single intervention, we believe that it is of utmost importance that experts work together to address bullying. It is not a simple problem, and there will not be a simple solution.


Burkhart, K. M., Knox, M., & Brockmyer, J. (2013). Pilot evaluation of the ACT Raising Safe Kids program on children’s bullying behavior. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 22(7), 942-951. DOI: 10.1007/s10826-012-9656-3

Hettema, J., Steele, J., & Miller, W. R. (2005). Motivational interviewing. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 91-111. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.1.102803.143833

Knox, M., Burkhart, K. & Howe, T. (2011), Effects of the ACT Raising Safe Kids parenting program on children’s externalizing problems. Family Relations, 60, 491–503. DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2011.00662.x

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Michele Knox, PhD is a Professor of Psychiatry and licensed clinical psychologist at the University of Toledo College of Medicine.

Kimberly Burkhart, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and licensed clinical psychologist at the University of Toledo College of Medicine.

Image source: Flickr user Russ Robinson via Creative Commons

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