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Journal o Family Therapy (1992) 14 371-387 f 0163-4445 $3.


Cohesion and power in the families of children involved in bullyhictim problems at school
Louise Bowers,* Peter K. Smith* and Valerie Binneyt
T h e dimensions of Power and Cohesion have been found to be useful in describing family systems. They may also be predictive children who of will bully others or be victimized themselves. A sample of 20 bullies, 20 victims, 20 bully/victims, and 20 control children wereselected from three middle schools via a system of peer nominations. These children then completed a version of the Family System Test (FAST) to establish howtheyperceived their families onthedimensions of Power and Cohesion. The four subgroups showed characteristic differences on the FASTplots, which are discussed. Future use of theFAST test in examining the link between perceived family structure peer and relationships seems warranted.

Bully/Victim problems in schools
The prevalance and seriousness of bully/victim problems in UK schools is well established (Smith, 1991). Stephenson and Smith (1989) reported that 23% of final year pupils at primary schools in Cleveland were perceived by teachers to be bullies or the victims of bullying. Based on anonymous questionnaires given to a sample of 6,758 pupilsin Shefield, Whitney and Smith (1992) reported that 27% of junior/middle school children and 10% of secondary school children were being bullied sometimes, or more often; more frequent bullying of once or several times a week was reported by 10% ofjunior/middle children and 4% of secondary school children. Bullying can have a devastating effect on the lives of victims. They suffer continuing loss of confidence and self-esteem in social relationships. They may resort to absenteeism to escape torment at school

* Research worker, and Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Shefield, Shefield S10 2TN, UK. t Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Psychiatry Department, Doncaster Royal Infirmary, Armthorpe Road, Doncaster, DN2 5LT.


Louise Bowers et al.

(Reid, 1983), a path of action often leading toschool failure and social isolation. In the most severe cases victims have been known to take their own lives. For the child who bullies, too, an increased incidence of problems of alcohol abuse, domestic violence and violent crime in later life has been reported (Olweus, 1987; Lane, 1989). School-based interventionstocombatsuch problems have been implementedwith some degree of success (Olweus, 1991; Roland, 1989; Smith, 1991). Currently, we are engaged in assessing the effectiveness of a variety of school-based interventions (Sharp and Smith, 1992). But it is also important to understand why some children become bullies or victims, and others do not. What part do child and family characteristics play? Most of the relevant research has looked at correlates of high aggressiveness in children, rather than bullying per se; while the background factors predisposing a child to become a victim are not well explored. Manning et al. (1978) reported that children with over-controlling or dominating parents were found to harass other children more often at school. Loeber and Dishion (1984) found that parents who practise inconsistent or highly aversive discipline techniques, coupled with physical punishment,are more likely to havea child who willbe aggressive towards others. These authors argue thatchildren growing up in such families are exposed to models of aggression and bullying, of effective monitoring by parents, these and in the absence behaviours develop and generalize to the peer group. Olweus (1980) has argued also that the emotional attitude of parents is an important factor in determining how the childs peer relations develop at school. He found that a negative emotional attitude by theprimarycaregiver,together with permissiveness of aggression and use of power-assertive methods of discipline, increased the chance that a child will later become aggressive towards others. have suggested a developmental pathway Patterson et al. (1989) embodying all these ideas. Poor parental discipline and monitoring practices are presumed to lead to childhood conduct problems, in turn leading to academic failure and rejection by normal (non-deviant) peers. This results in children who more frequently have commitment to a deviant peer group, and subsequentlyget involved in delinquent behaviour.

Family systems approaches

Family systems theory may offer another fruitful perspective on family

Families o and f bullies



antecedents of bullyhictim problems (Minuchin, 1974). Families showing high cohesion (warmth and lower levels of hostility) may be less likely to produce a bullying or victimized child. Cohesion has been associated with optimal family functioning (Russell,1979; Olson, 1986). Bullies might be more often found in disengaged family systems. However, there may be a danger that families become too cohesive: Olweus (1980) suggests a characteristic of victims mothers as being anxiously over-involved with their children. Vignes Steine and Auckland (1980) found that victimized children tended to spend more time with their parents than other children, being too involved and dependent on them, therefore increasing their social isolation from peers. In structural family therapy terms, victims may be enmeshed (Minuchin, 1974). However, therehas been very little investigation of bully/victim problems from a family systems perspective. Whether using a behavioural or family systems approach, power is likely to be another importantvariable. Parental discipline techniques are closely associated with power structures within the family (Baumrind, 1973). A father who controls a child with harsh physical punishment is usually perceived as holding a powerful position in the family structure. Patterson (1982) suggests that it is a combination of these two family constructs of power and cohesion (in the form of lack of familial cohesion and therefore monitoring, together with strong hierarchical power structures) that is of importance in predisposing a child to aggressive behaviour. By contrast, if the less well-grounded suppositions about victims are correct, we would expect their families to be characterized by high levels of intrafamilial cohesion.

Rationale f o r the study

The aim of this study was to relate the dimensions of power and cohesion, as perceived by children, to their bullyhictimstatusat school. Besides comparingsubgroups of bullies and victims with children uninvolved in bully/victim problems, we included children identified as bully/victims or provocative victims. Bullyhictims are children who are involved in both bullying others, and being bullied themselves. They were suggested as a distinct subgroup by Olweus (1991) and Stephenson and Smith (1989). Smith and Boulton (1991) found that bully/victims were particularly highly rejected by the peer group,and differed from other victims by being provocative and starting fights. In their sample, bully/victims actually outnumbered ordinary victims. Our own sample overlaps with that of Smith and


Bowers Louise

et al.

Boulton (1991); it therefore seemed important to consider bully/ victims as a subgroup distinct from both bullies and victims. As Feldman et al. (1989) point out, each family member perceives thefactorsmaking up a family system ina different way. Most researchers have studied how parents with aggressive or isolated children view their family lives. However, Schaefer (1965) has argued that how children perceive what their parents do and say may be more important in affecting a childs behaviour than what these parents actually do or say. Rather little is known about how children view the families they find themselves growing up in, as their perspective is rarely asked for. We are not aware of previous research which has examined children involved in bully/victim problems in this way. We decidedtoinvestigate differences in thedimensions of power and cohesion, from a child-centred perspective, by assessing how bullies, bully/victims, victims and controls perceived their family relationships.

The Family Systems Test (FAST)

One technique used for eliciting an individuals perceptions of power and cohesion within their family is the Family System Test, or FAST (Gehring and Wyler, 1986). This is a figure placement technique in which family members are asked to place wooden figures on a chequer board so as to show how close family members feel to each other. How close together someone places different family members is presumed to represent perceived intrafamilial cohesion between those family members, and the elevation of figures on blocks is presumed to represent the perceived power structures in the family. The procedure is similar to the technique of family sculpting used in therapy. The FASThas been used to examine the differences between various family members perceptionsof power and cohesion (Feldman et al., 1989) changes in power and cohesion during adolescence (Feldman and Gehring, 1988), and differences in power and cohesion in a normal and a conflict family situation (Gehring et al., 1990). The psychometric properties of the FAST are satisfactory (Gehring and Feldman, 1988). The short-term stability of the dimensions has been established by means of a test-retest procedure; convergent validityhas been established by correlating scores of Power and Cohesion from the FAST with comparable scores from The Family Environmental Scale and The Family Adaptability and Cohesion Evaluation Scale.

Families victims o f and bullies


From previous research cited above we predicted that children who bully others would portray their families as less cohesive, and would have some family members in agreatly elevated (power) position compared to themselves; and that children who are victimized would perceive their families as over-cohesive, but would perceive more equal power relations. No specific predictions were made about the portrayals of children in the bully/victim category.

Children were selected from nine classes in three Sheffield middle schools (age range 8 to 1 1 years), giving a total sample pool of about 200 children. These children were already participating in a larger study of peer relationships.The families were generally working-class, living in older terraced housing, oron council estates. The ethnic mix was 28% Asian, 10% AfricadCaribbean, 54% White, and 8% Other (the latter including children of mixed race as well as children who did not fit into any of the other three ethnic categories). The proportion of ethnic minority children larger than the average the is in UK, though representative of some inner city areas in the country. Although racial bullying and harassment did occur, in related work we have found that it appears comprise under 10% of total bullying to incidents at this age range (Whitney and Smith, 1992). T o select the subgroups, each child in the total sample pool was interviewed separately, being presented with a set of photographs of all their classmates.They were then given a definition of bullying and asked to make the class photographs into two piles, one pile containingthechildren who do bully others, and the second pile containing the children who do not bully others. Each child was then asked torepeatthisprocedure,butwith one pile containingthe photographs of children who get bullied by others (i.e. victims), and the second pile the photographs of children who do not get bullied. A set of nomination cut-off points was established in order to select 20 bullies, 20 victims, 20 bully/victims, and 20 control children. To fall into the bully category, a child had to receive 50% or more peer nominations as a bully, and less than 33% as a victim. To fall into the victim category a child had to receive 50% or more victim nominations, and less than 33% bully nominations. To be classed as a bully/victim a child had to receive more than 33% of both bully and victim nominations. To be classed as a control, a child had to receive

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less than 33% of both bully and victim nominations.These four mutually exclusive categories were used to select 20 children in each subgroup, matched so far as possible for gender and ethnic group. Each subgroup contained 14-18 boys, and 2-6 girls; each contained 8-14 white children, and 6-12 non-white children, mainly of Asian origin. (The gender imbalance is commonly found for bullying: WhitneyandSmith, 1992; theethnicbalance reflects that in the schools as a whole.) In addition FAST, to the children were given three other assessments of family relationships, not based on a family systems perspective; results for these are discussed in Smith et al. (in press).

The materials usedin the interview were based on those used by Gehring and Wyler (1986). They consisted of a wooden board 45 cm X 45 cm divided into 81 squares each 5cm X 5 cm, eight larger wooden figures (four representing adult men and four representing adult women), and twelve smaller wooden figures (six representing girls and six representing boys); and some cylindrical wooden blocks, heights 1.5 cm, 3.0 cm and 4.5 cm.* Each child was seen individually, and asked to place wooden figures on the board so as to make a picture of their family. They were told that the picture should show how close everyone feels to each other. The interviewer moved figures around on the board to show each child what two close family members looked like, and also what two more distant members looked like. The children (who had previously been interviewed about family composition) were asked to place on the board the people who lived with them at home, and anyone else who was special or important to them. When the children had all the figures on the board, they were invited to use the wooden blocks to elevate figures if they wished. They were told that the blocks were for the powerful people in the family. They were informed that this did not necessarily mean the tall or strong people. Any number of blocks could be used in any combination, or none at all. The family portrayals were then recorded on standard recording sheets.

Persons interested in copies of the test should contact the second author.

Familiesvictims o and f bullies Scoring the F A S T


Following Gehringand Feldman (1988) the Cohesion score was calculated by comparing distances between dyads. As some families were very large only certain dyads were selected for analysis: mother to father; self to father; self to mother; self to nearest placed sibling; self to furthest placed sibling; self to nearest placed other family member; self to furthest placed other family member. Figures placed on adjacent squares scored 1 on distance and, using PythagorasTheorem, figures on diagonal squares scored 1.4. The maximum distance score between dyads was thus 11.2. To arrive at Cohesion scores, each dyadic distance score was subtracted from 12, larger scores thus corresponding to more perceived cohesion. Scores for Power were calculated by comparing differences in height between the same seven selected dyads. In each of the self to X dyads, the height of X was subtracted from the height of self, and in the father to mother dyad, mothers height was subtracted from fathers. Scores ranged between +3 and -3. A negative score thus corresponds to X (or mother) being more powerful than self (or father). A score of zero correspondstono perceived difference in power.

General characteristics o the F A S T plots f
The meannumber of figures used in each FAST plot was 5.6 (excluding self), typically mother; father (orfather-substitute);a range of 0 to 7 siblings; other family members - (in descending frequency) grandmothers, cousins, aunts, grandfathers, uncles, nephews and nieces. The mean numberof family members nominated by each subgroup were: bullies 5.65; victims 5.85; bully/victims 5.15; controls 5.65. A one-way analysis of variance revealed that therewere no significant differences between the total number offamily members = selected by these subgroups, F(3,76) 0.78, p > 0.10; nor were there significant differences for number of siblings, or for number of other family members. However,bullies and bullyhictimswere significantly more likely to no have biological father at home (10 and 9, respectively) than victims or controls (3 and 3, respectively, x2(1)= 8.38, p < 0.005. Four other general characteristics the plots were considered. No of separation of figures refers to those plots (about half of the total) in


Louise Bowers et al.

which all the figures were connected into group, one allowing diagonal connections, as in figure 1 (b). Victims scored significantly higher on this characteristic than the rest, x2(1) = 4.82,p < 0.05. In a continuous line is a subset of the previous characteristic, in which all the figures are in ahorizontal or vertical line; this was rare, only occurring in six out of 80 plots. One corner refers to plots with at 1s was least one corner square occupied, as in figures 1(c) and (d). Th significantly more common for bullies and bully/victims combined = 5.82, p < 0.05. Two sides or against victims and controls. corners refers to plots with two different sides or cornersquares occupied,again as in Figures 1 (c)and (d). This was also most

Figure 1. Typical plots from (a) control child, (b) victim, (c) bully/victim, (d) bully. Key: Se, sele Br, brother; Si, Sister; F, Father; M, Mother; CO,Cousin; Gf, Grandfather.

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common for bullies and bully/victims, but the difference was nonsignificant. Figure 1 illustrates four plots.Figure l(a), from a controlchild, illustrates aclose but not over-cohesive grouping of figures away from sides and corners.Figure l(b), from avictim,illustratesa highly cohesive grouping, also away from sides and corners. Figure 1 (c), from a bully/victim, shows a non-cohesive groupingwith figures occupying two sides and corners. Figure 1 (d), from a bully, illustrates a wide spread of figures, with two sides and one corner occupied. While there is considerable variation subgroups, within these examples are fairly modal for each subgroup, as can be seen from table 1. We further examined variations within subgroup, each hypothesizing that children who put a figure in a.corner would have higher bully scores within a subgroup than those who did not; and that children who had no separation of figures would have higher victim scores than those who did not. The eight tests had rather small ns, and only onewas significant. However, this was in the expected direction: of the 20 bullies, the 10 with a figure inacornerhad significantly higher bully scores than the 10 who did not, t(,*)= 2.29, p < 0.02.

Quantitative analysis o Cohesion scores f

The means for Cohesion are shown in table 2. From the overall scores, it can be seen that the children tend to put themselves closest to a (nearest) sibling, followed by (nearest) other, for example a grandmother or cousin, with father and mother typically close together but slightly more distant from the child. The cohesion scores are lowest for bullies, in six of the seven dyads (all except furthestsibling). Averaging over all seven dyads,the

TABLE 1 Characteristics o the FAST test f o r four subgroups o children (n = 80) f f

No separation of figures
Bullies BIVictims Victims Controls


Uses corner Uses two sides or corners

6 10 15 10

0 3

I0 8 3 4

6 9 4 3


Louise Bowers et al.

Families of bullies victims and

38 1

overall mean cohesion scores for the four subgroups differ significantly on a one-factor analysis of variance, F(3,76)= 2.84, p < 0.05. Using Dunnetts t-test, the differences between bullies and victims, and bullies and controls, are significant at the 0.05 level. Analysing each dyad separately, the only significant effect is for the nearest other, F(3,76) = 3.27, p < 0.05, where victims havethe highest cohesion scores.

Quantitative analysis o Power scores f

The means for Power are shown in table 3. Looking at the overall scores, it can be seen that fathers are seen as more powerful than mothers, and children generally see themselves as less powerful than other family members, even siblings;. The four subgroups did not differ appreciably on the total number of power blocks used, or the mean number used per person. There was a trend, however, for children involved in bullying to put more power blocks under self; bully/victims (20 blocks in total) and bullies ( 13), compared to controls (1 1) and victims (g), t(78)= 1.54, p = 0.07 on a one-tailed test. Averaging over the seven dyads, the overall mean power scores for the four subgroups do not differ significantly on a one-factor analysis = of variance, F(3,76) 2.02, p > 0.10. The mean power scores are more revealing when comparing particular dyads. In the case of perceived relative power of father/mother, controls are near zero, whereas all othersubgroups see fatherasconsiderablystronger thanmother. Bully/victims tendto perceive parentsas relatively less powerful (compared to self) than the subgroups, other and mothers as especially less powerful than fathers, but neither of these trends reached statistical significance. Bullies tend to see siblings as especially powerful, and significant differences were found between bullies and victims perceptions of power relations with the sibling = they felt closest to, F(3,76) 2.82, p < 0.05.

The FAST test proved to be a fascinating tool to use in the schools in which we worked. Children enjoyed the task, which was quick and easy to administer and record. A surprising richness of information is available from the test, which also discriminated amongst our four target groups. The test shows first who the child considers to be a member of their


Louise Bowers et al.

Familiesvictims o and f bullies


family.A wide variety of portrayals were obtained;the perceived family composition of most children was different from the stereotyped 1 to 3 children (0 to 2 nuclear family of two naturalparentsand siblings), with only 20 out of the 80 children fitting this pattern (two bullies, five victims, three bullyhictims and ten controlchildren). The importance of siblings in the family is indicated by the nearest sibling typically being placed closest of all to the target child; whereas adults (father, mother, most others) are seen as a bit more distant and typically as more powerful than children. Despite variation amongst the four target subgroups,some generalizations are possible. Control children generally perceive their families as moderately cohesive; father and mother are seen as quite powerful figures, but with near equality between them; siblings and others have relatively low power scores. Victims most often have plots with no separation of figures, possibly indicatingan enmeshmerit in perceived family structure (Minuchin, 1974). Although their mean cohesion scores do not differ from those of control children, the patterning shows some difference in that control children allow more separationfor some family members. Victims tend to have more powerful fathers than mothers, but like controls, not do see siblings and others particularly in powerful positions. However, they are particularly close toanearestother person, and also see furthest others as powerful. Bullies havemarkedly low overall cohesion scores, perceiving their families as spread out, with one or more members often in a corner of the plot. This could be a reflection of the high numbers of these children whose biological fatherdidnot live at home (50% compared to 15% control children.). It is suggestive of disengaged family structure (Minuchin, 1974). Like victims, they tend to perceive fathers (i.e. those who were still in contact and therefore included in the FAST) as more powerful than mothers, but unlike victims, they tendto see siblings and others as noticeably more powerful than themselves. Bully/victims do not have cohesion scores as low as bullies, but are similar to bullies in relegating many family members to the sides or corners of the plot. When fatheri,s present he is seen as particularly powerful relative to mother, but neither parent is seen as so powerful relative to the self as in the other subgroups. Indeed, bully/victims tend to have the highest power scores for self. Other family members (but not siblings) are seen asrather weak (nearest)or powerful (furthest).

384 Bowers Louise et al. These findings vary in statistical significance, and in a number of cases an independent replication would put them on a firmer footing. They are, of course, specific to the particularschool populations from which our sample was selected. However, they do suggest that the FAST is picking up valid aspects of childrens perceptions of families. The results are consistent with theories which see victims as often caught up in an over-inclusive family structure (but not lacking in warmth), while bullies have families perceived as less warm,and having more structured hierarchical power relations. Bully/victims emerge as a somewhat distinct subgroup of children, sharing with bullies the perceived marginalization of some family members, but with less powerful parental and especially mother figures. They appear to share more features in common with bullies than with victims, but are clearly not a simple averageor composite of the bully and victim subgroups.
Clinical and research applications o f the FAST
The present Sheffield interventionstudy (SharpandSmith, 1992) concentrates on school-based interventions, but the study reported here suggests that family factors may play a part in maintaining the problem. Family interventions may therefore be important in at least a subset of children, and theFAST could prove to be a quick screening device to identifi. children who might be helped in this way. The combination of structural family therapy profiles of enmeshment in the case of victims and detachment and power-based relationships in bullies suggests that structural family therapy would be one appropriate intervention in severe cases. However, school-based group interventions focusing on family relationships, power and equality might alsobe productive and more cost-effective. The FAST would be an ideal instrument for assessing the effectiveness of such interventions by measuring the childs changed portrayal of hidher family after a structural family therapy intervention, or a change in portrayal of desired family relationships group-based after a intervention. More extensive research using the FAST test may assist in further understanding how family factors interact with child personality factorscontributebully/victim to to problems. It can usefully complement data from other sources. For example, the finding that bullies tend to see their families as less cohesive and more powerful than do control children, would be enhanced if we also knew about

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parental disciplinetechniques, and whetherthe low cohesiodhigh power ratio (low warmth-high dominance) is actually accompanied by physical aggression and bullying-like tactics in the home. Such datacan be obtained by questionnaire methods; but the major advantage of the FAST may be that, as a projective test, it is less liable to distortions due to social desirability and defensive responses. In conclusion, the FASTprovides some evidence that the structural family systems concepts of power and cohesion are significantly relatedtobully/victimrelations in peer groups. The FAST is at presentnot widely used by clinicians, but would seem to be an effective tool for measuring perc:eived family relationships and changes in these, both for children involved in bullying and victimization, and over a wider range of clinical problems.

This research was supported by grant number G8930636N from the MedicalResearchCouncil,London.We would like tothankthe schools and pupils who participated in the study, and Dr Michael Boulton for advice and access to sociometric data. Reprint requests to Peter K . Smith.

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