The end of summer can be a time of excitement and anticipation at the prospect of going back to school, seeing friends and sharing the summer’s adventures. But for too many children who are bullied, it is a time of dread and anxiety.
Experts believe that almost one-third of U.S. children are bullied and that another 7 percent to 15 percent of children are the targets of online bullying. More than 160,000 school absences each day are thought to be associated with bullying. A child in the U.S. is estimated to be bullied every seven seconds.
Bullying is defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance” and that is repeated or has the potential to be repeated. It can include verbal threats, whether in-person or online, physical violence and marginalization or exclusion of the intended victim.
As schools take action against bullying, new research elevates concern about bullying as a significant public health issue. Research about the health effects of repeated exposure to violence, including bullying, is still in its infancy, but we are learning more about the physical, emotional and psychological effects of such violence. A new study issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine equates the potential long-term effects of bullying with that of concussions.
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The physical effects of bullying are more than skin deep. In addition to physical injury, bullying can result in chronic headaches, gastrointestinal problems and sleep difficulty. Sleep deficits have been associated with increased risks for obesity and immune system issues, as well as a host of problems such as emotional regulation and mood disorders. We now know that sleep problems can interrupt memory consolidation that is essential to learning. New research is pointing towards potential impacts on long-term brain function.
Bullying has also been associated with a wide range of emotional and psychological issues. Children who are bullied can become isolated and withdrawn. Their eating habits can change, and they can struggle with depression, anxiety and self-harming behavior. In rare cases, a bullied child can become aggressive and resort to violence. School performance, self-confidence and self-esteem can all suffer. Over the long-term, the experience of having been bullied as a child has been linked with increased risk for alcohol and drug dependency as an adult.
We tend to forget that it’s not only the child being bullied who suffers these negative consequences. Those who witness bullying can face an increased risk of these same effects. Finally, children who are bullies, who may themselves be a victim of some kind of violence or neglect, can suffer long-term health effects as they grow into adulthood.
Breaking the cycle
For all those affected by bullying, there are steps we can all take to break the cycle of abusive behavior.
The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends that we ask our patients about bullying behavior they may be experiencing or have witnessed. You can ask your kids these same questions.
▪ Do you ever see kids picking on other kids?
▪ Do kids ever pick on you?
▪ Do you ever pick on kids or send anything electronically that might hurt someone? (And tell the truth; you’re not in trouble.)
Teach your child to identify signs of bullying and aggressive behavior and that it’s not okay to be treated this way, whether in-person or online.
Learn about your school’s policies on bullying and talk about them with your child.
Watch for signs of potential bullying in your child and others, including sudden behavioral changes, trouble in school or recurring health issues.
Help your child understand what healthy relationships look like and the qualities that make for a good friend.
Model respect and kindness towards others for your kids, and teach them to treat others with respect.
If you find that your child is bullying another child, talk to your school’s counselor and seek counseling for your child.
Develop an action plan with your child to respond to bullying. Strategies can include walking away, reporting the incident to a trusted adult as soon as possible, or, if it can be done safely, confronting the abuse by labeling it and asking the bully to stop.
Let your children and others know that they are not alone. A community of caring adults dedicated to ending bullying will improve the health of us all.
Dr. Julie Cheek is a pediatrician at Unity Care NW in Bellingham.