Bullying Symptoms & Causes

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Who is at risk of being bullied?

Anyone can be a victim of bullying, however some children are at a higher risk of being bullied than others. Children that are less popular and have fewer friends tend to be victims of bullying while children that are popular are more likely to be bullies. Other risk factors associated with being bullied include:

  • having physical features that are different from peers e.g. being overweight or underweight, wearing glasses or braces, having a physical disability, being from a different racial group, wearing clothes kids consider to be ‘uncool’.
  • having a cognitive disability
  • identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender
  • being seen as annoying
  • being seen as weak or defenseless and unlikely to fight back.
  • perceived as socially awkward and having few friends

However, having any of these characteristics does not automatically mean that a child will be bullied.

Who is affected by bullying?

Bullying affects both the victim and bystanders. Victims of bullying are at risk of having psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety, psychosomatic symptoms, eating disorders and substance abuse. Worsening feelings of isolation and depression can contribute to suicidal behavior and other forms of self-harm.

Bullying can have serious negative effects on bystanders and witnesses as well. They learn to perceive their school or environment as unsafe, may also develop anxiety or depression from witnessing it and may start to avoid school.

What are the signs your child may be a victim of bullying?

It is helpful to know what signs to look for if you suspect your child may be a victim of bullying. Some warning signs include:

  • He is reluctant to go to school or outright refuses to go.
  • She frequently reports headaches, stomach aches or feeling sick, but there appears to be no underlying medical reason.
  • He has trouble sleeping and frequent nightmares.
  • She shows little interest in hanging out with friends and avoids social situations.
  • He comes home with unexplained injuries.
  • She appears to have low self-esteem, shuts herself in her room, seems irritable.
  • He reports that books electronics or other belongings are lost or destroyed.
  • She eats less, sometimes skips breakfast or dinner, or binge eats.
  • His grades are declining, he seems uninterested in school.

Be aware that sometimes a child may not show any sign that they are being bullied. To stay tuned in to what is going with your child in school, talk to them regularly. Be interested in their school day and ask them specific questions about bullying. E.g. “Are there mean kids in your class? Who do they tend to pick on? Is anyone being mean to you?”

How common is bullying?

Estimates vary on the percentage of students who have been victims of bullying. However, there is no doubt that the statistics are sobering.

  • About one out of every three students (28%) report that they have been bullied at school or cyber bullied in the past year (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2014).
  • About one out of every five (19.6%) High School students in the US say they were bullied at school in 2013 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
  • In Boston, 38.8% of Middle School students say they were bullied on school property in 2013 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
  • Approximately 160,000 U.S. students miss school each day because they are being bullied (National Education Association).
  • 42 percent of children have been cyberbullied and 53 percent admit to cyberbullying someone else (i-SAFE Inc).
  • 9 in 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) students have experienced some form of bullying at school. (It Gets Better Campaign and Stop Bullying Now!)

How can I tell if my child is being bullied, or if they are just involved in the disagreements all kids get into from time to time?

Unlike the occasional argument, shouting match or scuffle, bullying happens repeatedly, it is not an isolated event. It involves a physical or social power imbalance between two people or two groups, with the perpetrator(s) having more power and the victim(s) having less. It also involves one person trying to intentionally harm the other. It can be physical (shoving, punching, kicking) or verbal (name-calling, gossiping, spreading rumors), and it can also happen through social media such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

How Can I prevent Bullying?

While there is no way to guarantee that your child will never be bullied (or be a bully), some measures have proven very effective in reducing bullying on a broader scale:

  • Parents should start talking to their children about bullying—including why it is wrong and hurtful, and what to do if they see someone else being bullied—at a very early age.
  • Parents should strive to create an atmosphere of tolerance, respect and compassion at home.
  • Schools should increase adult supervision (especially on the playground, on the bus and in the hallways between classes).
  • Schools should get parents involved in bullying prevention discussions and initiatives.
  • Schools, school districts and legislators should work together to create—and enforce—clear, strict anti-bullying policies. For example, Massachusetts now has a law that requires all school employees, from teachers to support staff, to report any incident of bullying to the school principal. Principals are also required to report any potentially criminal behavior to law enforcement officials.

What is the long-term outlook for a child being bullied?

Bullying can have long-lasting social, psychological and health effects on victims. Children who experience bullying continuously are at greater risk for:

  • Depression and suicidal thoughts during adulthood.
  • Anxiety disorders including panic disorders and agoraphobia (fear of public places) during adulthood.
  • Problems with physical activities like walking, running or participating in sports.
  • Poorer physical health (sometimes as a result of harmful activities like disordered eating or using drugs).
  • Dropping out of school, which is likely to have long-lasting negative effects on their education and career.
  • Lower wages later in life.
  • Future unemployment or reduced work participation

The good news is that supportive relationships with families, peers and mentors can make a difference and mitigate the negative effects of bullying (American Psychological Association).

Where can I go to learn more?

A state-wide and national focus on identifying, addressing and preventing bullying means that children who are being victimized—or are bullies themselves— now have several options for getting help.

Below is a list of helpful links to additional resources if you or someone you know is a victim of bullying

Standard Disclaimer: These links are provided for informational purposes only; they do not constitute an endorsement or an approval by Boston Children’s Hospital of any of the products, services or opinions of the corporation or organization or individual. Boston Children’s Hospital bears no responsibility for the accuracy, legality or content of these external sites.

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- Sandra L. Fenwick, President and CEO

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