With the tragic death earlier this month of Amanda Todd, there’s a new focus on the problem of bullying. Research has shown that bullying is not just an emotional strain that can take a toll on victims’ mental health. There is clear evidence that it can be physically harmful as well.
Too often, bullying is seen as an ordinary and inevitable part of childhood. More and more, however, it is being seen as the serious problem that it is. Children who are bullied have been found to have more mental health issues than children who aren’t. Bullied children have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem; they are more likely to think about suicide, and consequently they are more likely to commit suicide. The effects of bullying aren’t limited to childhood, they can in a significant number of cases remain as the child becomes an adult, long after the bullying has stopped.
However, not all the effects are on mental health. There are physical effects too. Kids who are bullied report increased health problems. The stress and sleeplessness that can result from being bullied can themselves cause health problems, such as a compromised immune system, as well as affecting school performance. These kids experience fatigue, pain, and other physical symptoms as a result of bullying.
The role of the adult in stopping bullying is important. “Kids will be kids” is not a sufficient response; adults need to show that bullying behavior is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. Parents and others who may not see the bullying need to learn to recognize its effects: changes in behavior, poor appetite or sleep, and avoiding certain places or activities the child used to enjoy. Tastes do change, but a child who seems to get no joy from anything is almost certainly being targeted in this way. If a child you know is being bullied, one way to help is to counter the messages the bullying sends by working to boot the child’s self-confidence.
Adults can also help by empowering kids. Witnesses and bullied kids can all take steps to reduce bullying in schools. One way is to stop participating. Bullies sometimes have their packs; simply refusing to be part of the pack, taking a stand, can help. On the other hand, kids who are being bullied may find it helps to band together—it improves confidence and presents a less appealing target, as well as the value of knowing you have an ally. Avoiding the bully may not be a good long-term solution, but he or she may at least get distracted. One of the best things a kid can do is tell an adult; be sure your children know you’ll be there for them.