Beyond the Playground: Bullying has a lasting impact
Research shows that bullying can leave a mark on a victim’s health for decades after they leave their bullies behind. Dean Clinic Family Medicine physician Dr. Danielle Gindlesberger shares advice on identifying a child victimized by bullies and how to help them through difficult situations.
A recent long-term study by British researchers shows that victims of bullies can still feel the health impacts of their tormenters decades later. These impacts are real and can have serious implications on your health. Many victims, particularly victims of repetitive bullying, reported higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts even as long as 40 years after the bullying stopped. Victims also reported poorer physical health in general.
Authors of another study, focusing on fifth, seventh and tenth graders in large American cities say these effects can snowball over time, making early intervention key in stopping these detrimental health effects.
Dean Clinic Family Medicine physician Dr. Danielle Gindlesberger agrees that intervention is key to giving bullying victims a voice and boosting their self-worth.
“By intervening, it shows the child that is being bullied that someone cares,” says Gindlesberger. “Often bullying can lead to a child feeling a low sense of worth. They feel more isolated and alone. An adult intervening gives that child a message that they are important and that what they say and feel is important. It keeps the lines of communication open so the child has a resource for help.”
There are also some things you can do to prevent bullying from happening, even if your children are still at a very young age. Being a strong adult role model is important.
“Be cognizant of the way you interact with those around you,” says Gindlesberger. “Ensure that you are showing respect to those you interact with and model healthy relationships for your children.”
Make sure that you’re engaging with your child. Talk about how their day was. Talk about things that make you “sad” or “blue.” Giving younger children “feeling” words you can teach them how to express how they feel.
As children enter school, talk about what makes a good friend and talk about bullying. Some kids will get anxious when you talk about these things, so remember to use words they understand and give them something they can do when they encounter a situation where someone is being bullied.
As children become adolescents, it can be more difficult to talk about these things. Relationships between parent and child can become strained as the child seeks independence. Keep asking how their day was. If you can, open your home to having their friends over. You will learn a lot about what is happening in your child’s life when you hear them talking with friends versus when you ask them about their day.
Even though it can be tough to determine if your child is a victim of bullying, particularly if your child is introverted, Gindlesberger says there are clues in your child’s behavior or health that may point to bullying. She says red flags can include:
- Sudden changes in behavior
- Lack of talking about or to friends
- Unexplained or poorly explained bruises or cuts
If you are worried your child is being bullied, start asking open ended, non-confrontational questions. Start with asking how your child’s day was. Even though grade school kids might not recognize bullying, but they can recognize when someone isn’t being a good friend. Gindlesberger says a game of “my best thing / my worst thing” can reveal what is going on with younger kids. For middle and high school kids, just keep talking and stay engaged.
“Leave the door of communication open,” says Gindlesberger. “Try to not let judgment enter the conversation. Meet their friends. Drive them to an outing like the mall or a movie. Listen to what they are saying to each other for more insight into what is going on.”
If your child is more shy or introverted, watch for non-verbal cues. Are they avoiding eye-contact? Does their artwork or writing reflect pain or isolation? Staying involved in your child’s life can clue you into problems your child might not want to discuss.
If you do determine that your child is the victim of a bully, don’t try to “fix” the problem. Talking to the bully yourself can make the situation worse. If you are worried about your child’s safety at school, talk to teachers and school officials to make a plan. Give your child the tools to get out bad situations. Talk to your child about pairing up with a walking buddy if bullies target them on the way to or from school. Give your child positive reinforcement.
“Remember, bullying is about control and one child trying to exert control over another,” says Gindlesberger. “Give your child some control back to help them build their confidence and self-worth.”
If you’re in doubt about a situation you should reach out to the school or your child’s clinician.
“We’re here to help. It’s important to have your child talk to someone – a therapist, counselor or physician – so they can get all the help they need,” says Gindlesberger.
For more information and additional resources on bullying, check out the Time for Kids: The Buddy Project online resource library.