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Bullying is often underestimated in its impact on the lives of both young people and adults. In addition to the immediate emotional (and, at times, physical) injury that bullying causes, it can also cause long-term health and wellness problems. One of the main problems bullying can cause is disturbed sleep, which affects both victims of bullying and the bullies themselves. What’s more, disturbed sleep can further feed into the negative effects of bullying, creating a vicious cycle that can become a serious, long-term problem.
In this article, we’ll go in-depth about what bullying is, how it affects the people involved, and how that ties into sleep. We will also explore steps to stop ongoing bullying, and prevent bullying from occurring in the future.
What is Bullying?
Bullying is one of the main issues affecting children and young people today. It’s talked about on the news, on TV shows, in academic literature, and by policymakers on a regular basis. But what is it, really?
Bullying is unwanted, aggressive, and harmful behavior between school-age children that is repeated or has the potential to be repeated, over time. It involves a real or perceived power imbalance between the person inflicting the behavior (the bully) and the person on whom the behavior is inflicted (the victim.) These roles can be further complicated when a young person is both bullied by someone and bullies someone else (a bully-victim.)
Bullying refers to a very large range of behaviors and can involve anything from social exclusion to name-calling to physical violence. While bullying can obviously have an immediate negative impact, it is important to remember that it can also have long-term negative effects on both the victim and the bully.
Bullying affects millions of school-age children and young people every year. Around 20% of students aged 12-18 report having been bullied, while 30% of young people admit to having bullied others. Meanwhile, 70.6% of students and 70.4% of school staff say they have witnessed bullying in their schools.
Certain populations are statistically at a higher risk of bullying than others. For instance, young people on the autism spectrum report significantly higher rates of bullying than their peers, while female students report being bullied more than their male counterparts. LGBTQ students also report being bullied more than cisgender, heterosexual students.
However, though certain populations are more vulnerable, bullying can affect any young person, and it appears to be on the rise. An analysis of more than 160,000 students in 27 states revealed that the current rate of bullying, wherein approximately one in three students report being bullied, is up significantly from two years ago when around one in four students reported being bullied. Though this jump may be attributed in part to increased awareness about bullying and increased willingness to report, it is still a statistically significant trend and a cause of concern.
Types of Bullying
Bullying can take many forms. It can be both direct (i.e., physical or verbal aggression) and indirect (i.e., social stigmatization, slander, or exclusion.) These are the four most common types of bullying faced by kids and young people today:
- Physical bullying: Physical bullying involves any aggressive, repeated physical contact between the bully and the victim. This includes acts that cause physical damage to the victim, such as kicking, pinching, hair-pulling, and tripping, and acts that cause damage to the victim’s property.
- Verbal bullying: Verbal bullying does not require physical contact. It refers to things like name-calling, insults, and intimidation, as well as racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise bigoted remarks aimed at a person or group of people.
- Social bullying: Also called “relational bullying” or “covert bullying”, this form of bullying is often harder to catch, and therefore is sometimes taken less seriously. However, it can be just as harmful as any of the other sorts of bullying on this list. Social bullying refers to things that are done to harm someone’s social standing or humiliate them, usually behind their backs. This includes things like spreading rumors, lying about someone, excluding someone and/or encouraging others to exclude them, playing “pranks” with harmful intent, or otherwise defaming someone socially.
- Cyberbullying: In an age where everyone, especially young people, spends a significant amount of time online, cyberbullying requires its own category. It refers to any bullying that happens online, via messenger apps, social media, websites, text messages, or any other online platform. Cyberbullying can be both overt, under the bully’s own name, or covert, under a pseudonym or anonymously. It involves activities like posting unwanted pictures online, sending harmful or abusive texts/messages/posts, spreading gossip, hacking into a victim’s account, and general online harassment/intimidation.
Signs of Bullying
It is extremely common for kids and adolescents not to report bullying when it happens. This may be because they are ashamed, or confused, or scared, or insecure, or simply because they just don’t have the right words to express what is happening to them. Even kids who are otherwise open and communicative may be reluctant or find it difficult to talk about being bullied.
This lack of communication can make it hard for adults to detect bullying. However, there are certain behavioral changes that commonly occur when a young person is being bullied. It is important for parents, caregivers, teachers, and any other adult who is regularly in the life of a child or an adolescent to watch out for these signs, especially if they suspect that bullying is in play.
Notedly, many of these behavioral changes can happen as part of the development of an otherwise healthy young adult who is not being bullied. This list is not definitive, and some young people being bullied may not display any of the signs below. However, it is helpful to at least understand the signs that many young people show when suffering from bullying, as a way to keep an eye out in case it’s happening in your child’s life.
Signs Your Child is Being Bullied:
One of the most common signs of bullying is a reluctance, or outright refusal, to go to school. If school is the place where a child is being bullied, they will obviously try to avoid that place. This is especially true if a child has not yet alerted school authorities about the bullying—or, as unfortunately sometimes happens, if they have alerted school authorities, but the bullying has continued.
If your child walks on their own to school, or to a bus or transportation system that takes them to school, they generally have a standard route that they take every day in order to get there. If they suddenly change that route and take a route that is less convenient or seemingly irrational instead, it is possible that this change is an attempt to avoid a bully. Often, bullying can occur in the areas around a school, or on the way to/from a school, where there is less adult supervision than inside the school itself.
Bullying can take a huge emotional toll on a young person, and can cause drastic, often sudden changes in mood. Most commonly, bullied children display irritability and chronic sadness, and can become withdrawn and quiet. Sometimes, they can experience bursts of anger and may lash out against parents and siblings. These changes in mood vary in severity, but they can develop into chronic conditions: there is a significant correlation between bullying and clinical depression in adolescents, and victims of bullying are more likely to develop anxiety disorders.
Physical bullying often results in injuries that a child cannot hide. When asked about the injuries, a victim of bullying might try to make up an excuse for how they were injured, or simply say that they don’t know how it happened. If your child is continually coming home with injuries, even small ones, it’s important to take note and try to find out where those injuries are coming from.
Another hallmark of physical bullying is the theft, destruction, or damaging of a victim’s property—especially expensive or valued property, like an iPhone, an important academic item, like a term paper, or a sentimental object, like a journal or a favorite shirt. Bullies may also demand or steal money from victims. Often, bullies steal money that their victims have been given to buy something specific (for instance, to purchase lunch, or supplies for school). One sign of bullying is a child consistently not eating lunch, or mysteriously not having an object they were supposed to purchase at school.
Many young people who are struggling with a bully start slipping when it comes to their schoolwork. This may be reflected in their grades, and also in their general attitude toward academic work. They may start skipping homework assignments and failing to study or prepare for exams. Studies have shown that students who are bullied regularly do substantially worse in school and that the onset of bullying can have a significant negative impact on school performance.
Often, bullies target young people with interests that may be deemed “uncool”. What classifies an interest as “uncool” can obviously vary greatly and is often based on the arbitration of the bully, who may be able to make just about anything seem “uncool” if it’s associated with the victim. This sometimes causes a child or young adult to drop activities or interests that they were previously very involved with. It is perfectly natural for a young person to lose interest in something they used to enjoy, but the sudden, unexplained abandonment of interest, especially if that interest was something the child was very enthusiastic about, may have its roots in bullying.
One unfortunately frequent side effect of bullying is the abandonment of the victim by formerly close friends. At times, this will happen because the friends do not want to experience the social “fallout” of being associated with the child being bullied. Other times, the victim will distance themselves, because they feel more uncomfortable, unhappy, and insecure with other people and with themselves in general. Alternatively, a member of a child’s former friend group may have developed into a bully themselves, and decided to target the child and isolate them from the group. One sign that a child is being bullied is if friends they have had for a significant amount of time seem to suddenly drop off from their lives, without obvious reason or the “replacement” of a new group of friends.
In addition to the potential loss of close friends, some children may avoid social situations altogether. This includes after school activities, youth groups, sports games, or any situation where they might be subject to unchecked bullying. This tendency to stay away from social events and activities could be an attempt to specifically avoid an individual bully or a group of bullies, but it could also be a more general isolation-based response to bullying that expands beyond specific individuals. Like many of the other signs on this list, this avoidance of social situations can become potentially serious, and can even develop into a more advanced and generalized social anxiety disorder.
Victims of bullying can display changes in eating habits for various reasons. A common response to a stressor like bullying is a loss of appetite, or, alternatively, excessive stress-eating. Dietary changes are especially prevalent among people who suffer from weight-based bullying. This can become very serious, and even develop into a long-term eating disorder. In fact, 65% of people with eating disorders say that bullying was a significant contributing factor to the development of their disorder. Changes in eating habits that may be a sign of a developing eating disorder include a sudden obsession with calories and fat content, adopting extremely restrictive diets, doing food rituals (such as excessive chewing, cutting food into very small pieces, or food on a plate), making excuses to avoid mealtimes and eating in public, developing a strong dislike of previously enjoyed foods, eating noticeably smaller portions, and drinking excessive amounts of water and/or caffeine to suppress appetite. Young people in this situation may also binge on certain foods, and make immediate trips to the bathroom after meals.
Many kids who experience bullying will complain of various simple ailments, such as headaches, stomach aches, and just “not feeling well.” This can be used to avoid going to school or to be sent home from school during the day. This can also be a physical symptom of stress, anxiety, and depression caused by bullying. This is a particularly important sign to look out for in younger children. Many young children lack the vocabulary to explain that they are feeling anxious, or scared, or depressed, even if there is a direct cause (such as bullying). Instead, they’ll tell you that their stomach hurts, or that they feel sick. Obviously, underlying conditions should be investigated, but if they are ruled out, this could be a sign that the child is distressed.
Children and young adults who undergo bullying–especially when the bullying is sustained over time–may show signs of decreased self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness. Bullying often wears down the victim’s sense of self-worth, and you may see your child making disparaging remarks about themselves, brushing off compliments, or generally expressing a sense of hopelessness about their own prospects. If left unchecked, this dip in self-esteem can cause serious self-image issues, which can last far into adulthood.
Some victims of bullying respond with actions that are ultimately self-destructive. This can include behaviors like not keeping up with hygiene, not eating properly, and even acts of self-harm (such as cutting). It can also include behaviors that present as “acting out”, such as skipping school, not making it back in time for curfew, promiscuity with abusive or otherwise inappropriate partners, and substance abuse.
Though running away may seem somewhat extreme, it is actually a relatively common reaction to bullying. If a bully is making a victim’s life truly miserable, and if they don’t have a way to escape, they may act in desperation and run away or leave home. In many cases, children and young adults who run away either return or are returned home relatively quickly. Still, even if a young person is returned home safely, running away is a sign of escalation and desperation, and should be taken seriously.
Suicidal ideation and action also seem extreme as a response to bullying, but it is unfortunately also quite common. There is a definitive link between bullying behaviors and suicidal ideation, as well as bullying behaviors and suicidal actions. While suicidal ideation does not necessarily mean a young person will act on that ideation, it is extremely important to address and seek treatment for suicidal ideation if you notice it in your child. As can be seen from the many cases publicized regularly on the news, young people can die and have died by suicide as a result of bullying.
It must be noted that bullying doesn’t happen in a vacuum: in order for there to be bullying, there must be bullies. Bullies also come from families and exist in the same school systems and social networks as their victims. Just as it is important for parents, caretakers, teachers, and adult authority figures to look out for signs of bullying, it is also important for them to look out for signs that a young person may be engaging in bullying behavior.
Spotting bullying behavior is the first step in interceding: finding out a young person is engaging in bullying behavior means that you can get help both for that young person and the person they’re bullying. As an adult, you can foster communication, encourage healthier behaviors and empathy, and address any underlying issues that may have been causing the bully to act the way they did.
It is not always easy to spot a young person is engaging in bullying behavior, but there are several common signs that bullies display which may be helpful for people attempting to help.
Signs Your Child is a Bully:
Many bullies get into physical or aggressive verbal fights on a regular basis. Generally, they are the instigator of the fight and will escalate altercations until they become violent. Some bullies are physically larger than their peers, but this is not necessarily the case and does not have to be the case for a bully to physically fight with others.
Bullies often have trouble with authority, and may butt heads with teachers, principals, and other school staff members. They tend to have a higher locus of control, meaning they believe that they alone are in control of the outcome of the events in their lives as opposed to external factors. This puts them at odds with the structures of authority in place in school. They may receive frequent write-ups, detention sessions, and other disciplinary actions.
One of the main indicators of being a bully is having friends who engage in bullying behaviors. Generally, bullies do not lack friends. Rather, they tend to have a large network of friends, and a smaller, more close-knit group that engages in or at least encourages bullying behavior. This friend group will frequently talk about how they are superior to others, and may often engage in sniping and bullying within the group itself.
A bully may appear to have suddenly acquired money, or belongings they would not have the means to purchase for themselves. This sort of bully often demands or physically takes the belongings of their victim, so a child or young person suddenly having expensive items or money out of nowhere is an indication that those items might belong to someone else.
Another main indicator of bullying is if a young person constantly justifies their bad behavior, and refuses to take responsibility for their actions. This is referred to as “moral disengagement”, a self-justification process that allows the young person to engage in bullying practices even though they know those behaviors are wrong. When confronted with their actions, they will either employ mental gymnastics to explain why, actually, they were in the right, or just disengage from the question of whether their actions were right or wrong. In any case, this is one of the most entrenched parts of bully psychology and one of the most important things to spot and help rectify.
Though this is not always the case, many bullies tend to be obsessed with popularity, specifically with climbing to the top of the social power structure, often at the expense of others. This can be the result of insecurity about their own social standing and can cause them to engage in bullying behaviors toward someone they perceive as weaker or less popular in order to affirm their own “higher” spot. An obsession with popularity can also lead some young people to join in when someone is being bullied, or at the very least allow it to happen. It can also cause young people to exclude and bad mouth those who they view as “beneath” them, in order to avoid having their social status affected by association.
Perhaps the largest risk factor for becoming a bully is trouble, instability, or sudden change in a young person’s home life. Being exposed to violence in the home significantly increases the likelihood that a young person will engage in bullying behaviors. However, even non-violent struggles, hardships, and changes, such as divorce, a long-distance move, financial stress, or the death or illness of a family member or friend, can also increase the likelihood of bullying behavior.
Even without parental violence or a significant change or struggle within the home, young people who engage in bullying behaviors at school tend to engage in similar behaviors at home. These behaviors can be directed at siblings (especially younger siblings), but can also be directed at adults in the household. Additionally, violence or bullying behavior between siblings increases the likelihood of bullying behavior outside the home, so a younger sibling being bullied by an older sibling may also be at increased risk of becoming a bully.
Finally, as we mentioned before, it should be noted that the categories of “bully” and “victim” are not always completely cut-and-dry.
Though there are “pure bullies” (i.e., people who exclusively bully others), and “pure victims” (i.e., people who are exclusively bullied by others), a sizeable group of people involved with bullying fall into the middle category of “bully-victim”, wherein they are both bullied by people with more power than them and bully people with less power than them. There are also “bystanders”, or people who are not bullied and do not bully, but who regularly witness bullying
There are negative health impacts for all people involved in bullying: victims, bullies, bully-victims, and bystanders.
Bullying, Long term Health, and Adult Outcomes
Bullying obviously has an immediate negative impact: this is clear from the data, and also from the lived experiences of young people. For some, that negative impact tends to dissipate when the person is no longer directly experiencing bullying. However, studies have increasingly shown that bullying can actually have long term negative health effects, and can significantly impact adult outcomes.
Specifically, studies have shown that being bullied can lead to an increased risk of developing:
- Chronic depression and various depressive disorders, as well as a tendency to internalize problems.
- Anxiety Disorders
- Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) symptoms, including instability, fear of abandonment, impulsivity, and mood swings.
- Psychotic Experiences
- Self-harm and Suicidality
- Somatic problems, such as colds, chronic headaches, and stomach aches.
Bully-victims (those who both bully and are bullied) experience many of the same adverse, long-term effects on health, wellbeing, success, and other adult outcomes as pure victims.
Importantly, pure bullies (people who bully others but are not bullied) are also at risk of long-term negative health effects and adult outcome impacts. Bullies are strongly at risk of perpetuating delinquent and anti-social behaviors well into adulthood, which can lead to criminal trouble and issues adapting to adult life. They are also at an increased risk of depression, suicidal ideation, and self-harming behavior. When it comes to their personal relationships, they are more likely to engage in abusive behavior and domestic violence.
One of the most common shared complaints of victims, bully-victims, and bullies is sleep disturbance. As we’ll explore below, disturbed sleep and bullying are linked in many ways, and affect all groups of people involved in bullying. If left untreated, regular sleep disturbances can develop into chronic sleep deprivation, which can have a serious negative impact on a person’s health, wellbeing, cognitive functioning, and general level of achievement in life.
Bullying and Sleep Disturbances
Bullying has been proven by a number of studies to cause sleep problems. Young people who are bullied are far likelier than their non-bullied peers to experience insomnia and other circadian rhythm disturbances. However, bullying-related sleep disturbances are not limited to victims. In fact, all young people involved with bullying–including victims, but also bullies, bully-victims, and possibly even bystanders–experience higher levels of sleep disturbance than young people who are not involved with and do not regularly witness bullying. Each of these groups experience sleep disturbances in different ways, but it is clear that bullying has a wide-reaching, negative effect on sleep.
In addition to the immediate negative impact of poor sleep on young people, it has also been shown that adolescent sleep disturbance is an indicator of adult sleep disturbance, putting those involved with bullying at increased risk of developing long-term issues with sleep.
Victims and Sleep
Victims of bullying frequently report trouble with sleep. Bullying can cause a victim to experience significant degrees of stress, anxiety, and depression, all of which are linked to sleep disturbances.
Most commonly, bullying victims report insomnia or sleeplessness, but can also experience increased fear or anxiety around bedtime, frequent awakening, nightmares, restless leg syndrome, parasomnias (such as night terrors, sleep paralysis, sleepwalking, or exploding head syndrome), and generally disturbed sleep patterns. The trauma of being bullied and resulting in depression and anxiety may also make it harder for victims to stick to a regular, healthy bedtime and get the requisite amount of sleep ( which, for adolescents, is around 9 hours.) All of these sleep disturbances can build up to chronic sleep deprivation, which can exacerbate the negative feelings the victim is experiencing, and can also negatively impact school performance.
Studies have found that the more frequently the victim is bullied, and the more violent the bullying, the more likely they are to experience sleep disturbances. It was also found that victims who experienced physical bullying, relational bullying, or both reported the worst sleep disturbances. One study showed that, of students surveyed who experienced physical and/or relational bullying, 52% reported poor sleep for three or more nights in the previous 30 days. It should be noted that while that study showed verbal bullying disturbed sleep slightly less (at 41%), it still indicated that verbal bullying causes a significant degree of sleep disturbance.
While some bullying-related sleep disturbances are situational and pass when the bullying stops, that is not always the case. A 2017 McLean Hospital study showed that being bullied can have long-term, dramatic effects on sleep, causing disordered sleep symptoms that are characteristic of clinical depression and other stress-related chronic mental illnesses.
Bullies and Sleep
Sleep disturbances have also been linked to the people who perpetuate bullying behavior. Though pure victims and bully-victims tend to report sleep disturbances in higher numbers than pure bullies, bullies do tend to have more sleep disturbances than those not involved in bullying at all. In addition, as is the case with victims and bully-victims, there is a correlation between the violence and frequency of bullying and rates of sleep disturbance: the more violent the bully is and the more frequently they engage in bullying behaviors, the more likely it is that they are experiencing disturbed sleep.
However, the important thing to focus on when it comes to bullies and sleep is not the frequency of their sleep disturbance, but rather the type of sleep disturbances they report. The specific sleep disturbances reported by bullies may be an important key to understanding the close correlation between sleep and bullying.
Bullies are less likely to report sleep issues like insomnia than bully-victims or pure victims. Rather, a recent study from the University of Michigan found that bullies may experience more obstructive-breathing-related sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea. The study showed that young people who displayed bullying behaviors were twice as likely to show symptoms of sleep-disordered breathing, such as snoring and daytime sleepiness. Another study, published in Chronobiology International, showed that bullies had significantly more irregularity in their sleep schedules and that their sleep duration was shorter than that of their peers. The study also found that sleep had a moderating effect on aggression in bullies (that is, the more sleep they got, the less aggressive they tended to be), and suggested that perhaps bullies have a higher vulnerability to sleep deprivation.
Though it cannot be said plainly that sleep deprivation causes bullying, there does seem to be a correlation between sleep disturbance and aggressive, bullying behavior. It is possible, therefore, that disrupted sleep may play a part in bullying, and that some bullies have impaired emotional regulation, impulse control, and decision-making skills due at least in part to disrupted sleep.
Bully-Victims and Sleep
Recent research has shown that bully-victims may actually experience higher levels of sleep disturbance than pure victims. One such study published in the European Journal of Psychology found that while pure victims are two times as likely as uninvolved peers to experience sleep issues, bully-victims are three times as likely to experience those same problems.
This may be due to the fact that both being victimized and engaging in aggressive behavior are associated with sleep disturbance, which could conceivably put bully-victims at an even more increased risk of sleep disturbance than either pure bullies or pure victims.
Bystanders and Sleep
Research has shown that observing bullying is associated with negative mental health outcomes. However, there is still very limited research on the effect that observing bullying may have on sleep. One study on the subject found that there is not a significant correlation between being a bystander to bullying and insomnia. The study’s authors came to this conclusion because the bullying bystanders that had sleep difficulties included in the study did not disproportionately report being worried about bullying.
However, considering that adjacent research has shown that bystanders can experience negative mental health outcomes and that observing other sorts of violence (such as family abuse and community violence) has been shown to lead to sleep issues, it is possible that bystanders may experience bullying-related sleep issues, even if somewhat indirectly (as proposed in this 2013 study.)
Stressors such as guilt for not stopping the bullying and the sense of feeling out of control may contribute to a general sense of unease in a bystander, which may lead to sleep issues. Additionally, since bystanders are more at risk for negative mental health outcomes than young people who were completely uninvolved with bullying, they may also be more at risk for the sleep problems associated with those mental health problems.
Addressing and Preventing Bullying
Considering the high prevalence of bullying and the many negative effects it can have on young people, it is easy to feel scared, overwhelmed, or helpless about the problem, and about what you can do to help. However, no matter how it may feel, you are not powerless in the face of bullying. There are many proactive steps that people in a community faced with bullying can take to put a stop to bullying behaviors when they happen and to prevent them from happening in the first place.
When Your Child is Being Bullied:
- Be aware of the signs. As we mentioned above, while young people may not explicitly say they are being bullied, there are a number of signs and behavioral changes that may indicate bullying. Educate yourself about those signs and remain vigilant if you notice them in your child.
- Don’t ignore it. Some parents may have grown up thinking that bullying is just another part of a child or adolescent’s life and that they should not intercede. However, it truly doesn’t have to be that way. If your child tells you they are being bullied, or if you notice the signs of bullying, start a conversation, and be persistent in continuing the conversation, even if the child initially resists. Make it extremely clear that they can talk to you about what they’re going through. This means believing them if and when they tell you about their experiences being bullied. It also means establishing trust, and reacting with even-handed compassion and love when they make themselves vulnerable to you.
- Share your own bullying stories. Many people have stories from times in their lives when they have been bullied, or have known someone who was being bullied. If you have a story like that, share it with your child. Let them know that they’re not alone and that they have understanding and support in what they’re going through.
- Explain the psychology of bullying. It can be very helpful to explain to a young person that there is a psychology behind bullying and that they are not being targeted simply because they deserve it or are somehow inferior to the bully. Explain that this is not their fault. Flesh out the idea that bullies are doing what they’re doing because they need to feel powerful, which comes from a place of insecurity on their part. This can provide a larger context and help your child understand that this is a problem with the bully, not with them.
- Give your child a game plan. A good deal of the mental and emotional impact of bullying comes from the victim not having a way to deal with what is happening to them, and feeling helpless because of it. Create a game plan with your child when it comes to what they should do if they are being bullied. Give them a step-by-step guide to dealing with bullying behavior, with strategies like:
- Showing as little emotion as possible (so as not to give the bully the reaction they’re looking for.)
- Looking the bully in the eye, standing tall, and showing that they are not afraid.
- Responding evenly and firmly with simple, direct phrases (for instance, saying, “Don’t do that,” “That’s unacceptable,” or, “Stop making fun of me. That’s mean.”)
- Deflecting the bully by facetiously agreeing with them (for instance, if a bully calls a child who wears glasses “four-eyes”, they could say, “Yes, I do wear glasses. You’re observant.”)
- Walking away calmly.
- Ignoring the bully altogether.
- These strategies can be practiced through role-playing as the bully so that your child can safely test out various scenarios and respond accordingly.
- Nurture your child’s self-esteem. Bullying can have a significant impact on a child’s sense of self, and they may be in a place of doubt about their worth. Actively remind them of how loved they are, how proud they make you, and how impressed you are with them. Specifically, bring up unique things that make them special, and all of the qualities you admire in them. Remind them of their skills and accomplishments, and regularly bolster their ability to think of themselves as a valued, worthwhile person.
- Speak openly and honestly about mental health. Bullying can be the first catalyst for mental health struggles in many young people, and it is extremely important to establish that those struggles are nothing to be ashamed of, that they are not alone, and that they can come to you at any time if they are struggling with their mental health.
- Offer professional help. At times, a child who is being bullied may benefit from talking to another adult about what they’re going through. This is especially true if they are struggling with mental health issues. Let them know that you would be happy to help them find someone to talk to, be it a counselor, therapist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional. Let them know that there is nothing wrong with talking to someone, that it doesn’t mean they’re “crazy”, and that many, many people talk to these sorts of professionals.
- Work with the school. In helping your child with bullying, working with their school and with teachers, counselors, and administrators can be a very important tool. Let the appropriate authority figures in the school know that your child is experiencing bullying and that bullying is an issue in their school. Ask them for a solid course of action on how they plan on handling the bullying and supporting your child.
- Know and act on your rights. There are many state-based and federal laws governing procedures around bullying. Learn your mandated rights based on state and federal law, and use the options available to you based on those rights. This especially important when it comes to bullying that’s based on race, national origin, sexuality, gender, and ability.
- Advocate for evidence-based anti-bullying training in schools. If bullying is to be stopped and prevented from happening in the first place, schools need to create a culture of safety and open communication around the problem. This is why schools should be pushed to implement evidence-based anti-bullying training and programming, for staff, teachers, administrators, and educators. This will help keep the conversation going, and to make sure it’s front and center.
Those tips are helpful for the parents of a child being bullied, but what about the parents of a child who is bullying? It can be overwhelming to realize your child may be bullying other children, and even harder to address it. However, parents can play a crucial role in intervening in bullying behavior, and in improving outcomes for their own children and for other children in the community. It is important to remember that just because your child is exhibiting bullying behaviors today doesn’t mean they always will and that you can help them to get back on track.
When Your Child is the Bully
- Watch out for–and do not ignore–the signs. This is just as important for the parents of potential bullies as it is for the parents of those potentially being bullied. It is essential to look at the possible signs that a child is exhibiting bullying behavior and to address them as soon as you see them, even if it might be awkward or met with resistance.
- Speak openly, honestly, and calmly about what happened. When you find out your child has been engaging in bullying behavior, it’s important not to lash out, yell, or demean them. Do not show anger or lose control. Rather, keep a level head and explain calmly but firmly that those behaviors are unacceptable, and that you expect better from them.
- Encourage your child to talk to you about how they feel. Many bullies operate from a place of insecurity and feel profoundly unheard. One of the most helpful things you can do for a child displaying bullying behavior is to give them the opportunity to talk about how they’re feeling, both at school and at home. Ask them how they were feeling leading up to the behavior, how the feel about having done the behavior, and how they feel in general. Give them the chance to answer fully and honestly, without interrupting.
- Model tolerant, non-judgemental behavior. One of the biggest impacts you can have on a child and their experience of bullying (either as a potential victim or a potential bully, or both) is to model the behavior you want them to emulate. Focus on remaining non-judgemental, and on checking your child when they are quick to judge someone or show signs of intolerance. If they start making fun of someone, either someone they know or someone they’ve heard of, for being different, ask them why they’re doing that, and calmly explain that the behavior is wrong and hurtful.
- Create strategies for calming down, and clearly communicating. It is easy for young people with anger issues, or with issues communicating, to resort to bullying behavior. Though this is not the source of all bullying, some bullying comes from a place of frustration or anger at not being able to diffuse situations. Give your child tools to de-escalate feelings of anger and frustration, such as breathing and visualization exercises.
- Find help and resources at school. If you know about bullying behavior in your child, their school has probably become involved. Try your best to see them as an ally rather than an adversarial force. Utilize resources the school offer (such as a counselor). You will not be able to be present during the school day, but you can work with the school staff members to keep tabs on and help redirect your child’s bullying behavior.
- Closely monitor technology. An increasingly high percentage of bullying occurs online. Unlike in-person bullying, which you may not be able to monitor, cyberbullying can be tracked. If you suspect your child may be engaging in cyberbullying, monitor your child’s social media accounts, apps, browsing history, and messenger. Establish rules about appropriate behavior online, and stay up-to-date on the latest apps and social media platforms. Make it clear to your child that although they are entitled to a certain degree of privacy, misusing social media or messengers will not be tolerated.
- Create clear consequences for bullying behavior. Though, as aforementioned, it is important not to display anger or lack of control, make it very clear to your child that bullying behaviors will have consequences. Lay out specific privileges that will be taken away if the bullying continues, and explain that you take this issue very seriously.
- Give the child opportunities to be good. Many children who exhibit bullying behavior don’t often get opportunities to be good. Because of the role that they have created for themselves, or that has been created for them, they are generally not in the position to act positively toward others. Set up scenarios like caring for a younger relative or volunteering where your child can help others, and therefore start to see themselves as someone who helps rather than someone who harms. Encourage and nurture the development of empathy that comes from these sorts of activities.
With both bullied and bullying young people, it is important to encourage good sleep hygiene and to address any underlying sleep issues. As explained above, both bullies and victims tend to suffer from unique sleep issues, and addressing those issues may help alleviate some of the behaviors and the way those behaviors are experienced.
Though bullying is often talked about and researched in terms of school-aged children and young people, it is not limited to that age group. Adults can, and often do, experience bullying from other adults. A recent study found that approximately 31% of Americans have been bullied as an adult. This bullying primarily happens in the workplace, but can also happen in social groups (such as a church group, a PTA, or a neighborhood association), as well as within and between adult friend groups.
Generally, adult bullying is not physically violent (since physical violence between adults can more easily be prosecuted as assault.) Rather, it tends to be verbally violent and/or relational. Common signs of adult bullying include:
- Ostricization: Being frequently excluded from social activities and even basic social interactions.
- Social Undermining: Having your social status sabotaged, often through gossiping, rumor spreading, and lying.
- Public Humiliation: Being verbally maligned, teased, or otherwise demeaned in front of others.
- Professional Undermining: Having your ideas, work, or professional contributions undermined or plagiarized.
Adult bullying can have serious and lasting effects. A comprehensive survey of adult bullying victims found that 71% suffered from stress, 70% suffered from anxiety/depression, and 55% reported a loss of confidence. Furthermore, 26% reported an increase in headaches, 22% experienced muscle tension or pain, and 17% reported an increased inability to function on a day-to-day basis, which resulted in poor work performance. The survey also found that stress from bullying can result in long-term thyroid and gastrointestinal problems, elevated blood pressure, mood disorders, self-harming behavior, and disordered eating. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health confirmed those findings and also found that victims of workplace bullying were also twice as likely to experience suicidal ideation.
Effects on Sleep and Health
Adult bullying also has a significant impact on sleep health. Studies have shown that victims of workplace bullying are at profound risk of disordered sleep, especially what is referred to as “adjustment insomnia,” which is sleep disturbance in association with an identifiable stressor. It may also be accompanied by waking symptoms, such as anxiety, worry, depression, daytime fatigue, muscle tension, and headaches. Adjustment insomnia can last for a short amount of time (1-3 months) but, in the case of workplace bullying, often lasts longer, due to the stressor failing to resolve or the individual being unable to adapt to the stressor.
However, sleep problems in people who experience adult bullying are not always limited to adjustment insomnia. A survey from the French National Health Agency showed that bullying victims were twice as likely to suffer from sleep disorders in general (including but not limited to adjustment insomnia).
In addition, people who simply observed workplace bullying also reported significantly higher levels of sleep disturbance than people who did not witness workplace bullying, suggesting that one does not even have to be directly bullied to experience the negative effects of workplace bullying on all workers.
What to Do:
Like bullying among young people, you are not helpless in the face of adult bullying. Though addressing adult bullying requires slightly different tactics, there are definitely steps you can take to reduce the impact of adult bullying on your life and health. They include:
- Acknowledge what is happening. The first step in addressing adult bullying is acknowledging that you are, indeed, being bullied. It may feel difficult or embarrassing to recognize that you’re being bullied as an adult, but it’s necessary to do if you’re going to fix the problem. Try to describe the situation to yourself and imagine it is happening to someone else. What would you tell that person?
- Understand their psychology. It’s important to remember what’s going on psychologically when it comes to adult bullying. Bullies are trying to make up for a shortcoming or insecurity of their own. Being the target of a bully is not your fault, and doesn’t say anything negative about you. Understanding this will help you have empathy for yourself, and will give you the necessary context to move forward.
- Avoid being reactive. Bullies are often looking for a reaction, and are trying to get a rise out of you. Avoid being overly emotional, angry, or violent in the face of a bullying incident. Remain calm and neutral. Sometimes, this means walking away. Other times, this may mean deflecting what they say with humor. In any case, showing that the bully has made you genuinely upset to the point that you’ve lost control is to be avoided whenever possible.Take a clear stand. While the point not to be reactive definitely stands, some bullies need to be confronted in order to stop the behavior. However, that confrontation should not be emotional or violent. Calmly point out their behavior and identify that behavior as unacceptable. Let them know that it does not reflect well on them to harm someone who has done them no wrong. Show that you are not provoking them, but are also not afraid to call them out. Be clear with your words and know exactly what you want to say beforehand.
- Record all incidents. A very important tool in putting a stop to bullying behavior is a log of that behavior. Write down the specific times and places where you were bullied. Find sources that outline common bullying tactics, and compare your bully’s behavior with those tactics. If other people witnessed specific bullying incidents and you feel comfortable with them, ask them to corroborate if necessary. Specificity will make it more difficult for the bully to deny their behavior.
- Get someone else involved. If you’ve tried avoiding the bully, confronting the bully, and keeping tabs on the behavior, and the bullying still continues, it’s time to talk to someone else who can help. Your safety and well-being are your top concerns, and you should not let pride get in the way of getting help. Many workplace Human Resource departments have policies to address bullying and will pursue complaints. Obviously, if a bully is threatening you physically or is otherwise behaving violently toward you, it is appropriate to notify the police.
- Work against internalizing, and seek follow-up treatment if necessary. Once you identify adult bullying, it is important not to internalize the hurt that these actions may be causing you. Many people find it helpful to seek professional help in order to cope with the effects of bullying and to help in the healing process. A counselor can help you let go of the pain inflicted on you by your bully, to make peace with the bully, to set personal boundaries, or to make a new start. The sooner you get a hold on the potential effects of bullying, the less impact they will have on your wellbeing.
Learn More About Bullying and Mental Health
In addition to the steps mentioned above, there are also many resources available for adults and young people dealing with bullying. Here are ten excellent places to turn for information and support around bullying issues.
- Stopbullying.gov: This site is one of the main authorities on bullying. It has a well-curated list of resources on what bullying is and how to prevent it.
- PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center: An information and task center on bullying, focusing specifically on outreach and disability-related bullying resources.
- Cyber Bully Help: An organization specifically aimed at cyberbullying, offering statistics, information, resources, and support around bullying online.
- It Gets Better Project: An international nonprofit with a mission to uplift and support LGBTQI+ teens who are facing bullying by sharing stories about overcoming adversity from LGBTQI+ people around the world.
- Teaching Tolerance: This education-based resource provides teaching models, podcasts, professional development programs, and grants around issues of tolerance.
- Stop Bullying Now: An important, web-based faculty and student training module that offers one on one anti-bullying programming from seasoned educators.
- Safe Schools Coalition: Originally LGBTQI+-specific, this Seattle-based outreach organization and resource center has also branched out to general anti-bullying work and education. Go here for identity-based and generalized support working through bullying issues.
- Bullying Hotlines: This is a comprehensive list of bullying hotlines, curated by cybersmile.org. The list includes helplines in the US, the UK, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and Spain, with context-specific helplines to address issues like bullying and cyberbullying, but also general mental health, suicide prevention, eating disorders, and addiction issues.
- Stand for the Silent: An outreach organization with a goal of spreading awareness about bullying and the damage it can cause to both the bullied and bullies. Stand for the Silent also offers traveling presentations and resources specific to students, parents, teachers, and schools.
- Because of You: A vast collection of personal stories, age-specific information and activities, and resources about bullying.