Tackling the Bullying Issue in Kids

Research shows that physical bullying among children can lead to adverse outcomes both for victims and perpetrators, and needs to be handled carefully.

Bullying among children is not a new concept. For decades, child psychiatrists and other providers have been faced with the challenges of treating both victims and perpetrators of physical abuse. What has changed, however, is data available on the impact of bullying, and the recommendations for treating children who are bullied.

Both issues were addressed thoroughly during a session at the AACAP 57th Annual Meeting in New York, NY, on Thursday, Oct. 28. Young Shin Kim, MD, MPH, PhD, of the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, CT, examined the relationship between bullying and pathology, and Stan Davis, BA, discussed strategies for bullying prevention and intervention.

In her presentation, Kim defined bullying as an act committed to establish balance of power by purposefully hurting and/or intimidating another person. It can manifest not just as physical abuse, but also verbal abuse, and gesture bullying, which is characterized by giving dirty looks or staring. In her research, Kim has found that indirect bullying—in which perpetrators spread rumors and convince others to side against someone—can be even more intimidating for victims that physical abuse. She also noted that relational aggression is more common in girls than boys.

However, many parents still aren’t aware of the harmful impact of bullying, she said, adding that many still believe bullying is a normal part of childhood that will build character and has no lasting effects. On the contrary, studies have shown that bullying is a significant public health burden that can result in adverse psychosocial outcomes and lead to more serious youth violence in later years.

In her research, she has found the following to be true:

  • Bullying is an independent risk factor for persistent and suicidal/self-injurious behaviors and suicidal ideation
  • Children who are both victims and perpetrators of bullying are most vulnerable group for adverse psychosocial outcomes
  • Sex is modifier of suicidal risks in students who experienced bullying, with girls being at highest risk; female persistent bullies are at a greater suicidal risk than males
  • Children who are bullied are less likely to perform well in school and more likely to have social disorders that, if untreated, can continue into adulthood and lead to adverse social problems

Bullying, she said, is a serious issue that demands the attention of parents, educators, health care professionals, and community leaders.

But exactly what role should child psychiatrists and parents play in helping children who are bullied? According to Davis, who works with an organization called Stop Bullying Now based in Wayne, ME, the best thing adults can do is listen.

Davis and Charisse Nixon, PhD, have been collecting data from 13,000 children from 31 schools across the country as part of the Youth Voice Project, and what they’ve learned so far is that bullying is as prevalent as ever, and that kids need help dealing with it. According to Davis, more than 25% of respondents reported frequent verbal, physical, and relational aggression toward them, and of those, half said that they were moderately, severely, or very severely affected.

What’s making the problem worse is the fact that man of these children, he said, are getting bad advice when they do summon the courage to notify an adult of the situation. “This is a big problem, because if we give kids advice that doesn’t work, they’ll stop coming to us.”

It is critical, he noted, that children can count on adults to act as authorities and positive role models. The most ineffective solutions offered by adults, according to the project, were for children to pretend the bullying didn’t bother them, confronting the perpetrator, or fighting back. Children need to be encouraged to disclose the problem to adults, and depend on them to show genuine concern and interest in the problem, and respond by handing the punishment appropriately.

The responses from the survey overwhelmingly indicated that children who are bullied want, above all, for someone to listen to them and validate the problem, and to follow up on his or her progress. They should also be encouraged to open up to friends about the problem.