By Clint Fletcher
Kids and teenagers are back in school, and that means homework, carpool, school lunches, football games … and bullying. The problem has gained more attention in recent years, but despite the spotlight, a significant portion of children and teens are still affected. According to the most recent School Crime Supplement by the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice, about 20% of American students between the ages 12 to 18 experience some form of bullying. On top of this, the latest Youth Behavior Assessment from the CDC states that 19% of high school students report being bullied within a one-year period of the survey.
Bullying can be physical, verbal, relational, or even online, and it isn’t always easy for parents to spot. But what causes it, what are the long-term effects, and what parents and kids can do to address the problem together in a healthy, positive way?
The “Why” Behind Bullying
The causes of bullying can be incredibly layered and complex, but they all share a similar theme: bullying is almost always behavior that is learned in response to stresses in the bully’s own world. While most bullies can give the appearance of having confidence, chances are strong that whatever they’re doing is driven by their own fears, insecurities, and issues.
Common causes for bullying:
- Feeling powerless in their own lives
- The need to be in control
- Someone else is bullying them
- Jealousy of the person they’re bullying
- Lack of understanding or empathy
- Looking for attention
- Their family is dysfunctional
- Bullying can be rewarding for them
- They don’t care how others feel
- They can’t regulate their emotions
The Bullies and the Bullied
We’ve established that bullying is still quite common in US schools, with roughly one in five students saying they’ve been bullied. But bullying doesn’t just affect the one being picked on. According to stopbullying.gov, more than 70% of young people say they’ve witnessed bullying in schools. In one large study, roughly 49% of children in grades 4-12 reported being bullied at least once a month, and 40.6% of students reported involvement in bullying. Out of that group, 23.2% were the kids being bullied, while approximately 30% of the students surveyed admitted to bullying others.
Bullying can take many forms. Name-calling tops the list at 44.2%, followed by teasing at 43.3%, spreading rumors or lies at 36.3%, and physical pushing/shoving at 32.4%. The most troubling stat of all might be that only 20-30% of students who are bullied tell an adult what’s going on. It’s not surprising that most bullying takes place in school, on school grounds, and on the school bus. Classrooms are the most common setting. Cyberbullying is also becoming more of an issue with 14.9% of high school students reporting online or text bullying within a 12-month period.
Lasting Mental Health Effects
It can be hard for researchers to draw a direct line from bullying to negative long-term effects, but one study suggests children who are victims of bullying are more likely to develop anxiety and depression disorders. They also may be at higher risk for health problems like colds, headaches, stomachaches, and sleeping problems. They may even be more likely to take up smoking. Kids who are bullied may also be more likely to self-harm or have suicidal thoughts in adolescence.
In another five-decade study looking into health outcomes of adults who were victims of bullying as kids, British researchers discovered that those who were frequently bullied were more likely to have poor social, health, and economic outcomes in life decades later.
Bullying’s side effects:
- Higher risk of physical illness
- Changes in sleep
- Changes in eating patterns
- Decreased academic achievement
- Suicidal thoughts
(source: stopbullying.gov and nih.gov)
How to Proactively Approach Bullying
You know the facts now, but what can you do about bullying? It all comes down to communication. According to experts, kids first need to understand what bullying is, why it’s wrong, and why they should come forward to an adult when it occurs. After that, the line of communication needs to remain open between parents and children. Check-in with your kids as often as you can. Listen, become familiar with their friends, and ask questions about school.
Being prepared is key. Strategize with your kids and develop a plan for how they should handle bullying if an adult isn’t near. Suggest they try to disarm the bully with humor, tell them to “stop” with confidence, grab a safe friend or peer nearby, or, if all else fails, simply walk away. Having a plan will make them feel more prepared.
There are many wonderful resources out there to help combat bullying. Be Strong is a fantastic app for smartphones with a student-led approach to bullying for all ages. They have a student state representative program, eight-week resilience program, and one-touch buttons to a suicide lifeline, text line, and trusted friends alert.
More helpful bullying resources: