Series: Part 3 of 3
In recent weeks, our close-up lens has focused on how bullying affects the bully and how bullying affects bystanders. Today, let’s look at some shocking (but predictable) ways that bullying affects the target and how adults can stop bullying in its tracks before serious damage occurs. As always, while our focus is on children’s bullying, our discussion also applies directly to adult bullying.
Targets’ Immediate Problems. We’re very aware of the short-term consequences of being bullied for kids – anxiety, depression, anger, school refusal, slipping grades, loneliness, drug and alcohol abuse, cutting, and, far too frequently, teen suicide. We are now realizing that the pain of children’s bullying doesn’t end with graduation. Bullying has a profound reach, with long- term consequences that can last well into adulthood.
Bullying Causes Brain Damage. Here’s some very worrisome news. Research at the University of Ottawa demonstrated that the brains of bullied children resemble the brains of neglected and abused children. Stress causes elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which damages the brain areas responsible for concentration, memory, and impulse control. The result: impaired school performance, increased absenteeism, and behavioral problems.
With long-term, repeated bullying, these spikes cause long-term damage to the cortisol receptors. We see this type of damage in overly aggressive kids, whose brains don’t give them appropriate feedback to curb their aggressive behavior. Will today’s target become tomorrow’s bully? We already know that the bully-target, a child who is both a bullied target AND a bully, in different settings, is at highest risk for mental health problems, including disastrous outcomes like suicide and shootings.
Bullying Can Stunt Your Growth. Besides stunting emotional growth, bullying can also affect a child’s physical maturity. Long-term stress decreases the levels of other important hormones. Without sufficient testosterone, for example, both boys and girls may fail to develop full height or muscle mass. Said more strongly: Bullying is damaging important growth factors during children’s peak physical and brain developmental periods. We can and must stop this damage from occurring.
Childhood Targets Suffer In Their Adult Lives, Too. But wait, there’s more. Research from Duke University Medical Center has shown that victims of bullying often suffer low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and suicidal feelings well into their mid-20s (the study followed 1400 adults up to age 26). We’re also seeing reports that these kids, with their trust and resilience severely shaken, have problems living in college dormitories or first apartments with other kids and later have problems looking for and holding jobs. Bullying causes enormous human damage, to every aspect of targets’ future lives and to the lives of those who live, love, and work with them. Along the way, we’re also damaging the next generation’s workforce.
Do We Have Enough Reasons To Stop Bullying Early? Yes!! Yes!! Yes!!
So What Can Adults Do To Help A Targeted Child? When a child comes to us with the admission that they’re being bullied, please recognize the seriousness and the urgency of these cries for help. The problem has undoubtedly been going on for a while, the child has been unable to solve it on their own or with the help of peers, and it is defeating and humiliating for a (preteen or) teen, who thinks of themselves as invulnerable and in no need of parents, to ask an adult for help. By the time a child comes to us, they are usually hanging on by their fingernails, even if they try to look casual or even irritated at us.
Go Slow. As adults, our first instinct is often to jump to action and rush to a solution. This can do more harm than good. If adults take charge too much or too soon,
- Our child stops talking before telling us everything. These stories need some space and quiet to emerge.
- We can wrongly communicate to a child that he’s too weak or powerless to solve the problem. Yes, he needs our help. But if we take over the entire problem, we push the child out of the solution, and leave him feeling like a victim, instead of enlisting his ability and strength to work on his (appropriate) part of the solution.
- We are likely to race off with the wrong “solution,” focused on the symptoms and not the real problem. The solution is always more complex than stopping the immediate symptoms. If we only stop the symptoms, the problem will reoccur.
First Steps. If you’re the parent or teacher or coach of a child who’s a bullied target, here are some initial steps to follow:
- Reassure the child being bullied that it isn’t their fault.
- Hear the story. Listen quietly. Ask open ended questions. Resist the temptation to jump in and finish the child’s sentences if they are slow to speak. Don’t jump in with a fix before the story is over. The story might unfold over days as your child builds trust in you as a listener and helper.
- Assemble the facts. Collect any physical evidence of bullying, including emails, voice mails, text messages, videos, and pictures of property damage or bruises.
- Decide if this is a problem with immediate danger. Has the child been threatened by other kids with physical violence? Has he already been physically beaten up or interfered with? Is she in danger from within – depression or risk of suicide? It can be very hard to tell – professionals frequently get this one wrong. Ask the child for their best assessment and ask them to tell you if anything changes. If a child is in imminent danger, immediately bring this problem to one or more of the appropriate authorities: the school, the parents, the police, mental health professionals.
- Problem solve with your child. If the problem doesn’t seem to be immediately dangerous, ask the child if they would like to try some new ideas, with you backing them up. Help a child learn to not make themselves vulnerable (eg, don’t go out to recess or walk home alone). Give the child exit lines and strategies for safely leaving bullying or dangerous situations, while saving face and not looking like a “baby.” (eg, “I’m outta here,” “No thanks,” “Gotta go,” “No drugs. Got soccer practice,”) or whatever words work best for your child. Even when your child rejects the words or ideas you suggest, you will have started the thinking process and you will see them move to action on their own terms.
- Set a time limit. Two weeks is a good time window to try some new strategies (again, this is only if the situation is not imminently threatening). If progress isn’t good enough by this limit, it’s time for further action.
Action Steps. If your “Let’s try it for 2 more weeks” approach hasn’t resulted in enough progress, it’s time to escalate.
- Bring it to the school. If your child is being bullied at school, call the teacher and schedule a meeting (if it’s a sports team problem, call the coach; a camp problem, call the camp director, if it’s a school problem and you’re the teacher, time to call the parents, etc). Bring your story and all supporting documents. Parents (who are especially under stress at this time): Stay polite with all teachers, principals, and staff.
- Please Note: While children’s bullying problems frequently surface at school, bullying occurs in all social groups. I’m using the school example here because it’s the most common, but please adapt it to your current situation. We must be alert to bullying problems in all environments.
- Keep a log or journal of all meetings, calls, emails, etc, plus a list of any progress, improvements or additional problems.
- After each meeting, create a written action plan with specific steps and deadlines. It can be 2 lines long, but it must include actions to be done before the next meeting, who’s responsible, and the date of the next meeting or check-in.
- Stick to the plan – consistency counts! Be persistent, show up or call for every meeting. Don’t give up or go away.
- Work to improve communication with your child’s school. Teachers and principals are as anxious to solve the problem as you are. Anxiety triggers our worst behaviors (in kids and adults). Exercise self-control, even when you’re powerfully tested. It’s an important example for our kids – stay cool under stress.
Adults must lead the way. We must all do our part to nip bullying in the bud before it causes permanent damage. Join us and take action to reduce bullying. Working together, we can make a huge difference. Make every day bullying prevention day!
To Learn More:
L Blumen “Bullying: A Pain in the Brain,” New Living Magazine, Nov 2012, reprinted on LornaBlumen.com.
L Blumen, Bullying Epidemic: Not Just Child’s Play, Toronto: Camberley Press, 2011.
W Copeland, D Wolke, A Angold, and E Costello, “Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of Bullying and Being Bullied by Peers in Childhood and Adolescence,” JAMA Psychiatry, 70(4), p419-426, Feb 20, 2013.
G Pittman, “Psychological Effects of Bullying Can Last Years,” Reuters.com, Feb 21, 2013.
T Vaillancourt, E Duku, S Becker, L Schmidt, J Nicol, C Muir, and H MacMillan, “Peer Victimization, Depressive Symptoms, and High Salivary Cortisol Predict Poorer Memory in Children,” Brain and Cognition , 77(2), p191-199, 2011.
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