A new study in Pediatrics shows that long-term bullying can have lasting effects on the physical and emotional health of the targets of bullies. Are we doing enough to help students after they've been bullied?
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Some schools have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to bullying. Others have bully prevention programs in place with the hope of stopping bullying before it starts. And many continue to handle bullying on a case-by-case basis, as bullying incidents are not all the same. One thing is clear: There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all when it comes to preventing and handling bullying. What works in one school might not actually work in another.

While school officials and parents struggle to find the best way to confront and hopefully prevent bullying, the victims of bullying carry with them emotional scars that can last a lifetime. A new study published in Pediatrics shows that repeated instances of bullying can have long-term effects on both physical and mental health. Led by Laura Bogart, Ph.D., from Boston Children's Hospital Division of General Pediatrics, the study followed a group of over 4.000 students for a five-year period. The results are eye-opening.

Even when the bullying stops, the negative effects stay with the victim for years to come.

The study found that, at any age, bullying was linked with poorer physical and mental health, increased depressive symptoms and decreased self-worth. Students who participated in the study also reported that chronic bullying led to difficulty with physical activities, such as playing sports, running and walking. In short, bullying can cause chronic health and mental health issues for kids of all ages. Even when the bullying stops, the negative effects stay with the victim for years to come.

This particular study evaluated the effects of bullying that occurred face to face. It did not account for cyberbullying, a dangerous trend among tweens and teens using social media and text messaging on a regular basis.

What does all of this information mean for parents and educators? Putting an end to the bullying doesn't necessarily put an end to the pain the victim suffers. We need to intervene early and often, and provide services and support for victims of bullying.

Early intervention

According to the researchers at Boston Children's Hospital, the negative effects of long-term bullying can worsen over time. The sooner we intervene and help a child being bullied, the better the child's chance of avoiding long-term damage.

The problem, of course, is that many victims of bullying don't come forward until the bullying reaches critical levels, and the primary focus often becomes putting an end to the bullying. While a break from the bullying certainly provides some relief for the target, it doesn't erase the damage that was inflicted upon the target along the way.

As important as it is to ensure that the bullying stops, it is equally important to help the victims cope with and process their experiences.

As important as it is to ensure that the bullying stops, it is equally important to help the victims cope with and process their experiences.

Counseling and support

We've all read the stories about young students taking their lives after long-term bullying left them emotionally shattered. These stories leave parents everywhere feeling angry, overwhelmed and helpless. How can it possibly come to that? Why weren't these students given the help they needed to cope with the bullying?

Bully prevention is important, but so is support for the victims of bullying. They need individual counseling to process and work through their emotions. They need to learn adaptive coping strategies and they need to learn how to assert themselves.

Victims of bullying might also benefit from group counseling. Students who are repeatedly bullied often feel isolated and alone in the world. Meeting other students in similar circumstances and sharing their stories with peers helps forge connections and reduce feelings of isolation.

Parents tend to feel helpless when it comes to supporting children targeted by bullies. While the instinct to protect children from harm can be fierce, it's important to step back and consider what the child actually needs. Sometimes a parent's need to do something tangible leaves the child feeling alone with her feelings. Through family counseling, parents can learn how to help their children cope with their emotions.

Know the signs

Kids can be very good at hiding the signs of bullying. Many kids fear that the situation will only worsen if they come forward, so they try to deal with it independently. It's useful to know some of the signs of bullying so that you can intervene early:

  • Sleep disturbance, including night wakings and nightmares
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Social isolation and/or sudden loss of friends
  • Missing or damaged property
  • Frequent headaches, stomachaches or other physical complaints
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Poor academic performance
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Low self-esteem

For more information on bullying and how you can help your child, please visit stopbullying.gov.

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