I personally experienced childhood bullying solely based on the colour of my skin, so I know first-hand how detrimental it can be. To this day, I’m still paying the price for the bullying I had to endure, because I got no support from anyone, and that included my mother. This is why I wrote the article, ‘How To Teach Children About Mental Health‘, which is why my follow-up to this article is about teaching children about bullying to help them with their mental health.
What Is Bullying?
Although most of us will likely have a basic definition and understanding of what bullying is, let’s just make sure we’re on the same page when it comes to children. The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth Houston), states that bullying is unwanted, aggressive behaviour that presents in an engagement with other another person or people. This involves a real or perceived imbalance of power.
These kinds of encounters have to happen more than once, involving a systematic abuse of power over multiple encounters, either psychological or physical, with the intention to cause distress to someone (Dale, Russell, and Wolke, 2014).
It’s the prolonged nature of this form of abuse that makes it bullying. Thus, isolated incidents of fighting or arguments wouldn’t be considered bullying if they’re one-time events (Best Day Psychiatry and Counseling).
For researchers like Arseneault (2018), the key feature of bullying is the power imbalance that exists between the bully and those being bullied. This can manifest in a size difference (this is the version most seen in films and TV shows) or the size of the group involved in bullying. But it can also be more subjective, such as someone’s intelligence and attractiveness at both ends of the spectrum, as well as disabilities and ethnicity. Sometimes it can just be environmental, with someone joining a new school.
The power imbalance when I was being bullied was because of the colour of my skin. Everyone else was white and I wasn’t, and the majority of my peers and adults were happy to let it happen.
It should be noted that for this form of abuse to be considered bullying, it has to be perpetrated by their peers. A child can’t be bullied by an adult, that is just abuse. That can’t be sugar-coated to make it more palatable by calling it bullying.
The Best Day Psychiatry and Counseling also provide a list of examples of bullying, just to give you an idea of what forms it can take:
- Physical intimidation.
- Physical harm, such as tripping, hitting, pushing, or spitting.
- Social exclusion.
- Making fun of someone and teasing them, name-calling, and insulting them.
- Property destruction.
- Forcing the person being bullied to do something or say something they don’t want to do or say.
- Spreading rumours or lies about someone.
Why Teaching Children About Bullying And Mental Wellbeing Is Important
A study by Källmén and Hallgren (2021) used the mandatory Stockholm school survey data from 2014, 2018, and 2020 to investigate bullying at school. The total number of children in the study was 28,563, and they found that exposure to bullying at school was associated with higher odds of mental health issues. They also found that boys were more vulnerable to bullying, with them being four times more likely to develop mental health issues, than those who hadn’t been bullied. Whereas girls were only 2.4 times more likely.
Unfortunately, the consequences of bullying don’t end when the bullying in our childhood does. If you don’t know this already, then let me say it again by quoting an article written for the BBC:
Bullying can make children’s lives a misery and cause lifelong health problems
According to Arseneault (2018), the existing research indicates that being bullied in childhood is associated with distress and other symptoms of poor mental health. They also state that the consequences of childhood bullying can persist into our twilight years, affecting mental health and our physical and socioeconomic outcomes.
This is by Dale, Russell, and Wolke (2014) and by the BBC’s article, which was reporting on recent research on bullying. They reported that the childhood effects of bullying can linger for decades, causing long-lasting changes that’ll increase the person’s risk of mental and physical health issues. Adding, that anyone who’s experienced bullying as a child will understand the feelings of shame that can come packaged with this experience.
I can testify to that being the case based on my own experience of bullying and the scar it left on who I am, stopping the person I would have been from existing. I was suicidal by the time I was eight years old because of the bullying I endured. And I wouldn’t have embraced my reckless drug taking which was fuelled by my hope that I would die as a result, while not actively trying to kill myself, if it wasn’t for the bullying I went through.
Just like other people who’ve experienced abuse, they can turn to substance use to manage the trauma it caused (UTHealth Houston), as I did.
This is why teaching children about bullying could no only reduce bullying between children and young adults, avoiding the mental health symptoms they cause. But also help present the long-term psychological and socioeconomic difficulties that are symptoms of it in adulthood (Arseneault, 2018).
Our childhoods are important to our development, because this is where we start to identify our roles in life, figure out who are, and develop our personalities (UTHealth Houston). When I was bullied, it lead to me developing an identity crisis, because the source of all my problems was the colour of my skin. I blamed myself, or rather the colour of my skin for all my problems, which isn’t a healthy way to live. Really, the source of my problems were the ignorant people who had a problem with the colour of my skin, and not actually the colour of my skin. Black is beautiful!
Such bullying can also cause trust issues, problems with self-esteem, and anger (UTHealth Houston). Or, in my cause, it massively contributed to my development of borderline personality disorder (BPD). This is supported by Dale, Russell, and Wolke (2014), who stated that people who’ve experienced bullying are three-six times more likely to develop symptoms of psychosis, BPD, depression, eating disorders, engage in self-harm, and engage in suicidal behaviour. I have experienced all of these, and I start my eating disorders therapy this Friday. It only took 23 years to get support for this.
Between the bullying and the lack of emotional support from my mum, I developed a distrust of people and an inability to form and maintain relationships. A big part of my BPD is caused by my attachment issues. No wonder bullying can have lifelong consequences.
So just how wide spread and how much of a problem is bullying? According to the CDC, one in five high school children in America have reported being bullied at school. The CDC also reports that one in six high school students get bullied online.
One of the less common symptoms of bullying is how the person being bullied can fight back with extreme and sudden violence (Best Day Psychiatry and Counseling). But when it comes to America, at least according to the Stop Bullying organisation in the US, bullying has lead to people experiencing bullying by being an active shooter in a school.
Stop Bullying claim that in the 1990s, active shooters in 12 of the 15 school shooting cases had a history of being bullied. But it’s likely America is unique in this, as most people who’s mental health suffer as a result of abuse end up harming themselves rather than other people. This is also from the 90s, so things might have changed since then.
The UKs Anti-Bullying Alliance, reporting on the Department for Education’s longitudinal study of young people in England, states that 40% of year 10 students had been bullied in the year the study took place. That’s two out of five. Making us worse than America.
According to Healthline, the UK has 16,000 children who permanently stay home from school as a result of bullying, which is clearly going to affect their education. This will then affect the rest of their lives. But no matter how you look at it, that’s a lot of children experiencing abuse and trauma.
Teaching Children About Bullying To Prevent Bullying
Before we start with the how lets start with the why. Arseneault (2018) presents a strong argument as to why bullying should be considered another form of childhood abuse, no different to domestic abuse. They make this argument because of the harm bullying has on the development of the person on the receiving end of that abuse.
The BBC argued something similar, saying there’s an increasing number of educationalists who want to see bullying changed from being seen as inevitable element of growing up, to a violation of a child’s human rights. Both sources have a point, because bullying causes the person affected to have a high chance of poor outcomes through out their life in every area of their life. Just like all the other forms of abuse.
One of the reasons why bullying should be considered the same, or worse, than other forms of abuse is because of studies like that conducted by Lereya, Copeland, Costello, and Wolke (2015). Their study, which used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in the UK (ALSPAC) and the Great Smoky Mountains Study in the USA (GSMS) longitudinal studies, provided data of 4,026 participants. The study found that being bullied by our peers during childhood can have worse long-term adverse effects than maltreatment caused by a parent. Which just goes to show just how important friendships can be in our lives.
So how can we tackle childhood bullying to protect the future mental wellbeing of our children? We can start by teaching our children about bullying and abuse. One of the first things we can teach our children is that bullying can be traumatic for everyone concerned (Best Day Psychiatry and Counseling), which includes bystanders and the bullies themselves (CDC).
Support for this comes from Rivers, Poteat, Noret, and Ashurst (2009). Their study using a sample of 2,002 students ages 12-14 attending 14 schools in the UK, found that observing bullying at school predicted risks to mental health above that of those directly involved in bullying, either as the perpetrator or the victim. There’s no doubt in my mind that watching someone being bullied can still cause someone to experience trauma, but more so than the victim is surprising to me, and I’d love to find another study that could replicate the results.
A study by Benedict, Vivier, Gjelsvik (2015) sort to investigate the connection between child mental health problems and being a bully. Using data from the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health, they identified 63,997 children with mental health issues who were also a bully, according to their parents/guardians. They also claimed that children with depression or anxiety had a threefold chance of become a bully. Children with anxiety and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) had similar odds. This is why it’s important to teach children about mental health.
None of this surprise me. Children will seek a form of control over their lives with the limited options they have in front of them. And Benedict, Vivier, Gjelsvik (2015) study suggests one of those forms of control is to bully others. After years of relentless racist abuse, I eventually started taking it out on someone with stupid comments every now and then that shame me to this day. We’re on good terms now, not that we were on bad terms at the time.
One thing we should try to remember is that people who are bullied can become bullies as well. And it’s these people who are at the greatest risk of mental health issues, at least according to Best Day Psychiatry and Counseling.
Look, in the short-term bullying can be detrimental to the wellbeing of the child being bullied. It’s possible some, if not all, of these detrimental affects will naturally disappear when the bullying stops (BBC; and Arseneault, 2018), but to aid in that, let’s educate our children about bullying. That way we can hopefully avoid any long-term affects as well.
Teaching Children About Bullying
All adults have their role to play in preventing bully. Teaching children about bullying and how to safely stand up to it is one way to do that (Stop Bullying). The first thing adults can do to aid in teaching children about bullying, is to help them understand that bullying is bad. We can help deliver this message by leading by example, and showing them how serious bullying is.
Adults also need to create safe spaces where children can be empowered to help show adults how bullying is occurring and what role the adults can play in stopping it (APA). Thus, once we’ve created this space we need to teach children how to use the safe space. We need to make sure children are aware that they are part of the solution to bullying, because one thing that can make us feel helpless is a loss of power, and bullying is about taking someone’s power.
One of the easiest places to start when teaching children about bullying is to teach them how to treat others with kindness. You can also do this by leading by example as well (Stop Bullying). This can then lead to you teaching your children about how it’s wrong to make fun of people for being different, whether it’s about someone’s ethnicity, sexual identity, gender identity, religion, economic status, appearance, disabilities, etc. (Kids Health). Encourage your children to interact with people who are different. Help your children understand how important it is to make other children feel included.
Also, teach your children that it’s not ok to respond to bullying by bullying themselves (APA), because that can lead to the worst outcomes for them in both the short and long term. It’s better for our children to know to walk away from a bad situation than to degrade themselves by joining a bully at their level.
Another easy way to help children to understand how bullying is bad it to discuss how the child would like to be treated, showing them that that’s how they should then treat others. Turn this into a set of expectations of how they should behave towards others and how they should expect the same treatment back.
We’ve all grown up with with the idea that snitches get stitches, or something to that affect. For some reason, a significant part of society believe it’s wrong to speak up when something bad has happened. But that’s just not true. All that does is allow more bad things to happen and for more people to get hurt. Therefore, we need to teach our children that bringing bullying to the attention of adults isn’t wrong (APA), and that it’s the right thing to do. Let’s not damage the next generation with the harmful things we learnt growing up.
To aid with this, we also need to make sure our children know how to get help so that they feel able to report acts of bullying (Stop Bullying). That might mean creating a safe space at home so your children know they can come talk to you about anything, and that you’ll take it seriously and try to help. But it could also mean both you and your children getting involved in the schools safety and antibullying teams (APA).
Encourage your children to communicate with you, by making it a habit for you to check in with them and for them to check in with you. Get your children to talk to you about their friends, what’s going on at school, and what might be bothering them (Stop Bullying).
Another potential skill to teach your children is how changes in the behaviours of their friends might be a sign something is wrong, that they might be being bullied. Help your children to talk to you if they notice their friends behaviour has changed or if their friend’s have become disruptive (Anti-bullying Alliance). This can help identify children going through something they don’t know how to ask for help for.
According to the nonpartisan fact tank, Pew Research Center, 59% of American teens have been bullied online. Thus, when teaching children about bullying we also need to teach them about cyberbullying. Cyberbullying can happen by SMS, social media, gaming chats, or anywhere people interact with others online (UTHealth Houston). In the modern age, this has become a popular method of bullying because it can be done anonymous. Simply put, teach your children that if they don’t have something nice to say while online, then they shouldn’t say anything at all.
This is why it’s important that our children know they can talk to you or another adult about bullying, because parents can’t be everywhere all the time. Make sure your children are aware that they won’t be punished for reporting cyberbullying by having their devices taken away (APA), or that safe space will no longer exist.
Teach your children to be what Stella O’Malley, author of the book, Bully-Proof Kids, calls an ‘upstander’ in an article for The Guardian. Upstanders get involved in things that other people would consider as having nothing to do with them. In the context of bullying, this would be to teach our children that they can subtly deflate a bullying situation by doing something as simple as making eye contact with the person being bullied so you can give them a supportive look. They could also engage in conversation with the person being bullied helping them to ignore what happening, which Stella O’Malley suggests will knock the wind out of the bully. A child bully is likely not to know how to respond to that.
Being an upstander isn’t about engaging with the bully, but their are ways children can learn to step in to negate the bullying. Think of it as an extension of treat others with kindness and wanting to see people being treated as your child would like to be treated.
In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be something we’d need to teach our children, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Thus, teach your children how to handle being bullied (APA). You could do this by practising scenarios at home. This can help them learn how to ignore the bullying or develop other coping strategies. This can also include helping them to identify adults and friends they can talk to about this. If they can confide in a friend, then that friend might be able to help them avoid being alone at school, which are the most likely times a child is likely to experience bullying. The reason for this is that it can take a while for something to be done at a school level, but they’ll need help in the meantime.
Another good thing to do is to teach our children how to engage in the things they enjoy (Stop Bullying). Nurture their interests and hobbies. This is not only good for helping them cope with bullying, but is also something that is good for their mental wellbeing in general. It’s something us adults should learn to do more of as well. Having fun is a great way to restore ourselves. I’ve recently found building Lego sets to be very therapeutic. So try and find what works for your children and yourself as an adult.
In short, teaching children about bullying means it’s easier for them to identify it, which means something can be done about it before it gets out of hand (Stop Bullying). This can protect not just your own children, but everyone’s children.
Just to make it clear, bullying is abuse. No one should have to experience abuse, regardless of age or any other demographic you can think of. But when it’s involving minors, we call it bullying. However, the word, bullying, is also commonly used when talking about the workplace. Our places of work can become just another school yard for bullies who haven’t received the helped they needed.
Because of this, bullying doesn’t end when you leave school. And I’m not just talking about the psychological damage sustained in childhood lasting into adulthood. You can find bullies everywhere, which is why it’s important to teach children about bullying so it doesn’t continue to spread into adulthood and throughout society. Both the bullied and the bullies need tailored support if we want to rid bullying from society.
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, please share your experiences with bullying and teaching children about bullying in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget, if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Arseneault, L. (2018). Annual research review: the persistent and pervasive impact of being bullied in childhood and adolescence: implications for policy and practice. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 59(4), 405-421. Retrieved from https://acamh.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jcpp.12841.
Benedict, F. T., Vivier, P. M., & Gjelsvik, A. (2015). Mental health and bullying in the United States among children aged 6 to 17 years. Journal of interpersonal violence, 30(5), 782-795. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Frances-Benedict/publication/263097736_Mental_Health_and_Bullying_in_the_United_States_Among_Children_Aged_6_to_17_Years/links/540902270cf2822fb738bccd/Mental-Health-and-Bullying-in-the-United-States-Among-Children-Aged-6-to-17-Years.pdf and https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0886260514536279.
Dale, J., Russell, R., & Wolke, D. (2014). Intervening in primary care against childhood bullying: an increasingly pressing public health need. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 107(6), 219–223. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4109144 and https://doi.org/10.1177/0141076814525071.
Källmén, H., & Hallgren, M. (2021). Bullying at school and mental health problems among adolescents: a repeated cross-sectional study. Child and adolescent psychiatry and mental health, 15(1), 1-7. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1186/s13034-021-00425-y, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s13034-021-00425-y, and https://capmh.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13034-021-00425-y.
Lereya, S. T., Copeland, W. E., Costello, E. J., & Wolke, D. (2015). Adult mental health consequences of peer bullying and maltreatment in childhood: two cohorts in two countries. The Lancet Psychiatry, 2(6), 524-531. Retrieved from https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366%2815%2900165-0/fulltext, https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S2215-0366%2815%2900165-0, and https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2215036615001650.
Rivers, I., Poteat, V. P., Noret, N., & Ashurst, N. (2009). Observing bullying at school: The mental health implications of witness status. School Psychology Quarterly, 24(4), 211. Retrieved from https://bura.brunel.ac.uk/bitstream/2438/3990/1/irivers.pdf and https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0018164.