October 20, 2014 Healthy Living

Understanding Bullying

The start of a new school year is often cause for great excitement and eager anticipation for students and parents alike. But if your child ends up being the victim of bullying at school, that excitement can quickly give way to anxiety, depression, changes in sleep and dietary patterns, health issues, absenteeism, and a decline in academic performance, among other effects.

What is Bullying?

There are certain characteristics that distinguish bullying from the routine conflicts that can arise between school-age kids. Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior toward another child that:

  • Is intended to physically or emotionally harm the student
  • Is repeated over time
  • Involves an imbalance of power, real or perceived (as in a mismatch of physical size or strength or degree of popularity among peers)

Bullying can be physical, verbal, or social (affecting relationships). It can be as direct as teasing, physical contact (e.g., hitting, pulling hair), or destruction of another’s property, or as subtle as purposely excluding the victim from group activities, spreading rumors, or manipulation. Often, bullying occurs in areas and at times where and when adult supervision is lax or absent, but otherwise, there’s no consistent pattern – it can happen during the school day or after school hours, in school, on the playground, on the bus, at the bus stop, or even online.

Who Are the Targets, Who Are the Bullies?

While there are no hard and fast indicators that determine who becomes a bully and who becomes a victim, research has shown that there are certain characteristics that may predispose a child to one or the other.

Those who are targets of bullying may be seen as:

  • Differing from their peers in some way, perhaps because of their weight, religion, disability, clothing, general appearance, perceived sexual orientation, or level of intellect
  • Physically weak
  • Less popular than their peers, with few friends
  • Anxious, withdrawn, or exhibiting low self-esteem
  • Annoying or antagonistic

By contrast, children who bully others may:

  • Be easily frustrated or overly aggressive
  • Tend to dominate the social groups in which they move
  • Place a high value on popularity
  • Have trouble with authority and rules
  • View others in a negative light, and violence as a positive means to an end
  • Have issues at home, or parents who are not that involved in their life
  • Have difficulty understanding or responding appropriately to the feelings of others

Warning Signs and Effects

Bullying can be a terrifying experience for students, and it can have lasting negative effects for all involved. The immediate effects of bullying can include depression, anxiety, loneliness, social withdrawal, poor academic performance, diminished self-esteem, and mental and physical health issues, among others. These issues can persist in adulthood and may give rise to problems with alcohol or drug abuse, chronic depression, behavioral disorders, violence, and even suicide.

Despite the seriousness of bullying, however, not all children who are victims ask for help. They may fear retribution from the bully, or backlash from their peers for tattling. Alternatively, they may feel they need to handle the situation themselves in order to regain a sense of control and their self-respect, or they may be so humiliated by the experience that they don’t want to appear vulnerable to yet another person, or risk being judged as weak.

So how is a parent or educator to know if a child is a victim of bullying – or the one doing the bullying? It is important to take note of certain changes and tendencies in the students.

Some warning signs that a child may be a victim of bullying include:

  • Frequent loss of, or damage to, personal belongings (e.g., books, money, electronics, clothing)
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Feigning illness, or increased complaints of stomach aches, headaches, and other ailments
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Loss of interest in schoolwork, declining grades, or a reluctance to go to school
  • Withdrawal from friends, or social situations in general
  • Lowered self-confidence, or self-destructive behaviors
  • Helpless attitude, apathy

Indications that a child may be bullying another student may include:

  • Frequent reports of fighting or an uptick in visits to the principal’s office for disciplinary intervention
  • Increased bouts of anger
  • Newly acquired money or belongings
  • Denial of personal responsibility for negative actions
  • Friendships with other bullies

CDPHP® is partnering with the Albany City School District, the Albany Police Department, and the Albany Police Athletic League (PAL) to raise awareness of bullying, its effects, and its prevention. As part of that effort, the group is launching a poster contest for fourth and fifth graders in the school district to explore strategies for combating bullying and promoting safety, mutual respect, and dignity for all in our schools.

Stay tuned to The Daily Dose blog for additional information on bullying, including how to talk with your student or child about it, and how best to respond if you witness such an incident.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
National Education Association
Albany City School District


Anne Fernandez
About the Author

Dr. Fernandez joined CDPHP in 2012 as a medical director in the behavioral health department. Previously, she worked as a psychiatrist at St. Peter’s Healthcare in Albany and St. Peter’s Addiction Recovery Center clinics throughout the Capital District. Dr. Fernandez received a medical degree from SUNY Stony Brook, an MBA in health systems administration from Union College, a master’s in science and technology studies from RPI, and a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College. She is board-certified in psychiatry and neurology.

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