Archive for December, 2013

The Relationship Between Bullying and Depression: It’s Complicated

Depressed kids may become targets for bullies, a new study finds.








Children who are ostracized by their peers and bullied often become depressed, but new research suggests that the relationship may work the other way around as well: children’s depressive symptoms in elementary school precede social victimization and isolation later on.

Previous studies that tried to work out whether bullying causes depression, or whether depressed kids become magnets for bullies — or whether the two problems drive each other — have produced conflicting results. However, the new study found a clear path from depressive symptoms in 4th grade to being bullied in 5th grade and rejected more widely by peers in 6th.

Researchers followed 486 children, gauging their symptoms of depression and their levels of social acceptance through confidential surveys filled out by parents, teachers and the kids themselves; the children rated themselves and their classmates. Most of the students were white, 16% were African American and 4% of Hispanic or mixed race. Half were from upper-middle-class or high-income families, a quarter were in the middle class and the rest were low income.

While children with symptoms of depression in 4th grade became prone to peer victimization later, the researchers found that being bullied earlier didn’t increase children’s risk of depression in later grades. The children with the highest levels of depressive symptoms in 4th grade were more likely to be bullied by 5th grade.

Children who show symptoms of depression — having low energy, social withdrawal, passive behavior, excessive crying, and having an obsessive, negative self-focus — may first be rejected by peers and then targeted by bullies.

Indeed, the findings jibe with some evolutionary theories about depression, which note that the posture and behaviors associated with depression are almost identical to the submission signals used by low status animals in hierarchical species. Bullying, meanwhile, looks similar to some of the dominance behaviors of high-ranking animals.

Therefore, the thinking goes, children with depression are not only less likable to others, but they are also visibly marked as having low status. That attracts the attention of bullies who like to prey on weaker victims who won’t fight back. It also leads other children who might previously have liked them, or at least tolerated them, to become afraid to associate with them too, because they don’t want to attract the bullies’ attention themselves and because being linked with low-status peers may reduce their own social standing.

So by 6th grade, not only are the depressed children more likely to be bullied, they’re also more likely to be rejected by the rest of their peer group. However, this effect was less strong than the connection between 4th-grade depression and 5th-grade bullying.

The authors write that the “findings suggest that depressive symptoms not only exert [immediate] adverse effects…but also interfere with the developmental maturation of relationships in ways that create longer term social difficulties.”

The researchers also note that the pathway from depression to bullying may run the other way in older grades. As socializing becomes more important in the teen years, vulnerable kids who experience social difficulties like bullying and rejection may become more likely to develop depression, or if they were previously depressed, their social problems may exacerbate their symptoms.

The authors conclude:

Even subclinical levels of depressive symptoms can undermine development of peer relationships and…intervention efforts should be aimed at minimizing the adverse influence of depressive symptoms and associated deficits on these relationships.

Teaching children to be kinder to those who are already feeling low might also be something to consider.

The study was published in Child Development.


Bullying and Teasing: No Laughing Matter

Know the facts about bullying, even if you don’t think it affects your child.

by Parents Raising Readers and Learners



Unfortunately, teasing is often part of growing up — almost every child experiences it. But it isn’t always as innocuous as it seems. Words can cause pain. Teasing becomes bullying when it is repetitive or when there is a conscious intent to hurt another child. It can be verbal bullying (making threats, name-calling), psychological bullying (excluding children, spreading rumors), or physical bullying (hitting, pushing, taking a child’s possessions).

How Bullying Starts

Bullying behavior is prevalent throughout the world and it cuts across socio-economic, racial/ethnic, and cultural lines. Researchers estimate that 20 to 30 percent of school-age children are involved in bullying incidents, as either perpetrators or victims. Bullying can begin as early as preschool and intensify during transitional stages, such as starting school in 1st grade or going into middle school.

Victims of bullying are often shy and tend to be physically weaker than their peers. They may also have low self-esteem and poor social skills, which makes it hard for them to stand up for themselves. Bullies consider these children safe targets because they usually don’t retaliate.

Effects of Bullying

If your child is the victim of bullying, he may suffer physically and emotionally, and his schoolwork will likely show it. Grades drop because, instead of listening to the teacher, kids are wondering what they did wrong and whether anyone will sit with them at lunch. If bullying persists, they may be afraid to go to school. Problems with low self-esteem and depression can last into adulthood and interfere with personal and professional lives.

Bullies are affected too, even into adulthood; they may have difficulty forming positive relationships. They are more apt to use tobacco and alcohol, and to be abusive spouses. Some studies have even found a correlation with later criminal activities.

Warning Signs

If you’re concerned that your child is a victim of teasing or bullying, look for these signs of stress:

  • Increased passivity or withdrawal
  • Frequent crying
  • Recurrent complaints of physical symptoms such as stomach-aches or headaches with no apparent cause
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Sudden drop in grades or other learning problems
  • Not wanting to go to school
  • Significant changes in social life — suddenly no one is calling or extending invitations
  • Sudden change in the way your child talks — calling herself a loser, or a former friend a jerk

How to Help 

First, give your child space to talk. If she recounts incidences of teasing or bullying, be empathetic. If your child has trouble verbalizing her feelings, read a story about children being teased or bullied. You can also use puppets, dolls, or stuffed animals to encourage a young child to act out problems.

Once you’ve opened the door, help your child begin to problem-solve. Role-play situations and teach your child ways to respond. You might also need to help your child find a way to move on by encouraging her to reach out and make new friends. She might join teams and school clubs to widen her circle.

At home and on the playground:

Adults need to intervene to help children resolve bullying issues, but calling another parent directly can be tricky unless he or she is a close friend. It is easy to find yourself in a “he said/she said” argument. Try to find an intermediary: even if the bullying occurs outside of school, a teacher, counselor, coach, or after-school program director may be able to help mediate a productive discussion.

If you do find yourself talking directly to the other parent, try to do it in person rather than over the phone. Don’t begin with an angry recounting of the other child’s offenses. Set the stage for a collaborative approach by suggesting going to the playground, or walking the children to school together, to observe interactions and jointly express disapproval for any unacceptable behavior.

At school:

Many schools (sometimes as part of a statewide effort) have programs especially designed to raise awareness of bullying behavior and to help parents and teachers deal effectively with it. Check with your local school district to see if it has such a program.

Schools and parents can work effectively behind the scenes to help a child meet and make new friends via study groups or science-lab partnerships. If you are concerned about your child:

  • Share with the teacher what your child has told you; describe any teasing or bullying you may have witnessed.
  • Ask the teacher if she sees similar behavior at school, and enlist her help in finding ways to solve the problem.
  • If she hasn’t seen any instances of teasing, ask that she keep an eye out for the behavior you described.
  • If the teacher says your child is being teased, find out whether there are any things he may be doing in class to attract teasing. Ask how he responds to the teasing, and discuss helping him develop a more effective response.
  • After the initial conversation, be sure to make a follow-up appointment to discuss how things are going.
  • If the problem persists, or the teacher ignores your concerns, and your child starts to withdraw or not want to go to school, consider the possibility of “therapeutic intervention.” Ask to meet with the school counselor or psychologist, or request a referral to the appropriate school professional.

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