Kids most at risk are bullied for their identity. Here’s how to help


Every generation has stories of bullying, but perhaps today’s adults aren’t as familiar with what it means to a child to be bullied.

According to a new study, physical bullying – such as confrontations with hitting or pushing – actually showed only a very small connection with a risk of psychological distress.

“For adults doing this research, assume that bullying consists of being stuffed in a locker and being beaten up in the playground,” said the study’s lead author, John Rovers, professor and John R. Ellis Distinguished Chair in Pharmacy Practice at Drake University in DesMoines, Iowa. “We’ve found that it really has remarkably little effect.”

Researchers took data from the 2018 Iowa Youth Survey of sixth, eighth, and eleventh graders to see if there was an association between bullying and mental health and suicidal thoughts, according to the study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

The results showed that different forms of bullying had an impact on feelings of sadness or hopelessness or suicidal thoughts – but that they did not affect students equally.

Identity bullying, which includes bullying based on sexual orientation or gender identity and sexual jokes, was correlated with significant feelings of distress or attempted suicide, the study found.

Cyberbullying and social bullying—ignoring someone or turning peers against them—followed identity bullying in terms of magnitude of impact.

The study is limited in that the sample did not contain high levels of racial and religious diversity, but it does show “an issue that is very consistent with recent surveys, as well as what I see in my clinical practice,” Kind said and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Neha Chaudhary, chief medical officer at BeMe Health, which serves on the faculty of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Chaudhary was not involved in the investigation.

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However, the surveyed teachers and school administrators were most concerned about physical bullying, according to the study.

“This is a good lesson for schools and families as they think about anti-bullying initiatives and how to talk to young people about the impact of bullying,” Chaudhary said.

It makes sense that identity would be a particularly painful form of bullying.

“Identity is so incredibly important for children and young people in their development and not being able to be themselves without fear of judgment or bullying from others not only isolates but can damage their confidence, peace of mind and their ability to see a vastly transforming future for themselves that is free of pain,” Chaudhary said in an email. “People just want to be themselves and be loved for who they are.”

The survey data reviewed by the study team revealed a disturbing statistic when it came to the state of adolescents’ mental health.

“About 70,000 students took part in this survey. Five percent of them had attempted suicide in the past year,” Rovers said. “That’s 3,500 children.”

And results from this week from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s biannual Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that mental distress is getting worse in teens.

At rates that have “increased dramatically” over the past decade, most high school girls (57%) felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, twice as many as teens (29%), according to the CDC. Almost one in three teenage girls is seriously considering attempting suicide.

Most LGBQ+ students (52%) have also experienced poor mental health recently, and more than 1 in 5 have attempted suicide in the past year, the CDC survey showed.

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Solutions that address youth mental health could come from families and schools working together — and not focusing on what the kids can change on their own, Rovers said.

“Blaming it on a 9-year-old kid isn’t right,” he added.

When it comes to bullying, there are three types of players: the bully, the victim, and the child who is both being bullied and bullying others, Rovers said.

All three need support, said Dr. Hina Talib, Specialist in Adolescent Medicine at the Atria Institute in New York and Associate Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

“Bullying is one such pattern of behavior that harms the victim of the bullying, the children who might witness the bullying, and even the bully himself,” said Talib, who was not involved in the research.

Rarely does a child exercise power over others for their own sake, Talib added.

While caregivers may have the first reaction to punishing their child when they hear they’re bullying others, it’s important to dig a little deeper into what’s going on with them, she said.

“There are probably reasons that make them behave this way,” Talib explained. “Below that, I think it’s important to see that their child is hurt too.”

She advised them to come to them with the attitude: “This is not acceptable behavior and that is why and I am here to help you with that,” Talib said.

“Even the bully can and should be helped,” she added. “There’s almost always more in there.”

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There are many ideas about what motivates bullying behavior, but one could be that children mimic how they see the adults in their lives resolving conflicts, Rovers said. You might learn that violence is a way to protect yourself.

Children who are being bullied may not always tell the adults in their life directly what is wrong, Talib said.

Instead of hearing about cruel words or isolating actions, families may first see stress, anxiety, depression, stomachaches and avoiding school, she said.

She recommended paying close attention to your child and their individual behavior and taking action if you notice a change. This could mean asking directly, having your pediatrician talk to you about it privately, or even coming to you indirectly.

A helpful way might be to ask about their friends’ experiences.

Say something like, “There was an interesting research paper on bullying and it got me thinking about bullying. I was interested to know if your friends have been bullied or if you have ever witnessed a bullying situation,” Talib said.

If you find your child is a victim of bullying, Talib says, it’s a good idea to reach out to the school and other family to develop a plan of action together.

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