Bullying in School and Young People’s Mental Health

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Bullying in school is a huge social and public health problem across the world. School bullying affects young people’s well-being, academic performance, and mental health as adults.

Research shows that young people who are bullied are more likely to develop several mental health disorders, including eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. Bullying is associated with serious symptoms of mental health problems including violent behaviour, self-harm, and psychosis.

Given the risks of bullying in school, preventing bullying should be a priority for schools and social services. Parents can also help by noticing the signs that a young person is being bullied or bullying others, having open and supportive conversations with their child, and working with their school.

This blog explores some of the causes of bullying and its consequences for young people’s well-being as children and young adults. It also offers some information on how parents can respond to bullying to help safeguard their children and other young people.

What Is Bullying?

Bullying is when someone or a group of people deliberately harm another person who they have some kind of power over. Bullying can involve physical, verbal, and/or emotional harm. It might include physical aggression, name-calling, spreading rumours, and exclusion from social groups.

Bullying can happen in real life or through virtual platforms such as social media or text messaging. This is known as cyberbullying.

One-off incidents of harm are not usually considered bullying. Instead, bullying involves repeated patterns of hurtful actions where it is difficult or impossible for the person being bullied to defend themselves. 

The power imbalance between a bully and their target can be maintained by various factors, including popularity, physical strength, and age.

How Common Is Bullying in School?

Sadly, bullying is still very common in schools, both among younger children and adolescents. 

A study of almost 65,000 UK schoolchildren found that almost a quarter of young people (24%) were frequently bullied. 

Certain groups of young people are more likely to be bullied than others. These include:

  • young people with special educational needs or disabilities
  • children on free school meals
  • LGBTQI+ young people

Bullying can affect young people of all genders, but males are slightly more likely to be bullied than females.

How Does School Bullying Affect Young People’s Mental Health?

Experiencing bullying can have a big impact on a young person’s well-being. They may experience anxiety, low self-esteem, isolation, fear, sadness, nightmares, and other distressing feelings. Unsurprisingly, bullying can affect young people’s mental health, both in the present and in the future.

Researchers have established that bullying:

School Bullying and Children’s Mental Health

Studies show that children who are targets of bullying are more likely to experience symptoms of:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • social isolation
  • self-harm behaviours
  • suicidal ideation
  • psychotic symptoms such as delusions and auditory or visual hallucinations

Being bullied can also affect the way young people behave towards others, making them more likely to show violent behaviours and bully others themselves.

Researchers have found that the link between bullying and mental health symptoms cannot be explained by other factors, such as family environments that may make young people more vulnerable to both bullying and mental health disorders. Instead, being a target of bullying itself makes developing mental health problems more likely.

For example, one study found that children who were bullied were more likely to develop anxiety and depression the following year, even when controlling for social relationships and backgrounds. 

Bullying, Development, and Mental Health as Young Adults

The effects of being bullied during childhood can continue throughout adolescence and into young adulthood. Young adults who were bullied as children show lasting consequences for their mental and psychological well-being, relationship and trust issues, and eating disorders and body image.

Bullying, Relationships, and Trust

Bullying at school may affect a young person’s ability to trust others as they move into adult life. This lack of trust can make it difficult to form healthy friendships and relationships, affecting many aspects of their life and development. For example, it may lead to social isolation and avoidance of others or cause someone to stay in an abusive relationship.

Bullying and Disordered Eating

People who were bullied and teased about their appearance during childhood are more likely to develop body dissatisfaction and disordered eating behaviours later on. Research also shows that any kind of bullying – whether based on appearance or not – makes it more likely that a young person will develop symptoms of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.

Trauma, Bullying, and Symptoms of Psychosis

Research has established that experiences of trauma are associated with the development of psychosis. Bullying is one of the most common forms of trauma and adversity that children can face.

Research has found that young people who experience bullying are almost three times as likely to report psychotic symptoms by the age of 12 than those who don’t experience any traumatic events. This relationship remained significant even after taking into account other factors, including gender, genetic liability, and socioeconomic situation.

While it’s still not clear what explains the link between bullying and psychotic symptoms, scientists have some ideas. Bullying may affect young people’s ability to identify their own emotions and understand the mental states of themselves and others, traits associated with the development of psychosis. 

Social isolation, a common consequence of bullying, also makes it more likely that young people at a high risk of psychosis will develop the disorder

Bullying at School and Borderline Personality Disorder

Bullying at school and other kinds of peer victimisation are some of the main risk factors for the development of borderline personality disorder. In particular, bullying is linked to early-onset BPD when BPD symptoms appear before a young person reaches their teenage years. 

It’s also associated with self-harm during later adolescence, especially if it’s accompanied by a difficult or unstable family environment.

What Are the Signs of Bullying at School?

Bullying can have a pervasive impact on a young person’s life and future. This means that identifying when a young person is bullied is really important. Looking out for the signs of bullying allows parents, teachers, and other figures to intervene as soon as possible and offer support to those involved.

There’s no single sign that a young person is being bullied. However, there are some things you might notice. These include:

  • being afraid to go to school
  • missing school
  • doing less well in school than usual
  • losing confidence and self-esteem
  • becoming more nervous, anxious, or shy
  • withdrawing from friendships and social groups
  • difficulties sleeping or eating
  • unexplained physical injuries
  • lost belongings

Having open conversations about bullying can also help to quickly recognise when bullying happens to a young person or their peers. It’s important to:

  • Have regular discussions about bullying as part of family conversations
  • Let your child know that bullying can happen to anyone and emphasise the importance of sharing when someone is being bullied
  • Ask a young person about their day in school

For younger children or children with disabilities, it may help to use pictures such as sad or happy faces to encourage discussion and understanding.

How Should You Speak to a Young Person Who Has Been Bullied or Bullying?

If a young person shares with you that they have been bullied, you should stay calm and offer support. This might involve:

  • Thanking them for sharing the information with you
  • Letting them know that what happened is not okay and asking how they would like you to help
  • Validating their feelings and recognising that while things are difficult and may become even harder, you are there to support them, and it will get better

If you find out that a young person is bullying others, you should avoid being angry or upset. Instead, respond in a calm and supportive way. You should:

  • Ask your child to explain what happens while reminding them that whatever someone has done to them, bullying and discrimination are not okay
  • Criticise their behaviours rather than their whole person
  • Praise kind and honest behaviours
  • Make sure they are not experiencing aggressive or violent behaviour at home
  • Work with the school to resolve any ongoing issues

What Can Parents and Carers Do to Prevent Bullying?

If you think your child may be being bullied or bullying others at school, there are a few steps you should take.

It’s important to speak to the school about what’s happening. Many schools have an anti-bullying policy that explains the appropriate point of contact. This might be a teacher, year group leader, or another member of staff.

When you speak with the school, they should draw up a plan about how they will resolve the issue. You should expect the school to follow up on the issue and tell you what has happened.

If you feel like the school isn’t responding appropriately, you might want to talk to a more senior member of staff of the governing body. You could also speak to local government teams that work to prevent prejudice and build community safety.

As well as speaking with the school, you might want to contact local support groups or online helplines for additional advice and support. 

The Wave Clinic: Transformative Mental Health Support for Young People

The Wave Clinic is a residential treatment space that offers specialised programs for adolescents and young adults. We aim to change the way a generation experiences treatment, supporting young people to build their identities, learn new skills, and lay the foundations for a fulfilling future.

Our approach combines expert clinical care with education, global citizenship, and enriching experiences, giving young people the chance to explore life paths and find their place in the world. Alongside personal learning programs that continue a young person’s education, we offer vocational qualifications, internships, volunteering, and skill learning from different cultures and communities.

At The Wave, young people join a caring and supportive community of young people and staff members. They develop interpersonal skills, grow in self-confidence, and build close and supportive relationships with others. 

If you’re interested in our programs, contact us today. We’re here to make a difference.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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