The Enduring Effects of Bullying

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It is a sad fact that many teenagers and young adults will endure bullying throughout their lives. Being bullied can impact young adults’ mental and physical health in the present and can last long into the future.

What is Bullying?

Bullying is the intentional, persistent and repeated threat of aggressive physical behaviour or verbal abuse. It can also involve social behaviour that intends to cause physical, social and psychological harm.

Bullying can involve an individual or group who misuses power (or perceived power) over one or more people who are seen to be at a situational disadvantage. It can be in the open or hidden and usually involves a real or perceived power imbalance, e.g. social, age, size, disability, popularity, or academic standing.

Bullying can happen in person or online. It is not a disagreement, clash of personalities, or fallout between friends.

Types of Bullying

Bullying transcends gender, age and culture. Our role as parents, educators, families, brothers, sisters, teachers, and professionals is to ensure that bullying is not happening in our systems; at home, school, or work.

There are three main types of bullying: verbal, social and physical.

Verbal bullying involves saying, writing or sharing unpleasant, mean or cruel comments, for example:

  • Teasing and taunting
  • Name-calling or refusing to use the correct name of the victim
  • Inappropriate gender, sexual or ability-related remarks
  • Threatening to cause harm to the victim or those they love and causing fear in doing so
  • Writing untrue and unkind articles, notes, and reviews to cause embarrassment, harm or injury
  • Using hurtful words linked to perceived inequality to cause shame
  • Shouting or swearing to cause fear

Social bullying or relational bullying involves intending to cause harm to the victim’s relationship with others, e.g. by harming the victim’s reputation, inciting mistrust or dislike in others, and causing damage to the victim’s relationships and or support system. The actions are taken to cause the victim to be ostracised or isolated and include:

  • Leaving someone out intentionally (parties, gatherings, group chats)
  • Spreading rumours about them
  • Embarrassing, teasing or belittling them in public 
  • Telling others not to be friends with the victim 
  • Telling victims that they are not good enough/sporty enough/able enough to join in team activities or sports
  • Highlighting inability or disability to exclude them
  • Threatening to leave out, withdraw or cause harm in social situations 
  • Holding the victim up or derailing their plans to cause them distress or harm (making them late, preventing attendance, missing opportunities)

Physical bullying involves causing intentional harm to the victim or their possessions, for example:

  • Hitting, pushing, blocking, punching and kicking
  • Spitting and/or breathing in the victim’s face 
  • Tripping, nudging, or bumping into the victim
  • Taking or breaking the victim’s belongings or threatening to do so 
  • Threatening the victims, their family, or their animals
  • Stealing or hiding the victim’s belongings without consent
  • Damaging or defacing articles belonging to the victim

There are many other examples, so listen to your young person – if it sounds unpleasant or unkind, it could be a form of bullying.

Physical and Psychological Harm

Children and teenagers who are bullied describe a loss of confidence in themselves. They describe feeling not good enough, a failure, or an increased need to be perfect. This system of negative core beliefs can directly impact the development of maladaptive or disordered behaviours.

Young people may experience feelings of guilt, shame, fear and sadness. These are the same feelings that are prevalent in eating disorders. Perfectionism is another trait seen in many young people who go on to meet the diagnostic criteria for eating disorders. 

Children and teenagers who have been bullied have more frequent somatic complaints than children who have not been subject to bullying. Somatic complaints may include headaches, stomach pain and sleep disturbances.

Bullying can lead to a later diagnosis of anxiety, depression, self-harm, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD (C-PTSD). In extreme cases, bullying can lead young people to consider ending their life. The sad fact is that bullying is responsible for death in children, teenagers, and adults worldwide.

Bullying at School

Bullying at school can begin at any age. Younger children, upper primary, middle and secondary school children report being bullied. The sad reality is that many children will not discuss bullying with their teachers. Those who do reach out may not fully disclose the extent of the situation.

Recent research in Australia has shown that good school management can reduce incidents by up to 50% where bullying is less severe. However, in more severe cases informing teachers saw an increase in further incidents.

The effects of bullying can stretch into the future, with one study from King’s College London finding that those bullied as children were more likely to report a lower quality of life at 50. A previous study from Warwick University also found that bullying had long-term effects on health, jobs, and relationships.

Bullying is also linked to higher risks of mental health problems, including depression and an increased risk for suicide. Children who were bullied and were also bullies had mental health conditions that required treatment, such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and substance abuse. 

Bullying and Eating Disorders

Over 65% of children and teenagers diagnosed with an eating disorder (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), and binge eating disorder) believe that being bullied contributed to the later development of their diagnosed eating disorder.

Weight stigma or weight bias (sometimes referred to as weight discrimination) involves stereotyping or discrimination based on a young person’s weight or size. This includes beliefs about a person’s characteristics, personality, ability or disability based purely on their shape or size.

Weight stigma can lead to teasing, belittling and bullying. Weight stigma, shaming, teasing, and bullying are leading causes in the development of eating disorders in children, teenagers and young adults.

Children and teenagers who are victims of weight-based stigmatisation are more likely to:

  • Develop symptoms of binge eating disorder (BED)
  • Engage in frequent binge eating episodes
  • Be at high risk for diagnosis of eating disorders during their lifetime

Asia and Weight Stigma

Children and young people in Asian countries are often subject to cultural messaging, reinforcing weight bias. Food, weight and eating are intertwined, leaving young people open to developing eating disorders at an alarming rate. Eating disorders in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan are increasing in number and severity.

Doctors, teachers, parents, and extended families can contribute to the shame children, teenagers, and young adults feel in relation to their developing bodies. Research indicates that physicians and family members are the most common source of weight bias that young people in Asia encounter.

Eating disorder education for professionals in South East Asia is minimal, even in nutrition and dietician education. The Wave Programmes are the only dedicated programmes for teenagers and young adults in the Asia Pacific Region.

The Impact of Weight Stigma on Children and Teenagers

Being bullied or subject to weight-related discrimination is known to have far-reaching physical and psychological effects on young people. It is linked to depression, body image concerns and body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), low self-confidence, anxiety, and eating disorders.

Conclusion

Bullying can affect all areas of a young adult’s life. Their mental and physical health can suffer hugely, and parents can be hurt by it too. The effects can last long into the future, with people bullied as children reporting low happiness levels as adults. The mental health problems that being bullied causes can last for years.

Healing is possible. Contact The Wave today to learn more about our residential treatment programmes in beautiful Malaysia. Our programmes are aligned with Health At Every Size principles and values. The Wave is committed to ending bullying at home, school, and online, and is proactive in ending weight-related stigma and bias in our communities and, particularly in South East Asia, our adopted home. We will strive to do our part to keep learning in the hope of increasing education and resources for parents, teachers and professionals on subjects related to eating disorders and disordered eating.


Fiona Yassin is the International Clinical Director of The Wave Clinic. Fiona is a UK Registered Adolescent and Family Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor (Licence number #361609 NCP/ICP), further trained in the specialty of Eating Disorders and Borderline Personality Disorder Treatment. Fiona is trained in FBT (Family Based Therapy), CBTE for eating disorders, FREED (King’s College, London), EMDR for eating disorders (EMDRIA) and has a Post-Graduate Diploma in Neuroscience and Trauma from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Fiona works with international families and family offices from the UK, Dubai, Kuwait, Singapore and Malaysia. Fiona can be contacted by email on [email protected].

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