David Goodman remembers the dread he felt as a kid getting ready to leave for school each morning. A chubby 12-year-old at the time, he knew he’d be taunted with his hated nickname, “Chunk,” all through the day. He also knew that the harassment wouldn’t be limited to name-calling. The neighborhood bullies would always be thinking up ingenious new ways to torment a quiet, sensitive kid — such as the time they stole his bike and tossed it up on top of a jungle gym.
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Like many parents of her generation, Goodman’s mom thought the solution was to tell him to learn to stick up for himself. That advice never helped. What ultimately brought an end to the bullying was a growth spurt — he shot up 6 inches in the eighth grade — and success on his junior high football team.
A 42-year-old state senator from Columbus, Ohio, Goodman now looks back and says he’s found an upside to all that bullying: it made him tougher and at the same time more empathetic to the suffering of others. But, he says, “some 30 odd years later, it still hurts.”
Although people like Goodman can sometimes find a positive outcome to the bullying they endured as children, there is now mounting evidence that many are left with scars — in terms of poorer mental and physical health — that can last a lifetime.
A study just published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry found that adults who were bullied as children were more likely than others to suffer from depression and anxiety, as well as a host of physical ills, including fatigue, pain and a greater susceptibility to colds.
The researchers asked nearly 3,000 Australian adults about their physical and mental health and whether they had experienced severe, routine bullying by peers as a child. Just under 19 percent reported that they had been victims of regular and traumatizing bullying, either physical or verbal.
After taking into account factors that can impact mental and physical health, such as age, gender, income, employment, education and marital status, the researchers found that bullying was linked to later problems with mental and physical health.
No one knows exactly how bullying might lead to future physical health problems, says the study’s lead author, Dr. Stephen Allison, a researcher in the department of psychiatry at Flinders University of South Australia. But, he adds, scientists suspect that the daily stress of being bullied can translate into long-term damage to your body.
Stressing the mind and body
When the brain senses a threat, it activates your fight-or-flight response. That sparks an increase in hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, priming your body for action. Your heart speeds up, your muscles tense, your blood vessels narrow and your digestive system slows down. When your body is kept on high alert for long periods of time, tense muscles can become painful, while your stomach can start to ache.
The changes brought about by chronic stress can also lead to increased inflammation and a weaker immune system making you more susceptible to colds.
Allison and his colleagues found that adults who’d been bullied as kids reported poorer overall health and said that health problems often got in the way of both work and leisure activities. Those who had been bullied also were more likely to report body aches and pains and to complain of low energy levels and fatigue.
Video: Student's suicide attributed to bullying The new study extends to the more immediate effects other researchers have noticed in bullied kids, says William Pollack, an associate clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Centers for Men and Young Men at Harvard’s McLean Hospital.
Bullied kids are more prone to feelings of loneliness, depression and low self-esteem, as well as physical ills like headaches, abdominal pain, nausea, and recurrent upper respiratory infections and sore throats, Pollack says. Pollack also consults with schools that are trying to develop anti-bullying strategies.
He hopes that the new study, coupled with earlier research showing that bullying can also hurt kids’ self-esteem and school performance, will spur teachers and administrators to take the problem more seriously.
"Zero tolerance" policies
Schools have begun to taken notice and have declared "zero tolerance" policies towards bullying. With the recent spate of horrific cases — like that of the boy set on fire in Florida and the Missouri girl who committed suicide after being tormented with vicious text messages — grabbing headlines lately, it has become clear that bullying is not simply a normal part of growing up.
But in some cases, parents are quick to point out that school stances don't necessarily translate into concrete action.
Carie Maeshiro, a 47-year-old administrator from Scottsdale, Ariz., says she has been battling for a year and a half to get her son’s school to step in and protect 12-year-old Garrett from the group of boys that have been tormenting him.
Initially the bullying was limited to verbal abuse, says Maeshiro. But it’s escalated over time. Some days the boys follow Garrett home and pelt him with dirt clods. Recently the group’s ringleader kicked Garrett and warned, “I’m going to bust you up.”
Experts say there are some things parents can do to help their child while pushing the school to do more.
One strategy that won’t work is telling your child to stand up for himself and fight back, says Alan E. Kazdin, a professor of psychology at Yale University and director of Yale's Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic. If you tell your child to stand up for himself, you’re just going to make him feel more isolated and alone, Kazdin says. “It’s one of the more insensitive responses, because you’re telling the child to do something he knows he can’t do.”
Bullies are very sophisticated in their choice of who and where to bully, Kazdin says. “They choose the child who by nature is less likely to be able to fight back. They hit when they know the teachers can’t see them.”
What parents can do is to help develop their child’s confidence, Kazdin says. The best way to do that is to encourage them to get good at something they’re interested in, for instance, joining the school band or trying out for the cross-country team.
Parents also need to remember to help repair the damage that bullying does to a child's self-esteem, says Pollack. “You need to tell the child that this isn’t happening because there’s something wrong with him.”
Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.
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