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Being bullied can contribute to children's internalising problems

FEBRUARY 01, 2008

Dr Louise Arseneault at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, is the lead author of a paper that looks at evidence of how being bullied can cause children to develop depression and anxiety.  The researchers examined 1116 twin pairs who are participants in the Environmental Risk Longitudinal Twin Study and they examined the experience of being bullied between the ages of 7 and 9 years referring to mothers' and teachers reports of children's internalising problems at aged 7 and 10 years of age. 

The team referred to two different sets of factors to test what could contribute to a child's internalising problems - by which they mean symptoms like anxiety or depression.  Firstly environmental factors could result in a child being vulnerable to bullies and result in them internalising their worries.  The factors could be common to members of a family such as living in a poor neighbourhood where bullying occurs, attending a school where bullying is condoned or having negligent parents who don't teach their children how to deal with bullying.  Secondly the effect on a child of experiencing bullying first hand could lead to to an increase in internalising problems for the child.

Among identical twin pairs in which one experienced bullying between the ages of 7 and 9 and the other did not, the bullied twin was significantly more likely to have symptoms of internalizing problems at age 10, Dr. Louise Arsenault and her colleagues found.  Internalizing problems are psychological problems in which negativity is directed inward toward the self, such as depression, as opposed to outwardly, such as conduct disorder.

Dr Arseneault comments: "This research really supports the assumption or the belief that being bullied is bad for children's health.  And the fact that children were having these symptoms, which include frequent crying, fear of being alone, and stomach aches --at such a young age strongly suggests that they need help."

Bullied children are known to be more likely to have anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide, as well as to experience social isolation, Dr Arsenault and her team noted in their study. But the question of whether bullying itself is the cause of these mental health problems remains open. It's possible, the researchers explain, that bullying and mental health problems stem from the same risk factors, such as living in a poor neighborhood or parental neglect, or even that a child with mental health problems is more likely to draw bullies' attention.

This study is the first, to the researchers knowledge, that demonstrates that being bullied represents an environmentally mediated contributing factor to children's internalising problems.  The paper concludes that Intervention programmes aimed at reducing bullying behaviour in schools and in the community have the potential to influence children's early symptoms of mental health problems.  Having such problems early in life increases a person's future risk of depression and anxiety disorders the team point out.  The findings show that efforts designed to fight bullying should not only address the bullies, but should also offer support to their victims. 

The paper entitled: "Being Bullied as an Environmentally Mediated Contributing Factor to Children's Internationalizing Problems" is co-authored by Louise Arseneault, PhD, Barry J Milne, MSc, Alan Taylor, PhD, Felicity Adams, MSc, Kira Delgado, MSc, Avshalom Caspi, PhD, Terrie E. Moffitt, PhD is published in the Archives of Paediatric Adolecent Medicine's February 2008 edition.  For full details of the study please refer to the journal. 

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