A girl sits on the sofa at home, crying and hugging her knees.

Bullying knows no borders, age, or gender. It can happen in schools, workplaces, and online. The consequences can be devastating, leaving scars that last a lifetime. But there are ways to prevent bullying, and we can all make a difference. Bullying Prevention Month is a time for everyone to recognize the signs and symptoms that arise when a child is experiencing bullying and offer support.

Bullying takes many forms, including verbal, physical, relational, and cyberbullying. It is not simply a rite of passage or a harmless part of growing up; it's a real issue with potentially severe consequences.

Amanda Suplee, PhD, Pediatric Psychologist at Loma Linda University Health, sheds light on the long-lasting effects of bullying and the crucial role of schools and parents in addressing these issues. 

Identifying Common Somatic Symptoms

Suplee notes that abdominal pain is among the most common somatic (physical) symptoms observed in children experiencing bullying-related stress. According to Suplee, anxiety often finds a home in the body, and for many kids, anxiety manifests as unexplained abdominal pain. "A lot of abdominal pain that cannot be explained for medical reasons" becomes a telltale sign of the underlying stress and fear these children grapple with daily.

Before seeking specialized help, children who experience somatic symptoms often visit their primary care doctors complaining of stomach aches. Despite taking medication and receiving treatment, the pain persists. Suplee explains that the symptoms are often severe by this point, resulting in weight loss, reduced appetite, or even school avoidance.

Uncovering the warning signs of being bullied

Uncovering the link between somatic symptoms and bullying requires a thorough psychosocial evaluation, Suplee says. In many cases, families don’t know that stress can manifest physically. Engaging with the child's family and asking questions about their experiences and changes in behavior allows clinicians to start piecing together the stressors that may be contributing to these symptoms. In some cases, children might not openly share their concerns, making it essential to inquire about their school experiences and detect any changes in their behavior at home.

"Are they sleeping less than they're used to? Are they having more nightmares? Are they getting up more frequently during the night? Or are they sleeping more and waking them up in the morning is harder?” asks Suplee. “We're also looking for wanting to avoid doing the things that they used to like to do. If they played sports before and don't want to go to practice, or they really liked reading, they don't want to do that anymore. Kids often don't have the language to tell us what's happening."

Psychological Impacts of Bullying

Bullying can lead to generalized anxiety, depression, and isolation. Children being bullied may experience fear, distress, and trauma, often resulting in symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, though these symptoms may present differently than they do in adults. Children might become more irritable and act out as their way of coping.

Parents should strive to maintain open and honest conversations with their children about their feelings and experiences. Suplee stresses the importance of using emotion-focused language, helping children identify their emotions, and teaching healthy coping methods. By building a safe and supportive environment for these discussions, children are more likely to share their concerns and seek help when needed.

"Most of us go day-to-day without talking about our emotions. We're not even really thinking about them,” Suplee says. “Having conversations about whether someone's being mean to us and how it makes our bodies feel leads to awareness. We can only fix problems if we know what's going on. If we can't identify our feelings, we can't do anything about them."

Why Bullies Bully

Bullies often exhibit negative behaviors because they receive more attention for them, says Suplee. Understanding why bullies act the way they do requires delving into their own psychosocial stressors. Bullies may face various difficulties in their lives, including trauma, family stress, or a lack of coping resources. Identifying and addressing these stressors is vital to breaking the cycle of bullying.

Building Resources to Cope

Suplee highlights the importance of providing children with resources to cope with stressful experiences. Encouraging positive self-talk and coping skills can empower children to deflect negative comments and strengthen their self-esteem. Additionally, focusing on building resilience and positive reinforcement can help children navigate their challenges.

Parents can help by teaching their children about the dangers of social media and the internet. Limiting technology use and supervising their online activities can mitigate the risk of cyberbullying. Suplee suggests implementing an action plan for children, specifying who to talk to in case they encounter bullying at school and reinforcing that the parent is there to keep them safe.

She highlights the critical need to address self-harm and suicidal ideation in children who are bullied. Suplee says children as young as five or six can experience these thoughts, and parents should always take such expressions seriously. These issues often stem from the psychological distress inflicted by bullying, making early intervention and support essential to ensure a child's well-being.

If additional support is needed, parents are encouraged to contact their child's pediatrician, school counselor, or contact their health insurance for a list of mental health providers. To learn more about our pediatric psychology and neuropsychology, visit online.