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What Are the Effects of Bullying on Your Child with Social Anxiety?

How Bullying Can Make it Worse and What to Do

By

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Girls usually bully by excluding others from social circles.

Girls usually bully by excluding others from social circles.

Photo © Microsoft

The first step to helping your bullied child is learning more about the effects of bullying. You probably have seen a change in your child's behavior that has you worried. What are the immediate and long-term effects of bullying? Will bullying make your child's social anxiety worse? And what can you do to help your child cope?

Bullying and Social Anxiety

Bullying has become an all-too-commmon occurrence in schools and playgrounds today. Whether it is cyber bullying, harrassment at school, or physical violence on the school bus, many children around the world live in fear. If you have a socially anxious child, you might doubly fear for his safety.

We know that about one in five children will be bullied from elementary through high school. Bullies pick on children who have trouble defending themselves. Sometimes victims of bullying even become bullies themselves.

How can you tell if your child with social anxiety is being bullied? Look for warning signs such as a change in desire to go to school, damaged or lost belongings, sadness or anxiety, physical ailments and trouble sleeping.

Most children who are bullied do not tell anyone. In particular, older boys are less likely to report bullying. Pay attention to changes in your child's behavior and emotions so that you can pick up on bullying that is being hidden.

The long-term effects of bullying on a child can include problems with self-esteem and anxiety. It is important to intervene early if you suspect that bullying is taking place.

Although your child is more likely to be a target of bullies if he is socially anxious (as I describe in the next section), there is still much that you can do. If there is not already a bullying prevention program in place at your child's school you may wish to make the suggestion.

Why Bullies Target Those with Social Anxiety

Children who are socially anxious become the targets of bullies because they possess many of the traits that are common to victims of bullies. Bullies tend to pick on kids who have few friends or who spend a lot of time alone.

In addition, bullies target children who lack assertiveness, appear vulnerable and who have low self-esteem. Some victims may also have poor social skills or problems developing friendships.

It is easy to see why bullies choose socially anxious children to victimize. Children who have few friends, are unable to defend themselves and who have low feelings of self worth are easy targets.

Does Your Teen Have Social Anxiety Disorder?

Bullying Makes Social Anxiety Worse

What do we know about the effects of bullying on social anxiety? There have been some studies done with mice and rats that might be relevant, as it is believed that these rodents have similar stress responses as humans.

In one study, mice were exposed to a "mouse bully" over the course of 10 days and changes in the brain of the stressed mice were examined. Results indicated that the hormone vasopressin was activated which led to an increase in brain receptors sensitive to social stimuli. After the stress, the bullied mice stayed away from all other mice, even friendly ones.

In a second study, rats were also subjected to social stress, but were either housed with another rat or alone before and after the stress. Findings showed that the stressed rats who had been paired with a friend before and after were more resilient and better able to recover.

In a related study with humans, researchers found that bullying during adolescence led to an increased risk of symptoms of social anxiety disorder. They also found that for boys, having social anxiety made one more likely to be bullied. In addition, they also note that reporting bullying can be extremely difficult for children with social anxiety.

How to Cope with Bullying

If your child is being bullied you are probably very anxious to help him. First, be open about discussing the bullying and don't criticize how your child has handled the situation so far.

Inform your child's teacher and principal about the bullying. Make sure that your child has an adult at school that he can tell if he is being bullied.

Encourage your child to develop friendships at school. Identify safe places that she can go outside of school if she feels threatened, such as a block parent's home.

Bottom Line on the Effects of Bullying on Social Anxiety

There is overwhelming evidence about the negative effects of bullying on victims; particularly with respect to social anxiety. It is important to catch bullying early to prevent long-term repercussions. Always be open and approachable with your child so that any topic can be discussed.

If you do suspect your child is being bullied, speak to the appropriate staff at the school. Your child needs to feel safe and have an adult that he can trust. Helping your child to build friendships will also help to buffer the effects of bullying and increase resilience in the long run.

Are you interested in weekly information and tips about social anxiety disorder? You can sign up for my free SAD newsletter here.

Sources:

Buwalda B, Stubbendorff C, Zickert N, Koolhaas JM. Adolescent social stress does not necessarily lead to a compromised adaptive capacity during adulthood: A study on the consequences of social stress in rats. Neuroscience. 2013 Sep 26;249:258-70.

Canter A, Cohn A. Bullying: Facts for Schools and Parents. National Association of School Psychologists. Accessed August 15th, 2013.

Litvin Y, Murakami G, Pfaff DW. Effects of chronic social defeat on behavioral and neural correlates of sociality: Vasopressin, oxytocin and the vasopressinergic V1b receptor. Physiology & Behavior. 2011 June;103(3-4):393-403.

Ranta K, Kaltiala-Heino R, Fröjd S, Marttunen M. Peer victimization and social phobia: A follow-up study among adolescents. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. 2013 April; 48(4):533-544.

Robison K. Bullies and Victims: A Primer for Parents. National Association of School Psychologists. Accessed August 15th, 2013.

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