Break the cycle of bullying

  • Published
  • By J.D. Levite
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
Bullying is not just a part of life that stops in the schoolyard; it can have consequences that stretch into adulthood and impact people for the rest of their lives.  

According to the National Center for Education, one in four children will experience bullying in their lives, and it comes in many forms: social, verbal, physical and even cyberbullying. But just because it exists and has remained for a long time doesn’t mean it has to stay that way forever.

“We can prevent bullying,” said Maj. Joshua Duncan, a pediatrician and the chief resident for General Preventive Medicine Residency with the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences. “We can change these behaviors, and we can prevent some of the consequences we see.”

Some of those consequences include an impact on healthy behavior for both children who bully and children who get bullied. For both, there can be psychological effects.

Duncan said, “A lot of people who have experienced bullying will develop mental health disorders like anxiety or depression. Being bullied also puts them at risk for suicide as well as developing psychoses.”

He added that children who are bullied while involved in sports or other physical activities can be at a greater risk for developing obesity.

“This can be a form of social bullying where they’re the last person picked on the team or nobody wants to include them,” he said. “That causes them to withdraw. They tend to avoid those kinds of experiences. They tend to avoid physical activity because they've been bullied.”

Duncan also said children who bully can develop many of the same mental health issues, and they are more prone to engage in certain activities like substance abuse or exhibit criminal behavior as they age. They also can continue abusive relationships later on in life.

For this reason, it’s important for adults, including parents and teachers and other authority figures, to learn to recognize the signs associated with bullying. Duncan said kids tend not to report bullying because they want to be independent and don’t want to be judged by their peers.

Some of the signs for children who are being bullied include unexplained injuries, psychosomatic symptoms like stomach aches or headaches, difficulty sleeping, and bed-wetting episodes. These children can be withdrawn and refuse to participate in social activities or sports. Some of them may even run away or attempt to injure themselves.

Duncan said, “These signs aren’t always specific to bullying, but in cases where any of those symptoms are present that should raise a flag for not just parents but also primary care providers and teachers, too.”

There are three things Duncan recommends for countering bullying: ignore, stand up, and get help. The first step stems from the fact that bullying is often one person trying to create or take advantage of a real or perceived power imbalance. Often ignoring a bully’s advances removes the power he’s trying to wield.

“That doesn’t always work,” Duncan said. “In that case, I would encourage children to stand up both figuratively and literally. Standing up tall and looking the bully in the eye levels the playing field of the power imbalance.” He said he encourages parents to rehearse firm statements with their children so they have something definitive to say.

The last step is getting help, and that means finding other people to be on your team.

“One of the best ways to prevent bullying is by roping in bystanders. By encouraging your children to build strong relationships with other kids, they're going to have friends who are going to stand up for them. It's going to equalize that power imbalance.”

For Airmen whose children might be getting bullied or doing the bullying, there are several things they can do to break that cycle. The first and most important step is to recognize the signs of bullying mentioned above. After that, parents can take action by engaging with the school. Most schools have anti-bullying policies with staff that are trained on how to intervene.

“Your child has a right to attend school in a safe environment that’s also supportive,” Duncan said. “That’s really what most schools want for your child. So, I’d engage with the schools early on when you know your child is being bullied.”

He added parents can also talk to their pediatrician.

“Pediatricians have specific training on how to address this, and they have some tools they can provide you,” he said. “Additionally, because we know there can be health consequences of bullying, they can also further evaluate these children who are being bullied or bullying other children to see if any treatment is indicated.”

There are several resources available on bullying. The first place to start is with the school and local governments because both should have anti-bullying policies in place that are worth knowing. is a watchdog group that lists state policies on combatting and preventing bullying.

Duncan also recommends as a great resource for parents, children and providers as well.