The emotional consequences of bullying can be devastating. In this article, we will look at what emotions are commonly felt by kids who are bullied and how you can help them deal with these emotions.
The type and degree of emotions felt when being bullied are dependent on a few characteristics. One is the persistence of bullying episodes over time. The higher this is, the greater the negative emotional impact on mental well-being. Another is the type of bullying being experienced. The more types, such as cyberbullying and traditional (in person) and/or direct and indirect, experienced at the same time, the greater the negative emotional impact.
Like many areas related to emotions, it is influenced by the appraisal of the individual experiencing the event and situation. In other words, not every child will react in the same way emotionally.
Nonetheless, we know from research the types of emotions typically felt by victims of bullying. The most common? Anger! Let’s take a look at the emotions reported being experienced by kids who are victims of bullying in a study from 3 countries with almost 6,000 kids1:
Supporting that emotional reactions are individual, 22% reported they were not bothered by being bullied. But there are also disturbing patterns that emerge, with girls, younger students, and those being victimized more frequently, reporting feeling more negative emotions simultaneously.
The other thing we know is that there are long-term effects. There is extremely strong research evidence that bullying in childhood is related to depression and anxiety in adulthood2.
Findings such as these serve as both a wake-up call and a call to action for we as adults!
Before we begin, let’s define coping. Dr. Richard Lazarus, considered a world-renowned expert in the area, defines coping as efforts to manage environmental stress and the ensuing emotions. For emotional well-being, the ability to cope with life stressors is essential3.
I spent quite a number of years as a special education teacher. I worked with children who were bullied and who were experiencing a wide number of challenges as a result. The following two key strategies come from this, supported with evidence of success4,5,6.
Often our immediate reaction, especially as parents, when our child tells us he or she is being bullied, is to experience and show a strong emotional reaction ourselves. Even though natural, this can shut kiddos down. If they feel emotions such as embarrassment and shame, and then on top of this have to worry that adults will be angry, upset, disappointed, etc., kids will be very reluctant to talk about being bullied.
Now that you know this, working to listen calmly and be supportive is key to a meaningful dialogue. You need this in order to know what is going on and to convey to the child that you are there for them. This further sends the message that you can be trusted and they made the right decision by coming to you.
When kids try to directly change their emotions, it can be very challenging and therefore is ineffective for most. Conversely, when kids tackle the problem, there is more success for most. Problem-focused coping encompasses thinking carefully about the problem, examining the consequences of a number of outcomes, and then purposefully choosing a way to proceed.
Examples of emotion-focused coping are trying to focus on the positive or blaming oneself as the reason for the bullying. Problem-focused coping strategies, on the other hand, are distancing from the bully (psychologically and physically), standing up to the bully with assertion (not aggression), and seeking social support.
Let’s take a closer look at the first. Help kids learn about and work to handle their anger. As we saw, this is the most common emotion, but it’s also what a bully feeds on. When kids know this, they can then practice actions like walking away, taking deep breaths, counting to 10, and keeping a neutral expression on their face. Be sure to go beyond just explaining to actually showing and doing it with your child until they get the hang of it.
It may be tempting to think that your child is not being bullied, or that if they are, that this is just a natural part of childhood. However, the evidence is undeniable now that bullying is at epidemic proportions and the negative emotions that accompany being bullied are serious pathways to poor mental health and life satisfaction. The more you and your child know about emotions, the better you can both combat and cope with bullying. The products from My Mood, My Choices are here for you and your child just for this very reason.
1Ortega, R., Elipe, P., Mora‐Merchán, J. A., Genta, M. L., Brighi, A., Guarini, A., ... & Tippett, N. (2012). The emotional impact of bullying and cyberbullying on victims: A European cross‐national study. Aggressive Behavior, 38(5), 342-356.
2Committee on the Biological and Psychosocial Effects of Peer Victimization: Lessons for Bullying Prevention. (2016). Consequences of Bullying Behavior. In F. Rivara F & S. Le Menestrel (Eds.), Preventing bullying through science, policy, and practice (pp. 113-178). Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
3Lazarus, R. S. (2006). Emotions and interpersonal relationships: Toward a person-centered
conceptualization of emotions and coping. Journal of Personality, 74, 9–46.
4Lyness, D. (2013, July). Helping Kids Deal With Bullies. KidsHealth from Nemours.
5Whitson, S. (2016, January 23). 5 Do’s and Don’ts of Helping Kids Handle Bullying: How adults can equip kids with skills to cope with conflict. Psychology Today.
6Tenenbaum, L. S., Varjas, K., Meyers, J., & Parris, L. (2011). Coping strategies and perceived effectiveness in fourth through eighth-grade victims of bullying. School Psychology International, 32(3), 263-287.
About the Author
Written by Lilla Dale McManis, MEd, Phd
Dr. McManis is a psychologist and certified parent coach. Drawing on her 30+ years of experience, her work focuses on promoting optimal outcomes for families. Her main mission is to do so by translating research into meaningful practice for parents, educators, programs and products, and policymakers.