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Bullying & Anxiety: What's the Link?

By Emily Hanlon

In this post, I wanted to discuss bullying, and the link between bullying and anxiety. The national definition used in Australia, defines bullying as:

“An ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that intends to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm. It can involve an individual or a group misusing their power, or perceived power, over one or more persons who feel unable to stop it from happening.”

Many of the young children and adolescents I have worked in throughout my clinical experience, have been victims of bullying. One thing that I honestly cannot stand, is school denial of bullying problems. One line all schools like to use is ‘oh no, our school does not have a bullying problem!!’ This statement in itself, is quite simply, false. Current Australian research (and by current, I am referring to research conducted in 2018), suggests that one in every four students has experienced some level of overt bullying, and one in five students has been the victim of online (cyber) bullying.

Please do me a favour, and re read those statistics. And now go back and read them again. Can you believe it? This research indicates that 25% of Australian students have been victims of bullying. To put that in perspective, that is an estimated 910,000 Australian children. Even more horrifying, is that there are roughly 45 million incidents of bullying reported each year, instigated by 543,000 perpetrators. Now, before you read on, I want you to realise something. These statistics do not even account for the bullying incidents that go UNREPORTED! It is mind baffling to me that schools can see these statistics and still say, with confidence, that none of their students could possibly be contributing to this nation-wide bullying phenomenon!

20+ years ago, if a child was being bullied, they would at least have some relief from the situation when they went home of an afternoon. However, in today’s society, with the use of technology rising, children rarely get a ‘break’ from bullying incidents. Bullying now happens in person or online via digital platforms/devices. Bullying can be either overt (meaning obvious or ‘out in the open’), or covert (meaning hidden/subtle). Covert bullying is typically non-physical and unfortunately, often goes unnoticed and unacknowledged by adults. Examples of covert bullying include spreading rumours, encouraging children to exclude another child, or saying negative things via social media outlets. That is, covert bullying behaviour mostly inflicts harm by damaging the social reputation of a child, interfering with peer relationships, and consequently, damaging their self-esteem.

Both overt and covert bullying have the potential to cause significant long-term harm to victims. However, because covert bullying often goes unnoticed, it can unfortunately have more significant impacts on the mental-health of the child victim, as it often takes longer for adult intervention to occur.

Bullying can become a traumatic experience for children and adolescents. The associated pain and distress that victims experience, can impact on every aspect of their lives. This may result in feelings of loneliness, isolation, anxiety, and vulnerability. More importantly, the consequences of bullying longer long after a bully has stopped/moved onto another victim. One of the most common long-term effects of bullying, as reported by Australian children and teens in 2018, was the development of anxiety disorders.

The top four anxiety disorders that victims of bullying reported experiencing were:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): children with PTSD may experience flashbacks of bullying incidents, have nightmares about bullying, startle easily, and withdraw from others. PTSD often occurs when bullying has been overt and physically aggressive.

  • Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD): it is not uncommon for victims of bullying to worry frequently, and expect ‘bad’ things to happen. After all, bad things were happening to them during the bullying incident(s). Repeated exposure to stress (bullying) eventually filters into other areas of life, and these children tend to develop worries about aspects of their lives unrelated to the bullying incident.

  • Panic Disorder and Panic Attacks: Panic attacks can occur when children relive their bullying experiences. Panic disorder is the worry that panic attacks are going to occur. Left untreated, children with panic attacks/panic disorder eventually withdraw from things they once enjoyed for fear of another episode.

  • Social Anxiety Disorder: it is not surprising that victims of bullying develop social anxiety disorder, especially if they have been publicly humiliated on several occasions. In this case, their belief is that the embarrassment they experienced as a result of bullying, is going to happen over and over again in the future.

Signs that a child might be a victim of bullying include:

  • An unexpected change in grades, disinterest in academic tasks

  • School avoidance or reluctance, and/or attempts to fake illness

  • Complaints of headaches and stomach aches

  • Changes in eating habits (either binge eating or a significant reduction in intake)

  • Signs of depression in children, which include: low self-esteem, negative self-talk, irritability, aggression towards siblings, disinterest in hobbies

  • Sleep disturbances or nightmares

  • Loss of belongings

  • Unexplained injuries or bruises

  • Avoidance of social situations (i.e., birthday parties) or loss of friendships

  • Self-destructive behaviours or damaging of property

  • Withdrawn behaviour, especially after using technology or immediately after school

It is important to note that a child can still be a victim of bullying and not display many of these signs, as they may feel ashamed or embarrassed about their situation. It is therefore extremely important to constantly check in with the school for any reports of social conflict, while also fostering a relationship with your child which makes them feel comfortable discussing these difficult issues with you. You can do this by:

  • Organising weekly 1:1 time or activities with your child, where you may go for a walk, go to the skate park, get an ice cream, or have a backyard picnic…the list is endless!

  • If you have some free time, offer to volunteer at school, coach a school sport, or meet with your children's teachers regularly to stay updated on their academic performance.

  • Sit down with them as they do homework. Help them practice their chosen sport, talent, or instrument

  • Invite your kids' friends over so you know what kind of influences they are around.

  • Don't be afraid to muck around and be a 'big kid.' Let your kids know that things don't always have to be so serious between you. Of course, you want them to respect you and your rules, but you also want to be able to laugh with them. A sense of fun can help facilitate positive communication and a sense of trust and acceptance.

  • Being trustworthy is key. As a parent, it's important that you build a foundation of trust. Your child needs to know that they can rely on you to be there. When you say you'll do something, do it. Keep your word. This helps your child form basic secure attachments that will influence their future relationships.

  • However, trust also means that as a parent, you respect your child's need for privacy and keeping their confidences when they do share with you. You might not believe everything your child says, but it is important to always give them the benefit of the doubt

If your child does disclose bullying, it is important to ensure we do not accidentally 'punish' them for being a victim. For example, if your child is being cyber bullied, your instinct reaction might be to take away their phone and restrict access, in order to protect them from online insults. However, this instils a consequence on the child rather than the bully. Do not be afraid to report these offences to your child's school or the relevant authorities.

Unfortunately, we are constantly inundated with tragic stories of young Australians taking their own lives due to the long-lasting effects of harassment and bullying. We, as a society, collectively show our outrage whenever this occurs, however this is often an afterthought. It is time that we stop our 'lip service' and stand united against this criminal behaviour.

For resources on bullying, check out the list of free links on this (previously published) blog post:

For some free resources on anxiety:

Mighty Moe

Mighty Moe is an anxiety workbook for children aged 5-11. The story about Mighty Moe relates directly to the material in the workbook, and can be used as a reference to enhance the child’s understanding of the content. Any child using this workbook should do so with the guidance of a parent, counsellor, or other qualified mental health professional. Although concepts have been simplified to maximize the child’s independent use of this book, support is still required to ensure comprehension and maximum benefit. Throughout the book, anxiety is typically referred to simply, as ‘BIG feelings’. This allows for the child to attach their own personal meaning to their experience of anxiety. For some children, anxiety presents as anger or intense sadness. Although the term ‘BIG feelings’ is broad, the facilitator should help the child identify this connection between feeling states while keeping the focus on the root causes of the child’s anxiety. The Best Practice Guidelines for managing anxiety in this workbook have been adapted to be fun, engaging, and child friendly. To download your free copy of this workbook, click on the link below:

Anxiety: Moodjuice Self-Help Guide

This is a really interesting workbook that helps adolescents recognise whether they may be experiencing symptoms of anxiety, through some quick questionnaires. Following this, it helps adolescents understand what anxiety is, what causes it, and what maintains it. Finally, it offers ways to understand or manage symptoms of anxiety. This would be a great resource to use for ‘homework’ based tasks if you are a clinician/counsellor. To download this workbook for free, click on the link below:

Basic Anxiety Management Skills

This workbook is probably targeted at the older end of the ‘adolescent’ spectrum, and I would probably recommend it for adolescents aged 15+. It goes through really interesting facts about self-care and the importance of looking after yourself, while also teaching some basic coping strategies. To download this resource for free, click on the link below:

Cognitive Behavioural Skills Training Workbook

This is a great workbook for psychologists and counsellors. It can help introduce clients to tools to help them build up their ‘tool bag’ which they can then refer to, in order to help manage their anxiety/mood. There are some great CBT-based exercises in this guide. To download this workbook for free, click on the link below:

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