Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 April 2019

The anguish of childhood bullying can last a lifetime

Studies have shown that people who experience victimisation as children are more likely to experience severe mental health issues as adults

Bullying in school is an issue that needs to be addressed more thoroughly. Getty Images
Bullying in school is an issue that needs to be addressed more thoroughly. Getty Images

Imagine being picked on just because you are different. Perhaps your skin is not the right shade, your hair not the right style, or your footwear not the right brand. All children are forming a sense of who they are and how the world works. Experiences such as these are extremely painful. And, it turns out, bullying could play a role in the onset of any mental health issues its targets experience later in life.

The mobile nature of much of the UAE’s population means that there are always new children arriving from overseas. Being the new kid in the class can attract plenty of attention, including that of bullies. Leaving behind a homeland, complete with social support and familiar faces, is stressful enough. Adding bullying to these upsetting events makes matters even worse.

Unfortunately, my point is not purely hypothetical. The recently released 2018 Dubai Student Wellbeing Census suggested that almost a quarter of pupils, from grades six to nine, across 168 schools, felt unsafe at school. It is however, a global problem. In 2016 UNICEF polled 100,000 school children across 18 nations and reported that two-thirds of them had been the victims of bullying.

The idea that childhood upheaval, bullying included, increases the risk of mental health problems in later life is now undoubted. A review of 41 of the most robust studies in this area was published in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin in 2012. It examined only the severest mental health issues – those involving psychotic symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations. The conclusion reached was that bullying in childhood poses a risk of severe mental health issues at roughly the same level that smoking poses a risk of lung cancer.

Perhaps we should make known bullies wear health warnings.

However, it is worth remembering that no one is born a bully. The victimisation of other children is learned behaviour. This is also the view of Alia Al Kaabi, head of Family and Child Prosecution at the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department. "Those who live in an environment where their parents are always yelling tend to imitate that behaviour and be aggressive towards others," she told The National.

It is worth remembering that no one is born a bully. The victimisation of other children is learned behaviour

Mrs Al Kaabi’s assertion illustrates what psychologists call social learning – the idea that children tend to do what we do, even if they don’t always do what we say.

The rising prevalence and the enormous economic burden associated with mental health problems are well documented. Therefore, the need to reduce bullying in our schools and societies is a pressing concern on the grounds of both public health and economics. A study published last year in the journal Molecular Psychiatry looked at the brain scans of 600 adolescents at age 14 and then again at age 19. It found that, by age 19, those who had experienced chronic bullying exhibited decreases in their brain volume and reported increased rates of anxiety.

Turning a blind eye to bullying or dismissing it as just “kids being kids” is no longer acceptable. Even in the absence of physical aggression, verbal and online victimisation can leave physical marks on the brain.

Beyond parents doing more to display and teach the qualities of kindness, patience and compassion, there is obviously a massive role for schools to play too. We should look beyond negatively phrased slogans, such as “Zero tolerance for bullying”, and see what else we can do to promote positive values among pupils.

Some more forward-thinking schools have embraced the positive education movement and begun encouraging teachers to engage in developmental interventions such as mindfulness-based stress reduction. Beyond helping educators to better manage their own negative emotions, such approaches can also have an impact on the way teachers interact with the children in their charge.

After all, many childhood learning experiences are not explicitly taught. They are demonstrated and then imitated. Helping parents and teachers to become more caring and understanding will provide a strong foundation to tackle bullying in the future.

Dr Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University

Updated: April 7, 2019 06:19 PM

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