Recent headlines have shown the enormous psychological impact bullying can have on someone’s sense of self worth. If left untreated, bullying leads to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and suicide. The majority of bullying occurs in the tween and teenage years, where the most sensitive kids are the targets.
A recent study shows that almost 50% of those diagnosed, attributes bullying as a main contributor to the development of an eating disorder. Starting in elementary school, bullies target those people who are most sensitive, the same type of people with the temperament to develop eating disorders. This group tends to over-personalize when others talk about them, and generally have less confidence to stand up for themselves and fight back. Instead, the bullying renders them helpless, and they feel alone in defending against the attacker.
When bullying takes the form of making fun of a person’s weight or teasing about body shape, it contributes to the development of an eating disorder. These senseless comments in the tween years make an impact for years to come and are painfully recounted in treatment, even as adults. Victims of these statements are sent an intense message that they are “fat” equaling that they are unwanted, unloved and unworthy, even if the message is not true.
As a result, the victim develops extreme anxiety at the possibility of future attacks, and turning to food as a means to cope. They find comfort in restrictive eating, in hopes they will lose weight and be left alone. Others binge as a way to self-soothe, where some may purge in an attempt to rid themselves of the extra calories. Obsessive exercise alleviates some of the associated anxiety, but it is often short lived until the next time they are scrutinized by the bully. In boys, hopes of bulking up and intimidating the aggressor are coupled with failure if unsuccessful.
To complicate the experience, disordered behaviors then create an inner bully, a relentless critic that mirrors what they are experiencing in the outside world. The person then seeks and distorts evidence that they are unworthy and worthless. When they abuse themselves, it makes it less painful for when the actual bully attacks. This internal faultfinder may be worse, as it never gives its victim a break from the abuse. All of this done in effort to make the person numb via the criticisms, disordered eating behaviors and poor body image perceptions.
If you recognize some of the psychological symptoms of bullying (depression, anxiety, low self-esteem) or behavioral reactions (not wanting to attend school, having “no friends” or actual reports of bullying) in your child, you must intervene immediately. Research shows that the faster you take action, the less of an impact it has on your child. Stand up for your tween, and help them develop ways to stand up for themselves and others who are being bullied. Adopt a no tolerance policy for the mistreatment, and inform the appropriate authorities. Identify resources in your community to help support your child (Therapists, School Officials, Parents, Friends, etc.) and gain as much information as you can through research on the topic. Further, seek help from professionals when the eating disorder is discovered, so that your tween can commit to recovery from the unhealthy behaviors and learn to live a happy, fulfilled life free of the inner and outer bully.