Bullying is a common childhood problem throughout the globe; it can produce significant anxiety and depression. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 20% of US high school children have been bullied. A new study by researchers at the University of Padua in Italy reported that a bullied child may develop a psychosomatic illness. Their results were published online on September 16 in the journal Pediatrics.
A psychosomatic illness is a disorder with physical symptoms that originate from mental or emotional causes. Thus, it involves both the mind and the body. A psychosomatic illness originates with emotional stress or damaging thought patterns, and progresses with physical symptoms, usually when a person's immune system is compromised due to stress. A common misconception is that a psychosomatic condition is imaginary, or “all in the head,” However, the physical symptoms of psychosomatic conditions are real, and should be treated quickly, as with any other illness.
The researchers noted that a previous meta-analysis found that being bullied during childhood is related to psychosomatic problems; moreover, many other studies have been published since then, including some longitudinal (over time) studies. (A meta-analysis is a compilation of data from several studies to clarify a point.) The investigators performed a new meta-analysis to quantify the association between peer victimization and psychosomatic complaints in the school-aged population.
The investigators searched online databases up to April 2012, and bibliographies of retrieved studies and of narrative reviews, for studies that examined the association between being bullied and psychosomatic complaints in children and adolescents. The original search identified 119 unique studies, of which 30 satisfied the pre-stated inclusion criteria.
The study authors reviewed two separate random effects meta-analyses were performed on six longitudinal studies and 24 cross-sectional studies. The results of these studies showed that bullied children and adolescents have a significantly higher risk for psychosomatic problems than non-bullied age-mates. In the cross-sectional studies, the magnitude of effect size significantly decreased with the increase of the proportion of female participants in the study sample, meaning that a greater proportion of girls was related to less bullying. No other moderating factors were statistically significant.
The researchers concluded that the association between being bullied and psychosomatic problems was confirmed. Given that school bullying is a widespread phenomenon in many nations around the world, the present results indicate that bullying should be considered a significant international public health problem.
Take home message:
Parents may not be aware that their child is being bullied; however, if their child develops an illness for which a cause cannot be found, bullying should be suspected. Certain children are at a higher risk of being bullied than others, including those that seem different from their peers, those that are perceived to be weaker, those with depression, those with lack of self-esteem, those with fewer friends, and those who do not get along with others. Many autistic children and those with food allergies are subject to bullying. Bullying can occur at school, in the neighborhood, and not uncommonly on the Internet.
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has a publication available online to help parents take action against bullying. It is available at this link.