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Kids learn to bully before they even start school

A Dutch study suggests that obesity-linked bullying starts before kids enter school.
A Dutch study suggests that obesity-linked bullying starts before kids enter school.

Obesity is a recognized potential risk factor for peer bullying among older children and teens. A new Dutch study published in the online Aug. 25 journal Pediatrics suggests this type of bullying begins before children enter school.

Researchers from Erasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam, Netherlands, surveyed 1,300 Dutch children and their teachers to learn which children were bullies or victims. They asked how often bullying occurred and if it was physical or verbal. Participants were also asked if they were be excluded or shunned by peers or if they had personal items stolen or broken. Based on their body-mass index (BMI), the children were classified as being overweight, obese or having a normal weight.

In addition, the Dutch researchers took into account such factors as age, sex, national origin and the mother’s education. They also determined whether the child had siblings or lived with a single parent. The average age of the children was 6 years.

“I was very surprised by how young these kids are,” Rachel Annuziato, PhD, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Fordham University in New York City, told HealthDay. “I think our understanding of bullying is that it’s something that starts a little later cognitively and developmentally, but this suggests that isn’t the case. From the day kids walk into school, this is a concern.”

Annuziato, who wasn’t involved in the study, added that researchers generally considered bullying as a behavior that is learned in school from other kids. However, according to Annuziato, the study’s findings imply that kids are learning this behavior outside of school.

“Kids who are being picked on might start to think this is the way to fit in, to pick on other kids,” she suggested. “That becomes their way to assert themselves after they’ve experienced bullying.”

Lead study author Pauline Jansen, PhD, a post doctorate researcher at Erasmus University, and her colleagues noted in previous studies that being overweight or obese can lead to social problems in children. They suggested that for these children, having difficulty managing their emotions might be contributing to both the peer problems and abnormal eating habits.

Other studies have shown that bullying is associated with a range of adverse outcomes in childhood, including academic problems, physical and mental health problems, and suicidal thoughts and attempts. For this reason, mental health experts advocate building children’s self-confidence and modelling healthy social relationships as a way to boost their self-esteem.

“If your child has a risk factor for kids picking on them, it’s really important to give them skills to cope with those things and to build their self-esteem,” Susan Tortolero, PhD, a professor of public health at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston, told HealthDay. “If you teach your children to problem-solve and how to make decisions, then they will be more successful,” she advised.

Tortolero also called on parents to help their children make better choices about eating and engaging in physical activities. She urged parents to help their kids find activities and hobbies that they enjoy and excel in.

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