One of the many heartbreaking moments in the documentary Bully was when Alex – after enduring endless torment on the bus and in the halls at school – comes home to his parents (who I’m sure wanted to help but didn’t know how) almost mocking him for being bullied.
Middle childhood (think 10 years old) is a critical stage in a child’s identity development. On the downside, mental disorders and psychological issues often emerge around this age. On the upside, research has identified “protective factors” that can boost a 10-year-old's emotional well-being and healthy development – including your child’s relationship with… you!
So reports a new study published this month in the Journal of Happiness Studies. Researchers set out to better understand the effects of bullying in 10-year-olds. Building on previous research that shows bullying can lead to increased anxiety and symptoms of depression, this study found a four-way interaction between bullying, gender (girls), relationships with adults, and friendship with peers: “victimization [is] particularly strongly associated with low life satisfaction, low self-esteem, and high depressive symptoms for girls with low self-reports of peer and adult connectedness,” write the five co-authors of the article “A Population Study of Victimization, Relationships, and Well-Being in Middle Childhood.”
Bullying rates among 10-year-olds
The researchers found that about half the kids reported at least one instance of bullying in the past year. About 1 in 7 girls and about 1 in 6 boys – all 10-year-olds – report being bullied several times per week. For girls, bullying primarily took the form of social victimization, followed closely by verbal abuse, then physical abuse, with far fewer instances of cyberbullying. For boys, social and verbal victimization were the most prevalent, followed by physical abuse, with far fewer reports of cyberbullying. These findings are concerning for many reasons – not the least of which is the association between being bullied and developing low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and low levels of life satisfaction.
However, this study – featured in a journal devoted to Happiness Studies – breaks ground by finding an association between “protective factors” and mitigating the effects of bullying. “Some of the most powerful factors are of social nature: Positive social relationships with adults and peers are strongly associated with children’s resilience, well-being, health, and competence,” the researchers write. They warn that protective factors don’t necessarily counteract the negative effects of being bullied, but the evidence shows that – especially for girls – social support from adults and peers may buffer them. Unfortunately, this moderating effect wasn’t found for boys, so further research is needed to determine what may have a buffering affect for boys.
How you can buffer the effects of bullying
So what’s in this secret sauce to create a connection between you and your 10-year-old? Among the questions the 10-year-olds answered: “Does a parent or some other grown-up at home listen when you have something to say?” “Does a parent or some other grown-up at home believe that you can do a good job?” “Does a parent or some other grown-up at home want you to do your best?” Even if the study doesn’t prove these parental efforts are equally effective for boys, I can’t help but think that Alex would have benefitted, in a large or small way, if he'd been able to answer, Yes, Yes, and Yes.