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Bullying and Sleep: How Bullying Behavior and Sleep Impact One Another

Nearly all of us have had a scrape with bullying — whether witnessing it, being the recipient, or even the instigator.

In fact, over 3.2 million students are victims of bullying each year. But the reach of bullying can extend beyond the classroom. Children and adolescents have found creative and cruel ways to cyberbully. And the harmful side effects of bullying can lead to social isolation, depression, insomnia, and even nightmares.

This article will explore the different types of bullying, symptoms that a child or adolescent is experiencing bullying, and the potential consequences associated with involvement in bullying behaviors, including its impact on sleep.

What is Bullying?

Credit: NeONBRAND

Bullying is the intentional, repeated, and negative behavior directed against a person who has difficulty defending him or herself. One person or many people can orchestrate such behavior.

Bullying isn’t limited by demographic. Children and adolescents of all ages, genders, socioeconomic status, and race can experience bullying. That said, some studies have shown that certain demographics are more vulnerable to bullying. For example, LGBT persons are at increased risk for harassment, teasing, and physical assault.

Unfortunately, adults often have difficulty detecting acts of bullying in their own children. In this article, we’ll go over specific types of bullying, the two main types of bullies, and how to detect bullying symptoms early.

Types of Bullying

Many of us have a classic vision of bullying, like taunting in the schoolyard around a large group of kids. While this type of bullying does happen, other forms of bullying are more difficult to detect. Bullying falls into several different categories. Below are some of the most prevalent.

Physical Bullying

Arguably the most easily recognizable form of bullying, victims of physical bullying may experience the following from their tormentors:

    • Forcefully taking objects
    • Pushing
    • Hitting
    • Kicking
    • Choking

Bullies may also deliberately injure their victim in ways that don’t leave easily detectable marks. If your child is subject to this kind of bullying, the bruises or marks associated with physical bullying may be covered by clothing and not in obviously visible spots.

Verbal Bullying

Verbal bullying encompasses any kind of verbal harassment targeted at the victim to make them feel hurt or lesser than. Some examples of verbal bullying include:

    • Malicious teasing
    • Threatening
    • Taunting
    • Name calling
    • Psychological intimidation through words

This method is advantageous for bullies because it’s easier to hurt their victim without displaying the more obvious and provable repercussions of physical bullying.

Social or Relational Bullying

Social or relational bullying is an indirect form of verbal bullying that can be especially pernicious. You may have seen social bullying popularized through movies like Mean Girls. People who go through social bullying experience:

    • Sabotage
    • Gossip
    • Slander
    • Convincing peers to exclude victims

This type of bullying is especially prevalent in middle school and high school settings as children become more socially aware and place more capital in their friend groups.

Cyber Bullying

Cyber bullying has proliferated with the rise of the internet and social media. It’s easier than ever for people to bully their peers online, anonymously or not, through message boards, social media accounts, and texting. Some examples of cyber bullying include:

    • Harassing
    • Taunting
    • Intimidating
    • Any other form of harassment through a technological medium

However, the straightforward bully and victim dichotomy isn’t always the full truth.

The Two Kinds of Bullies

Bullies fall into two separate categories, bullies and bully/victims. Both have their own distinct motives behind their actions.

Bullies employ strategies to increase their already well solidified social standing. “Pure bullies”, as they’re called, have good social and emotional understanding, are strong, and highly popular. A trope to exemplify this that movies love: popular athletes or cheerleaders picking on other kids of lower standing in school.

The second type of bully has a little more nuance. They’re a bully/victim. Bully/victims often have poor social and emotional understanding, are easily upset, and withdrawn. This type of bully is frequently unpopular, easily angered, and bullied by other people in their lives like their siblings. These types of bullies are often painted as the loners in school who lash out at their peers.

It’s also important to note that bullying is not a conduct disorder. Someone with a conduct disorder is likely to show aggression towards people or animals, destroy property, seriously violate rules, or lie and steal. Such behavior is diagnosable and distinguishable from bullying.

Some social scientists theorize that bullying grew as an evolutionary adaptation to secure survival, gain access to resources, and secure high status and dominance. Of course, that doesn’t mean that bullying is an acceptable tactic. Below, you’ll learn more about the symptoms and long-term effects of bullying, plus how bullying can affect your child’s sleep.

Symptoms of Bullying

Are you trying to figure out if someone in your life is experiencing bullying? It’s important to note that even if a child seems in good social standing and has friends, it doesn’t mean he or she couldn’t be a victim of bullying.

According to a study in the School Psychology Review, about 49% of children reported being bullied by other students at school at least once during the past month. Some children may experience more covert bullying such as being the recipients of mean notes, rumors, or group exclusion. Here are some of the bullying signs children and adolescents exhibit that can tip you off.

Social Irritability

  • Avoids social situations and spending time with friends
  • Reluctant to go to school, may have declining grades
  • Displays low self-esteem, desire to shut herself in room

Changes in Eating or Health

  • Binge eats, eats less, or skips meals
  • Comes home with injuries that aren’t explained

Changes in Sleeping

Severe Reactions

Children may also come home and tell you that their electronics, toys, or other belongings have been lost or destroyed. If a child displays several of these symptoms, it’s possible they are the victim of bullying.

Long-term Consequences of Bullying

Unfortunately, the long-term effects of bullying stretch well beyond elementary, middle, and high school.

Children victimized by bullying in childhood are at consistent risk for internalizing problems long-term. That means even beyond high school and well into adulthood, bullying victims are more likely to exhibit a wide array of social, emotional, mental, and even financial problems.

Bullying victims have exhibited increased symptoms of the following:

Mental Health Disorders

  • Anxiety disorder
  • Depression
  • Psychotic experiences
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Attempted and completed suicides

Poor Physical Health

  • Poor general health, bodily pain
  • Headaches
  • Slower recovery from illnesses

Career Difficulties

  • Academic problems
  • Worse at financial management
  • Earn less than peers, even into middle age

Social Problems

  • Trouble making or keeping friends
  • Less likely to live with a partner
  • Less likely to have social support
  • Violence towards others

Victims and victim/bullies experience different long-term effects from bullying. Victim/bullies (bullies who both bully others and experience bullying or abuse at home) are at higher risk for mental health problems and suicide than “pure” victims.

Victim/bullies are also more likely to have:

  • Lower educational qualifications
  • Trouble keeping a job
  • Difficulty honoring financial obligations
  • More likely to become a young parent

In sum, bullying isn’t just a short-term problem. It has long-term effects that can last for a lifetime. All those social and emotional stressors also contribute negatively to healthy and regular sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to everything from increased risk of Type 2 diabetes to raised levels of inflammation and even memory problems or weight gain.

How Common is Bullying?

So, how common is bullying really? Is it seen more often in certain demographics? Below, we explore the different ages and stages where bullying presents itself, and how prevalent the problem is.

Elementary School Bullying

Many people envision bullying at its peak in high school. However, that’s not actually the case. In 2015, about 31% of sixth graders reported being bullied at school.

Middle School and High School Bullying

Adolescents usually experience less bullying as they progress into middle school and high school. For example, about 22% of eighth graders report experiencing bullying, with that number dropping to 19% in ninth grade. By twelfth grade, about 15% of adolescents report experiencing bullying. The blip in the trend: bullying appears to increase slightly from ninth to tenth grade, going from 19% to 21%.

Adolescents with autism spectrum disorders are especially vulnerable towards bullying among their peers. And when placed in general education settings as opposed to special education settings, adolescents with Asperger syndrome are much more likely to experience victimization.

Adolescents’ practice of underreporting makes addressing bullying even more difficult. Many adolescents avoid this tactic because they fear reporting the bullying will make the incidences and social ostracization even worse.

Bullying Among Demographics

Gender

Young women are even more likely to participate in bullying than young men. Twenty three percent of female students reported experiencing bullying, as opposed to 19% of male students. Women were most often the subject of rumours and were even more likely to report being threatened with harm.

Race

Bullying is common amongst all demographics, but some demographics experience it worse than others. For example, 25% of black students and 22% of white students reported being bullied at school. However, bullying is slightly less prevalent with hispanic students at 17%.

Black students are also more likely to report being called names or made fun of and being the subject of rumors at 14%, with 13% of white students reporting the same.

Socioeconomic Status

Socioeconomic status also impacts the level of bullying children experience. One study showed that children who come from socioeconomically disadvantaged families have an ever higher risk of experiencing bullying.

LGBTQ

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning students are all at higher risk of being bullied. A 2017 survey found that 33% of LGBT students reported being bullied on school property — as opposed to 17% of their heterosexual peers. Such bullying puts them at higher risk for use of drugs and alcohol, suicidal ideation, and risky sexual behavior.

Federal civil rights laws do not protect LGTBQ youth, but they may be protected under the sexual harassment Title IX statute. Building a safe environment, protecting privacy, providing interpersonal support to students, creating Gay-Straight Alliances, and accepting LGBTQ youth as they are can all help prevent bullying from occurring.

And, although bullying is most known and prevalent in school settings, it can also affect adults in the workplace. For example, adults may experience hurtful remarks, sexual harassment, mind games, intimidation, hazing, or work sabotage.

Even adults who aren’t experiencing bullying now may still grapple with the long-term effects of bullying. One of those negative impacts — the wide-ranging and negative effects on healthy sleep.

Bullying and Sleep

Bullying undeniably causes both short-term and long-term health problems for those involved. Although we’ve mostly focused on bullying victims, there are other nuanced shades of people in this story, including the bullies themselves and even the bystanders.

We’ll explore how bullying and poor sleep are intertwined for all parties involved, including whether sleep issues actually cause bullying behavior.

How Being Bullied Affects Sleep

Evidence suggests a strong link between troubled sleep and victims of bullying behavior. There are also hints that bully/victims experience similar distress. As discussed before, there is a distinction between “pure” victims, “pure” bullies, and bully/victims. Bully/victims both bully and experience bullying behavior at home.

For example, one study found that victims of bullying often experience sleep disturbances that can impact school performance. And it’s not just for pure victims — both bullies and bully/victims exhibited higher sleepiness levels. Additionally, they found that during the weekday, the bully group went to bed and woke up later than other groups profiled.

But do pure bullies experiences as much sleep distress as victims and bystanders? A different study concluded that pure bullies and students not involved with bullying did not experience the same kinds of sleep disturbances as their involved counterparts. The study, which looked at high school age students between 14 and 17 years old, found that victims and bully/victims reported the most sleep problems out of any group. Those sleep disturbances include insomnia, bedtime fears, and parasomnias.

Overall, multiple studies confirmed the finding that bullies, victims, and bully/victims all experience some kind of sleep disturbance or another. Another study confirmed this general consensus: that whether a victim, bully, or bully/victim, all groups involved were more likely to experience sleep difficulties and insomnia opposed to their uninvolved peers. And a study among Chinese high school students confirmed the same reality: whether a victim or a bully, students involved in a bullying dynamic experienced poor sleep. The more frequently both bullies and victims experienced or engaged in the behavior, the more likely the student slept poorly.

Victims or bullies engaged in physical abuse and relational victimization reported the worst sleep disturbances. In both instances, 52% of those involved experienced poor sleep quality three or more nights over the past 30 days. Verbal victimization still disturbed those involved, though at a slightly lower rate: 41%.

But as we’ve mentioned before, bullying isn’t only limited to children or adolescents. Adults enduring workplace bullying also experienced long-term sleep difficulties due to workplace bullying.

Studies have shown that both bullied persons and witnesses to the bullying reported more sleep difficulties. Even two years later, some adults still experienced this difficult side effect.

There’s not always a distinct connection between bullies experiencing lack of sleep. However, it does appear that victims of bullying, and often victim/bullies, experience consistent problems with a regular and healthy night’s sleep.

Can Sleep Issues Cause Bullying Behavior, and Vice Versa?

We know that bullying behaviors can cause sleep problems in children and adults, but what about the other way around? Can a lack of sleep actually cause people to be bullies to others?

Researchers investigated 341 subjects who exhibited symptoms of sleep-disordered breathing. In this cross-sectional approach, teachers filled out conduct problems assessments using Connor’s rating scale. Parents filled out a pediatric sleep questionnaire.

In general, they found that urban school children with sleep apnea did have a correlation with more aggressive behavior in school. Researchers concluded that sleepiness may impair emotional regulation, which can lead to increased aggression and — you guessed it — bullying.

Yet another study published in France explored sleep disorders associated with adolescent bullying. They included all types of people on the bullying spectrum — pure bullies, pure victims, victim/bullies, and neutral parties (students not involved in bullying). Their sample size of 1,422 students between ages 10-18 also spanned socioeconomically diverse populations.

They recorded results on several different scales:

  • Bully-Victim Questionnaire
  • Athens Insomnia Scale
  • Perceived Social Disintegration Scale
  • Psychological Distress Scale
  • General Aggressiveness Scale
  • Antisocial Behavior Scale

All of these surveys combined allowed for a robust analysis from various student perspectives. The result? Victims of bullying showed far more sleep disturbances than neutral groups or pure bullies. However, bullies’ sleep schedules were more irregular and shorter than their schoolmates.

Ultimately, researchers believe sleep does have a moderating effect on aggression in bullies. That means better levels of sleep could help with increased social-emotional regulation. However, little research has been conducted around whether poor sleep is a self-perpetuating problem for bullies or victim/bullies.

That is: are children stressed due to participating in bullying, sleep poorly, and therefore have poor emotional regulation and bully more? Knowing the root cause between sleep and bullying can be muddled.

One finding in these studies is clear: both bully/victims, victims, and sometimes even pure bullies encounter sleeping difficulties in one way or another.

Other studies have shown that bystanders can also experience negative side effects from witnessing acts of bullying. But can it affect their sleeping patterns as well?

One study published in Europe’s Journal of Psychology set to find out. They drew on cognitive theories of insomnia to figure out if even worrying about bullying can create sleep difficulties. A total of 5,420 adolescents completed the questionnaire, offering a large sample pool.

As confirmed by other studies, this one found that pure victims, pure bullies, and bully/victims were all likely to experience impaired sleep due to their involvement in bullying. However, bystanders in this study showed no significant correlation between sleep difficulties and worrying about being bullied. Overall, they found the link between insomnia due to bystander distress questionable at best.

However, the links between long-term distress in bystanders of family abuse has stronger correlation. A study published in the Internal Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health found that children who witnessed family abuse and community violence had higher instances of post-traumatic stress, internalized hostility, substance abuse, and suicide ideation.

In that vein, the link between post-traumatic stress and poor sleep could arguably go hand in hand. However, due to the conflicting findings in different studies, it appears more research needs to be conducted in this arena. Because pure victims, pure bullies, and bully/victims are often the center of studies, it make sense why there are less studies conducted on the sleep habits of bystanders.

Handling Sleep Issues in Children Involved in Bullying Behavior

Understanding the link between poor sleep and bullying behavior can feel distressing if you’re a parent. Thankfully, no matter how your child is involved — as a victim, bystander, or even bully — there are some techniques and practices available to help alleviate poor sleep and help your child get back on track.

If your child is engaging in bullying behavior against another student, it’s possible they are suffering from a sleep disorder.

Sleep disorders aren’t just a problem for adults. Some children exhibit sleep disorders due to:

  • Limit-setting sleep disorder
  • Childhood apnea
  • Medications
  • Pain and stress

Insomnia is a challenging disorder to treat in children. The FDA has not approved any sleeping medications for children, which is a solution many adults in the United States turn to. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have options.

As a parent, you can take steps to identify your child’s sleep disorder with a trusted pediatrician or child psychologist. Understanding those problems and addressing them may help alleviate sleep disorder symptoms in your child and reduce their stress and anxiety levels.

Here are a few solid steps you can take to improve your child’s sleep patterns, whether they’re involved in bullying as a participant, victim, or bystander.

  1. Set a predictable bedtime. No matter where your child is on the bullying spectrum, creating a solid and predictable bedtime routine is another way to reduce bully-related sleep problems and create a stable environment.
  2. Read to them before bed. Bedtime reading for children has shown to improve cognitive ability, especially when started at a young age. Many experts even encourage parents to begin this ritual with their newborns. If you have adolescent children who have outgrown this ritual, encouraging them to read a book before bed or taking away their electronics for the night is a great way to help them wind down and prepare for sleep.
  3. Select the right foods. Did you know that some foods can help both children and adults sleep better? Healthy meals and snacks with naturally occurring ingredients like tryptophan, magnesium, and Vitamin B6 may help lull your little ones to sleep. Think turkey, milk, eggs, beans, yogurt, bananas, cherries, and oats.
  4. Encourage good sleep hygiene. Practicing good sleep hygiene covers a wide array of healthy sleeping habits. You can model these for your children and set up the environment for them to succeed. That means preparing them for enough hours of sleep every night, going to bed at the same time, finding a quiet place to sleep, keeping their bedroom dark and cool, limiting screen time before bed, and following a bedtime routine.
  5. Shake it out. Both children and adults greatly benefit from exercise to help them sleep. During the daytime or right after school, finding ways to get your child outdoors and active will have cascading positive benefits on their overall mental health and sleeping habits. Think of visiting the jungle gym, walking the dog, or playing some touch football in the yard. If you have an older child, taking them to a rock climbing wall, signing up for a half marathon together, or joining a school sport could all be great ways to get out and stay active.

Taking these proactive steps could significantly help your child if they’re experiencing the negative link between sleep and bullying.

Conclusion

Bullying is never an easy issue to confront. It’s especially hard to know what to do if you’re watching a loved one or child struggling through this ordeal.

As the studies above show, bullying and poor sleep habits are closely linked. Providing children and adolescents with a safe place to share their concerns, a stable home life, and a balanced amount of sleep can help alleviate some of the challenges around bullying.

If you’re still not sure how to address the problem, speaking with a pediatrician, child psychologist, or other outside help may give you the resources needed to help your child feel balanced, healthy, and happy.

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