Bullying and Anxiety: What’s the Connection?
Prevalence and Stability of Anxiety in Children
While feelings of anxiety are normal during childhood, anxiety disorders are characterized by anxiety levels that are high enough to impair a child’s daily functioning (7 & 8). Evidence suggests that approximately one out of every 16 children meet criteria for at least one anxiety disorder (1& 2) and researchers have found that anxiety disorders are among the most prevalent psychological disorders in children (2 & 7).
Anxiety disorders can last for years and are associated with a variety of short- and long-term negative effects. Studies, for example, have found the following:
- In the absence of treatment, children who were experiencing clinical levels of anxiety in kindergarten continued to experience similar levels of anxiety in the sixth grade (3).
- By age 20, those who had experienced chronically high levels of anxiety during childhood were significantly less likely to have graduated from high school than their peers.
- Children with high anxiety levels also report lower levels of social acceptance and self-esteem (5).
Given the duration and negative effects of anxiety disorders, researchers have sought to learn more about how anxiety disorders develop in order to better prevent and treat them.
Anxiety and Bullying
One potential risk factor for the development of anxiety disorders is the experience of being bullied. Evidence suggests that being bullied is significantly associated with feelings of anxiety. Studies, for example, have found the following:
- Victims of bullying are more likely to be anxious than students who are not bullied (9, 10, & 11).
- Students who are bullied and bully others (bully-victims) have been found to have higher levels of anxiety than students otherwise involved in bullying or not involved (11 & 12).
- Students who reported that they were victims or bully-victims on a frequent basis endorsed significantly higher levels of anxiety than their peers (11)
- Students who were bullied less frequently also reported elevated levels of anxiety (11)
Some researchers have explored the relationship between anxiety and various forms of bullying. It appears as though some forms of bullying are more strongly linked to anxiety than other forms. Researchers in the field have made the following findings:
- Overt victimization (i.e., experiencing attempts or threats to harm one’s physical well being), and relational victimization (i.e., experiencing attempts or threats to harm one’s peer relationships), were both associated with heightened levels of social anxiety for males and females ages 13-16 (14).
- Students who were bullied in multiple forms endorsed higher social anxiety levels than those who reported one form of victimization.
- Students who reported relational victimization endorsed social anxiety levels similar to those endorsed by students who reported relational and overt victimization, which suggests that perhaps relational victimization is more strongly linked to social anxiety.
- Boys 14-18 years of age who were bullied by being called “gay” endorsed higher levels of anxiety than their peers who were bullied for other reasons (13). Thus, being called “gay” seemed to be more strongly linked to anxiety than other forms of victimization.