Do bullied children get anxiety, or children with anxiety get bullied? Which comes first?


Today is the National Day of action against bullying and violence so we thought we’d have a look at the link between bullying and anxiety. We found an interesting study which was conducted in the Netherlands to investigate whether bullying victimisation precedes psychosomatic and psychosocial symptoms or whether these symptoms precede victimisation.

In other words, does bullying bring on anxiety, or are children who suffer anxiety and depression more vulnerable to being bullied?

The 6 month study included children aged 9 to 11 years and was designed in accordance with the internationally used definition of bullying as follows:

“Bullying is, for example: when another student or students say nasty and unpleasant things, or call somebody names; ignore or exclude somebody, like not allowing him or her to participate in play; take away, destroy or hide another student’s stuff; hit, push or shove another student around; tell lies, spread rumours, or send mean notes. We don’t call it bullying when two students of about equal strength or power argue or fight.”

Results of the study found that children who were bullied at the beginning of the year had a significantly higher risk of developing new health symptoms during the course of the school year. Ratios were particularly high for depression (4.18), anxiety (3.01), bedwetting (4.71), abdominal pain (2.37), and feeling tense (3.04).  They found no significant difference between boys and girls, other than bullying had had a strong relation to the development of abdominal pain for girls.

They also found that children who were depressed or anxious at the beginning of the year were at higher risk of being bullied at the end of the year. They believed various possibilities might explain this:

“Anxious or depressed behaviour could make a child seem more vulnerable to aggressive peers and thereby make the child an easy target for victimization. Other studies have found that victimized children exhibit characteristics of vulnerability, such as sub-assertive behaviour, that make them attractive targets for aggressive children.  Less assertive behaviour by anxious or depressed children could make them easier targets because they are less likely, or less expected by the bullies, to stand up for themselves when they are victimized. Therefore, bullies may fear less retaliation from anxious or depressed children and be more prone to pick these children as their victims. An alternative explanation may be that some children who are anxious or depressed are more inclined to define some of their experiences as having been bullied, whereas other children would not perceive these experiences as victimization.”

The data showed that physical symptoms only followed a period of victimization and, unlike psychological symptoms, did not precede victimization.

So what are the implications of the findings according to the report?

  • Bullying victimization causes an increase in health problems, such as headache, abdominal pain, anxiety, and depression. For doctors and health practitioners, these findings stress the importance of asking whether a child is bullied and establishing whether bullying plays a contributing role when a child exhibits such symptoms.
  • Their findings that victimization precedes the development of a substantial number of health problems, suggests that prevention of bullying behaviour in schools could decrease the number of children with such problems. Several studies have shown that school-based interventions can reduce bullying.
  • Their results further indicate that children with psychosocial health symptoms, like depression and anxiety, are at increased risk of being victimized. Because victimization could have an adverse effect on children’s attempts to cope with depression or anxiety, it is important to consider teaching these children social skills that would make them less vulnerable to bullying behaviour.

So what does this mean for us as parents? If we have anxious children we should talk to them about bullying and make sure they are aware of what constitutes bullying and what they can do about it. It’s a tricky topic to discuss with anxious children because you don’t want them to become worried about something, so keep the conversation as light as possible.  It’s really important that they know that they can talk to us (their parents) if they are worried or concerned and that we will help them and not judge them.

We put together a short video to help children outsmart bullies that might be a fun thing for you to watch with your children.



  1. Do Bullied Children Get Ill, or Do Ill Children Get Bullied? A Prospective Cohort Study on the Relationship Between Bullying and Health-Related Symptoms.  Minne Fekkes, Frans I.M. Pijpers, A. Miranda Fredriks, Ton Vogels and S. Pauline Verloove-Vanhorick. Pediatrics 2006;117;1568 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2005-0187