The link between bullying and depression

Published on Tuesday, 30 April 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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In New Zealand, rates of bullying are high, with UNICEF figures showing one in two Kiwi kids kids are bullied on a regular basis, one of the worst rates in the world. School aged children are the most affected due to technology related cyber bullying, along with other forms of emotional and physical bullying. However, what many don't realise is that bullying actually begins in the preschool years.

In addition, a new study has revealed that two and three-year-olds who both bully and are bullied themselves, are the most likely to show signs of childhood depression and experience depression later in life. It's therefore important that steps to prevent bullying start in early childhood to help young ones feel safe and supported while reducing the risk of depression in later life.

New research reveals depression in 3-year-olds

Recently published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, a new Canadian study examined 198 children aged two and three who were engaged in early learning in Ontario, Canada. Not only did the researchers find that bullying was indeed taking place, but the children who were both being bullied and bullies themselves were also most likely to display signs of depression.

Depression in early childhood is a problem for many reasons, it interferes with a child's ability to learn and develop social skills, and it also makes children more at risk of developing depression in later childhood and subsequently adolescence and adulthood.

Other findings from the study

The research also uncovered these other key facts:

  • Bullying tactics included emotional bullying, such as withholding friendship, and physical aggression.
  • Emotional bullying was more common amongst girls, most likely due to stronger language skills.
  • There was no gender bias when it came to bullying, both boys and girls were equally bullied and/or bullies aside from the skew in emotional bullying from girls.
  • Physical aggression such as hitting, biting or shoving, which is very common at this age with around 65 per cent of children doing it, wasn't too much of an issue unless coupled with emotional bullying.

It's important to note that the children in the study were predominantly Caucasian, middle class and were attending high-quality preschools that were publicly funded. It's believed that children in lower quality ECEC settings with no public funding are even more prone to bullying or being bullied, and therefore at greater risk of depression. No examination into family or home life was undertaken in the study either.

Early educators now urged to step in

Backing up these new Canadian findings is NZ research, which confirms that for children who were bullied in New Zealand, it's been a constant occurrence since the age of two. Yet it's widely believed that bullying is preventable if adults are aware of it and intervene.

So, how do early childhood educators effectively prevent and manage bullying? Let's first look at the signs and repercussions of bullying in young children.

How to spot bullying in the early years

According to Tracy Vaillancourt, professor of child psychology at the University of Ottawa and co-author of the new study, bullying by children is "very obvious."

"They're not very good at it but it's still very effective," she says.

Vaillancourt does however advise teachers and parents to look carefully for signs of emotional bullying and depression, as these can get missed more easily than physical bullying in the chaos of daily toddler life.

"You can garner so much more support if someone thumps you on the head, because everyone sees it," she says. "But if someone says something to you behind the back of a teacher, you could really suffer in silence for a long time."

A few examples of emotional bullying include:

  • Refusing to let certain classmates sit with them.
  • Threatening to withhold friendship.
  • Blocking classmates by turning their backs, closing their eyes or covering their ears.
  • Saying that someone can’t come to their birthday party.
  • Name calling and teasing about appearance or clothes.

Signs of depression in young children

Identifying a pre-schooler who is depressed is another way to spot potential bullying. But even if they're not inflicting bullying or experiencing it, depression should be taken seriously and addressed for the sake of their wellbeing.

"Kids who are depressed are actually pretty easy to pick out too," says Vaillancourt. She states that two and three-year-olds "are inherently little narcissists. They think they're amazing – the fastest runners, the funniest. So, it would be atypical for them to say they hate themselves or be down on themselves."

Other indicators children might be suffering from depression include:

  • Negative themes in play – like telling a toy it's 'bad'.
  • Sleep, appetite and activity disturbances (like older depressed people). They might sleep a lot or move slowly from one activity to the next.
  • Changes from normal behaviour – such as a generally happy kid who suddenly says negative things about themselves.

Tips for preventing and managing bullying has the following tips and guidelines for early childhood educators when it comes to preventing bullying in early childhood settings:

  • Discuss, reinforce and model positive behaviour
    Reward children with praise when relating well with peers, help children to be inclusive and take turns playing, correct wrong-doings by discussing how someone feels as a result of harmful words or actions, and read stories or watch videos about bullying.
  • Set clear rules for behaviour
    Monitor children's interactions carefully, step in quickly to stop or redirect aggressive behaviour, have rules in place yet remember that young children need constant reminders of how to behave appropriately so no harsh punishments. Instead explain why what they did was hurtful and wrong.
  • Be vigilant
    Monitor frequently for bullying and aggression among toddlers and pre-schoolers.
  • Value kindness
    Talk about behaviours that hurt others as unacceptable and reinforce how much kindness is valued. They’re more likely to understand this than the term bullying.
  • Use age-appropriate consequences for bullying
    Ask children to make amends for their acts (whether accidental or on purpose) and help them find an action that corrects the hurt or damage they've done. For example, rebuilding a knocked over block tower, saying sorry or doing/saying something kind.
  • Teach alternative behaviour for aggression
    Model appropriate actions, suggest the use of non-aggressive words with peers, and praise kids for appropriate behaviour.
  • Teach them to report to an adult
    Explain often what children should do if they're treated in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable, upset or unhappy, or if they witness other children being bullied. At this early age, children should be taught to say STOP and to immediately seek adult support, for both the children's safety and to help everyone learn how to get along together.

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