Effects of Bullying on a Child With Social Anxiety

Bullying can worsen social anxiety.
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Bullying in school can be a particular problem for children with social anxiety. The first step to helping a bullied child is to learn about the effects of bullying. Perhaps you have seen a change in your child's behavior that has you worried and you might be wondering things such as the following:

  • What are the immediate and long-term effects of bullying?
  • Will bullying make your child's social anxiety worse?
  • What can you do to help your child cope?

How Common Is Bullying?

Bullying has become an increasingly common occurrence in schools and playgrounds. Whether cyberbullying, harassment at school, or physical violence on the school bus, many children live in fear.

About one in five children will be bullied from elementary through high school. If you have a socially anxious child, bullying may be even more prevalent.

Bullies pick on children who have trouble defending themselves. Sometimes victims of bullying may even become bullies themselves.

Signs of a Bullied Child

How can you tell if your child with social anxiety is being bullied? Look for warning signs such as the following: 

  • Change in a desire to go to school
  • Damaged or lost belongings
  • Sadness or anxiety
  • Physical ailments
  • Trouble sleeping

Hidden Bullying and Long-Term Effects

Most children who are bullied do not tell anyone. In particular, older boys are less likely to report bullying. Pay attention to changes in your child's behavior and emotions so that you can pick up on bullying that is being hidden.

The long-term effects of bullying on a child can include problems with self-esteem and anxiety. It is important to intervene early if you suspect that bullying is taking place.

Why Bullies Target Those With Social Anxiety

Children who are socially anxious become targets of bullies for a number of reasons. Specifically, bullies tend to target children who exhibit the following:

  • Have a few friends or spend a lot of time alone
  • Lack assertiveness
  • Appear vulnerable and have low self-esteem
  • Have poor social skills or problems developing friendships

Children who have few friends are unable to defend themselves and those with low feelings of self-worth may not stand up for themselves.

Bullying Makes Social Anxiety Worse

Some studies have been conducted to investigate the effects of bullying using rodents such as mice or rats. Though this might sound strange, rodents are believed to have similar stress responses as humans, so this type of research is meaningful.

In one study, mice were exposed to a "mouse bully" over the course of 10 days and changes in the brain of the stressed mice were examined. Results indicated that the hormone vasopressin was activated, which led to an increase in brain receptors sensitive to social stimuli. After the stress, the bullied mice stayed away from all other mice, even friendly ones. This shows that humans may have the same reaction: chronic bullying may elevate stress hormones that could cause a reduction in social behavior.

In a second study, rats were subjected to social stress but were either housed with another rat or alone before and after the stress. Findings showed that the stressed rats who had been paired with a friend before and after were more resilient and better able to recover. This research suggests that having even just one friend may have a protective effect for your child to withstand bullying.

In a related study with humans, researchers found the following:

  • bullying during adolescence leads to an increased risk of symptoms of social anxiety disorder
  • boys with social anxiety are more likely to be bullied
  • reporting bullying can be extremely difficult for children with social anxiety

How to Cope With Bullying

While it may be tempting to take a bullying situation with your child into your own hands, there are steps you can take to help de-escalate the situation and protect your child.

  • Be open to discussing the bullying and don't criticize how your child has handled the situation so far.
  • Inform your child's teacher and principal about the bullying. Make sure that your child has an adult at school that he can tell if he is being bullied.
  • Encourage your child to develop friendships at school. Identify safe places that she can go outside of school if she feels threatened, such as a block parent's home.
  • If there is not already a bullying prevention program in place at your child's school you may wish to make the suggestion.

A Word From Verywell

If you suspect that your child is being bullied, take the situation seriously. Children are embarrassed and ashamed to admit to being bullied, so your support is critical. Stay calm, talk to the school, and give your child skills to cope with the situation.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Harvard Medical School. School refusal: when a child won’t go to school. September 2018.

  2. US Department of Health and Human Services. Effects of bullying.

  3. Wolke D, Lereya ST. Long-term effects of bullying. Arch Dis Child. 2015;(100)9:879-85.  doi:10.1136/archdischild-2014-306667

  4. US Department of Health and Human Services. Who is at risk.

  5. Ranta K, Kaltiala-Heino R, Fröjd S, Marttunen M. Peer victimization and social phobia: A follow-up study among adolescents. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. 2013;(48)4:533-544.  doi:10.1007/s00127-012-0583-9

Additional Reading

By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.