Children who are unusually sad and anxious, or aggressive as first graders are more likely to be victimized by their peers by the time they reach third grade, according to a new study in the journal Child Development.
Helping these children early-on to navigate the social world of elementary school can reduce the likelihood that they will be bullied - or bully others - down the road, Dr Bonnie J. Leadbeater said. "We have great interventions," she said.
But unfortunately, young kids who need this sort of help rarely get it, added Leadbeater, from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Starting grade one can be particularly hard for children who have so-called internalising symptoms, which include crying easily, worrying excessively, being overly fearful, and feeling sad, Leadbeater and Dr.Wendy L. G. Hoglund of the University of Alberta note in their report.
These symptoms may also make them targets for bullying, the researchers say, which in turn may make their internalising tendency worse.
How the study was done
They examined the relationship between internalising or behaving aggressively and peer victimisation by following 432 children from the beginning of first grade, when they were 6.3 years old on average, through to the end of third grade.
Just under three-quarters of the children had low levels of internalising symptoms that stayed low throughout the course of the study; 20% had low levels of these symptoms, but developed worse symptoms over time; and 7% started out with high levels of internalising symptoms and remained that way.
There were two pathways by which children's internalising symptoms got worse, the researchers found. Children who appeared to be sad and anxious were victimised by their peers, which aggravated these symptoms.
But excessively aggressive children were also more likely to victimized, which contributed to their behaving even more aggressively in second grade. By third grade, the initially aggressive kids were experiencing more bullying, and more internalising symptoms.
Only 5% of kids who need help, get it
"Whether you're sad to begin with or you're aggressive to begin with sort of sets you up for bullying," Leadbeater said. Children with chronic internalising symptoms are "different," she noted, which can attract the negative attention of other kids, while aggressive children may be rejected by their peers, and bullied in retaliation for their own behaviour.
While kids who have a hard time learning to read get extra help, she added, the same kind of assistance is rarely available for children with emotional problems. "We tend not to do anything." In Canada, she noted, just 5% of children who need mental health treatment are actually getting it.
There are effective strategies for helping children become more socially skilful, for example encouraging timid children to stand up for themselves, she added. "There are good ways to treat these things," Leadbeater said. "It's about helping the families to help them."
Some people have said that focusing bullying prevention efforts on kids who are bullied is a kind of "blaming the victim" approach, the researcher said. However, she points out, bullying is a two-way street, with aggressive children often winding up becoming victims, and vice versa.
Helping children learn how not to be victimized, discouraging bullying, and teaching kids to be more tolerant can address the problems from all possible angles, according to Leadbeater, adding: "It would serve us well to intervene when these people are young and not wait until they are entrenched in mental health problems and relationship problems." – (Reuters Health, May 2009)
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