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Could that stomachache be a sign of bullying?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  September 19, 2013 07:23 AM

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bullying photo.jpgWhen we think of the effects of bullying, we tend to think of things like poor self-esteem, anxiety or depression--which are, of course, common effects of bullying. 

But what many people don't know is that sometimes those psychological effects show up as physical complaints, such as headaches, stomachaches, backaches, dizziness or trouble sleeping. In fact, a study just released in the journal Pediatrics showed that "psychosomatic" complaints (physical symptoms caused by psychological factors) are twice as common in children who are bullied compared to children who aren't bullied.

It's really important that parents (and other adults) pick up on signs of bullying. We don't often get to see the actual bullying; not only are bullies good at hiding it, but these days a lot of it happens in places that parents are even less likely to see, like in text messages or on social media. Kids very often don't volunteer that they are being bullied; not only are they often embarrassed or even ashamed, sometimes they don't even realize that what is going on is bullying. They might think that they deserve how they are being treated, or just think that it's something normal that can't be changed.

Nobody deserves to be bullied, and we need to do everything we can to stop it from being normal--and change it. 

Before we can help a child who is being bullied, we need to recognize it. There are the signs you should always watch for, such as:
  • Sadness, irritability or other change in mood
  • Having fewer friends
  • Spending more time alone, avoiding social situations
  • Unexplained changes in routines or activities
  • Dropping grades
  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits
But what this study tells us is that we also need to be watchful for physical signs. If your child has persistent trouble with headaches, stomachaches, other aches and pains, dizziness or trouble sleeping, you should...take them to the doctor, of course. But if the doctor doesn't find anything wrong, don't just think that everything's okay. Ask some different questions. You might want to talk to your child's teacher, coaches or other adults in their lives too.

If you find out your child is being bullied, do something. Don't tell them to ignore it. Don't tell them to fight back, either. Instead, help them find a way through--and help them find people who can help. For more suggestions on what you can do, for different ages and different kinds of bullying, check out

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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