Want to Improve Adult Mental Health? Prevent Bullying in Childhood

I recently had the opportunity to hear Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt from the University of Ottawa present fascinating research on the effects of bullying.  Her research suggests that bullying has far more long-reaching consequences for some youth then previously thought.  The now archived webinar, “Bullying Gets under Your Skin” is a must view for anyone who cares about preventing child maltreatment in general and bullying specifically.

Of particular note is that bullying is now being recognized as a form of trauma that impacts the stress response and even alters gene expression in some individuals which leads to long term physical and mental health issues.  In the webinar Dr. Vaillancourt describes how depression is the leading cause of disability world-wide and the majority of mental health problems among adults began in childhood or adolescence.  While it is easy to assume that internalizing problems precede a child being targeted by bullying, research demonstrates that the reverse is frequently true.  The majority of youth who experience depression and anxiety related to bullying did not have internalizing problems prior to their being targeted by bullying.  While there are moderators that impact negative outcomes for youth such as a supportive home environment, it is clear that bullying is a public health issue that warrants our attention.

Psychologist Alfred Adler theorized many decades ago that children have a fundamental need to belong and when this is interrupted healthy functioning decreases.  Dr. Vaillancourt also posits in the webinar how fundamental the need to belong is and suggests as bullying interrupts this sense of belonging the consequences are far-reaching.  In summary, if we are committed to preventing depression and other mental health issues among adults we need to focus more heavily on preventing bullying among children.

Parenting in the Digital Age


Parenting has changed in the last ten years as kids increasingly live out their lives online.  Parenting in the digital age does require some new awareness, but it is not difficult to do.

Begin by modeling positive behavior:  Take breaks from technology, establish no cell phone or other device time, collect phones or use docking stations at night, and model civility both online and offline.

Talk to your kids about what sites are okay and what sites are off-limits:  Don’t just tell kids not to go to inappropriate websites, help them understand why these sites are against your personal values, morals, or ethics.

Talk to your kids in a developmentally appropriate manner about the “grooming” techniques that are used by online predators.  Kids should know that individuals might hide their true identity online.  They should avoid responding to individuals who request personal information or photos.   Teens should understand how nude photo sharing could lead to exploitation and extortion.

Discuss behaviors you want them to embrace and what behaviors you want them to avoid: Online learning, research, creating, communicating and sharing ideas and projects are positive behaviors.  Yet there are negative behaviors to avoid such as cyber bullying, inappropriate site, photo or video sharing, plagiarizing and cheating.   Remind your kids that anything shared digitally can potentially be public and permanent.

Educate yourself about appropriate ways to monitor your child’s digital world.   Use monitoring to encourage conversations and “course corrections” when necessary.  Be careful not to over-react, but use this information to ask questions and have teachable moments.

The following are tools and practices that can assist you:

  • Set up agreements on what sites and behaviors are okay, but let your children know you will be monitoring to make sure they follow your family guidelines.   Monitoring is especially appropriate with new users of social media.  But recognize that it is nearly impossible to monitor all of the devices and apps that children are using on a regular basis.
  • Keep in mind that communication is more useful than solutions based on technology.  As children demonstrate responsible use, parents should be monitoring less and less, particularly if a teen has demonstrated that he is making good choices. Parents can instead ask teens to show them around their favorite sites, ask for tips on how to use it, and discuss how they make decisions about privacy and sharing.  They can also ask them if they know how to report abuse or terms of use violations.
  • Encourage your kids to be upstanders rather than bystanders.  Kids rarely intervene when they witness bullying and cyberbullying, but when they do it is usually effective.  Discuss strategies that can help their peers and how demonstrating courage can help others. Highlight that private support and listening can be just as effective as intervening in the moment.

The following websites offer great tips for parents and teens: