Teen Bullying and Psychosomatic Symptoms: The Impact of Parent Support

A Focus on the Father-Child Relationship

Bullying is an unfortunate part of growing up.

Almost all kids encounter bullying at some point during their lives. It may start as early as kindergarten, preschool, or grade school, but in most cases, bullying starts in middle school and continues through the high school years.

Evidence shows kids who report being bullied – whether it’s in-person or cyberbullying – often experience a wide range of negative consequences. These may include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Lower academic achievement
  • Dropping out of school
  • Low self-esteem
  • Alcohol use
  • Drug use
  • Psychosomatic complaints, including
    • Headaches
    • Stomachaches

Additional evidence shows an association between bullying and suicidal behavior. However, that association is heavily mediated by the presence of depression, substance use, and involvement in non-bullying related violent behavior. The idea that suicidal behavior is a natural response to bullying is not supported by evidence, and can result in copycat behavior known as the contagion effect.

But that’s a completely different subject we address here.

This article is about bullying, psychosomatic symptoms, and the impact of the relationship between the bullying victim and their father on the psychosomatic symptoms. A paper published in March 2021 called “Adolescent Bullying Victimization and Psychosomatic Symptoms: Can Relationship Quality With Fathers Buffer This Association?” is the first peer-reviewed research effort to examine the role of the father with regards to bullying and bullying-related psychosomatic issues.

Researchers examined data from 8,468 students in grades 5-10 and measured the following:

  • Bullying victimization
  • Child’s perception of their father’s awareness
  • Child’s perceived ease of communication with their father or father figure:
    • Specifically ease in talking about problems, as opposed to what’s for dinner or how ‘bout them Yankees?
  • Psychosomatic symptoms

We’ll share the results of the study in a moment. First, we’ll offer the latest statistics on the prevalence of bullying in the U.S.

Bullying: Facts and Figures

While most parents know bullying happens, these statistics are and important reminder in light of the information we share above. Bullying can lead to low self-esteem, mental health issues, and, in a non-scientific observation, we want to remind parents that bullying can lead to a child or adolescent simply having a negative school experience, day in and day out.

No one wants that for their child. Evidence shows that adult intervention – both at school, by teachers, and in the community, by parents – can reduce bullying in a majority of cases. But adults need to know it’s happening before they can intervene.

These stats will give parents, teachers, and any adults in communities with kids and idea of how often bullying happens.

Here’s the data.

The National Center for Educational Statistics: Bullying Prevalence in the U.S. in 2019

  • 20.2% of middle and high school students report being bullied in-person
    • Physical bullying, which includes being pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on:
      • 6% of males
      • 4% of females
    • Exclusion from activities:
      • 7% of females
      • 4% of males
    • False rumors/lies told in-person at school:
      • 18% females
      • 9% of males
    • 41% of middle and high school students who reported in-person bullying think it will happen again
    • In-person bullying at school occurs:
      • In the hallway or stairwell: 43%
      • In the classroom: 42%
      • Around the cafeteria: 27%
      • Outside on school grounds: 22%
      • In the bathroom or locker room: 12%
      • On the school bus: 8%
    • 15% of middle and high school students report being bullied via text or online
      • Between 2007 and 2019, the percentage of students who report ever being bullied online rose from 18% to 37%
      • Online bullying included:
        • Mean comments (males and females equally)
        • Threats of violence (more males than females)
        • False rumors (more females than males)
      • Middle and high school students identify the most common reasons for being bullied as:
        • Appearance
        • Race/ethnicity
        • Gender
        • Disability
        • Religion
        • Sexual orientation

That’s the data. Additional information tells us that in cases of bullying, just under half of middle- and high-school students inform an adult, and that school based bullying prevention programs can reduce rates of bullying by up to 25 percent.

Now let’s take a look at that study and two things those statistics don’t include: the function of the father-child relationship, and whether that relationship has an impact on the presence of psychosomatic symptoms in a child who experiences bullying.

The Protective Influence of Father-Child Relationships

In the study we introduce above, the authors indicate there’s a “…well-established association between bullying victimization and psychosomatic symptoms” and that research shows several robust protective factors can mitigate the negative impact of bullying. These protective factors include:

  • Family support
  • Peer/friend support
  • Teacher support
  • Support from classmates
  • Strong friendships
  • Personal emotional/psychological resilience
  • School climate
    • Schools with anti-bullying programs confer protection
    • Schools without anti-bullying programs do not

Studies on family support focus, to date, on the mother-child relationship. That’s why researchers conducted this study: there is little to no evidence on the effect of the father-child relationship on bullying. Study authors theorize that a strong father-child bond may be a protective factor against both bullying and the psychosomatic consequence of bullying.

It’s a logical theory, since previous research shows good parent-child communication is associated with:

  • Reduced risk of substance use
  • Reduced incidence of risky sexual behavior
  • Decreased bullying victimization

Additional research shows the following three critical facts about father-child relationships during adolescence:

  1. Teens who have frequent interactions with their fathers that include warmth and affection have a better chance of developing a protective bond
  2. The quality of the father-child relationship depends on the level of involvement of the father. In this context, involvement means:
    1. Frequency of father-child interactions
    2. Number of father-child interactions
    3. The perceived accessibility of the father by the child
    4. The durability and consistency of the relationship
  3. A robust father-child relationship characterized by warmth, affection, and frequent, consistent interaction facilitates social and emotional skills that improve social functioning during adolescence

It’s crystal clear: supportive, loving relationships can protect a teen from the negative consequences of bullying. Now let’s look specifically at how the father-child bond can impact psychosomatic symptoms related to bullying.

The Father-Child Bond and Bullying s, and

As we describe above, the study we focus on in this article examined records of over eight thousand pre-teens and teens to examine the effect of the father-child bond on two things:

  1. Bullying victimization
  2. Prevalence of psychosomatic symptoms

The two elements of the father-child bond they theorized would impact those two things were:

  1. Child’s perception of their father’s awareness
  2. Child’s perceived ease of communication with their father or father figure

Let’s take a look at what they found.

Statistical analysis showed that among these pre-teens and teens, lower levels of bullying victimization were associated with:

  • A higher level of the child’s perception of their father’s awareness
    • The effect was strongest among White and Hispanic adolescents
  • Adolescents who perceived their fathers as easy to communicate with
    • This effect was strongest among African American, White, and Hispanic adolescents

That’s informative and confirms their hypothesis. When a child believes their father is aware of them and their interactions with friends and peers, they experience less bullying. And when a child believes their father is easy to communicate with – about hard subjects (see above) – they also experience less bullying.

Next up: the psychosomatic symptoms. Did the father-child bond influence those?

The Father-Child Bond and Psychosomatic Symptoms

Statistical analysis showed that psychosomatic symptoms in pre-teens and teens who were bullied were reduced by:

  • Father’s awareness of bullying
  • The child’s perception of their father’s awareness of the bullying
    • More important for males than females
    • More important for Hispanic teens than others
  • The child’s perceived ease of communication with their father

Just as with bullying victimization, the results show that psychosomatic symptoms decreased when a child’s father was aware of bullying, when a child felt their father was aware of bullying, and when a child felt their father was easy to communicate with about difficult subject.

As just as with bullying victimization, those results are informative and confirm the overall hypothesis: a solid bond with a father – based on frequent interaction, warm and loving experiences, and easy communication – can reduce prevalence of psychosomatic symptoms in pre-teens and teens who experience bullying.

Tips for Dads: How to Create a Real Bond With Your Child

The results of this study have practical implications and applications.

First, they remind us that for a pre-teen and a teen, the perception that they can talk to their father about difficult subjects is a protective factor against bullying. Next, they remind us that the quality of the relationship is a protective factor, too: warm, loving interactions create quality, and quality can reduce bullying victimization and psychosomatic symptoms. Finally, they remind clinicians working with teens who experience bullying of the importance of the father-child bond. That means that therapists can work with both teens and parents on relationship and communication skills. For teens, improving those skills has the potential to mitigate the negative effects of bullying, which, as we mention above, can include depression, anxiety, alcohol/drug use, low self-esteem, and low academic achievement.

Overall, the study is a reminder that dads are important. We all know that. But our society still teaches us that mothers are the primary caregivers in a family, and more important than dads with regards to things like emotional support around issues involving school and social life – including bullying.

Let this study – and this article – help to dispel that notion.

We’ll help in another way: we’ll offer a list of communication tips for dads who want to either improve their communication with their pre-teen/teenager, or establish lines of communication with their pre-teen or teenager that don’t yet exist.

Dads: How to Bond With Your Kids

1. Presence

If you’re the dad of a teen, this applies to you, but we need to offer advice to new dads, too. To establish the strongest possible bond with your child, you need to be physically present. If possible, this needs to start from the day your child is born. Change diapers, feed your baby, hold your baby, talk to your baby, take the stroller out and stroll with your baby. Do everything you can with your baby and do it as often as possible. Infancy is the imprinting period: when your child connects with you from infancy, and you practice talking to your child from the moment you meet them, you increase your chances of easy communication when they’re a teenager.

However, if your life responsibilities kept you from doing those things when your child was young, it’s not too late. Your presence now is incredibly powerful. Take the things we list above, replace them with teenage things, and use the same advice: be there. Be there for parent-teacher conferences, for any extracurricular events small or large, pick them up from sports practice, go to all the games, all the recitals, all the concerts, and all the plays. Also, be there at home. Here’s something that’s important to understand: being there at home doesn’t mean you have to be all up in their business every second you’re both at home. It simply means you’re there if they need you, and that knowledge has a subtle and powerful influence on their sense of safety, self-esteem, and overall well-being.

2. Talk to Them

You can make this as formal or informal as you like, and you can start this at any age: it doesn’t matter whether you start it at age six or sixteen, but start it. Some dads like to have a “check in talk” after school, or, if they can’t be there after school, they do the check in talk at dinner, or whenever they get home. Check in talks can include high points and low points of the day, how things are going with their friends, how things are going at school, with activities, and with their hobbies.

Here’s a hint: to ask the right questions, you have to pay attention to what they do. If you don’t know it already, memorize their daily schedule and organize your conversations around what you know they did that day. You may not see it in the moment, but when you show your teens you know what they do and when they do it, it has a positive effect on their emotional life. They may not tell you in so many words, but more often than not, your attention supports them, rather than smothers them.

3. Be Affectionate

This should start as early as possible. When they’re little, take every chance you can to hug and kiss them. But if that didn’t happen when they were little, it’s okay: find a way to do it now. That might mean a hug, it might mean a kiss on the forehead, or it might simply mean you saying “I love you” more often than you do now.

4. Praise Them

Okay, let’s face it: when you have a teenager, it’s easy to see their shortcomings. Way too easy. That’s because it’s your job to see and correct mistakes they make, so they can apply that new knowledge to their life, and hopefully use your advice to grow into mature, responsible adults. However, you also have another job, and that’s to see the good they do and celebrate them for it. That’s just as important as your critical feedback. Also, think of it this way: if you want to start a conversation with your teen, or open lines of communication that may have been closed for years, starting with a compliment is a good way to get the ball rolling.

5. Drop the Act

What we mean is the stern authority figure act, if that act is something you do. Yes, your teen needs rules and consequences. Yes, you need to follow through on the consequences, even if they get mad at you over it, and even if you have to enforce consequences while you’re in the middle of attempting to create or recreate positive lines of communication.

By drop the act we mean have conversations when you simply talk person to person about nothing in particular, about world events, about hobbies, or about the relative merits of chocolate ice cream over vanilla, or apple pie over pound cake. Share of yourself, listen without planning a lecture in response, and simply talk to your kid. You have plenty of time for giving advice: make sure you set aside time just to talk and be your genuine self. Remember: teens can spot insincerity a mile away, so let down your guard, be yourself, and have a real conversation about any topic that comes up.

That’s where we’ll end this list. We think you get the idea: the more you work on your relationship with your child, the more protective that relationship can be. It can help prevent the negative impact of bullying, according to the data in the study we cite above. It can also improve their self-esteem, reduce their chances of engaging in risky behavior, and enhance their social and emotional coping skills.

And honestly, it all begins with three words we left of the list. It begins by telling your kid every day this most basic sentence: I love you.