Bullying undeniably causes both short-term and long-term health problems for those involved. Although the focus is frequently on targets of bullying, there are other nuanced shades of people in this story, including those exhibiting bullying behavior and even the bystanders.
We’ll explore how bullying and poor sleep are intertwined for all parties involved, including whether sleep issues actually cause bullying behavior.
How Being Bullied Affects Sleep
Evidence suggests a strong link between troubled sleep and experiencing bullying behavior. There are also hints that people who bully others and are bullied themselves experience similar distress.
For example, one study found that those who are bullied often experience sleep disturbances that can impact school performance. And it’s not just for pure targets — both aggressors and aggressor/targets exhibited higher sleepiness levels. Additionally, they found that during the weekday, the aggressor group went to bed and woke up later than other groups profiled.
But do socially aggressive people experience as much sleep distress as targets or bystanders? A different study concluded that pure aggressors and students not involved with bullying did not experience the same kinds of sleep disturbances as their involved counterparts. The study, which looked at high school age students between 14 and 17 years old, found that targets and aggressor/targets reported the most sleep problems out of any group. Those sleep disturbances include insomnia, bedtime fears, and parasomnias.
Overall, multiple studies confirmed the finding that aggressors, targets, and aggressor/targets all experience some kind of sleep disturbance or another. Another study confirmed this general consensus: that whether a target, aggressor, or aggressor/target, all groups involved were more likely to experience sleep difficulties and insomnia opposed to their uninvolved peers. And a study among Chinese high school students confirmed the same reality: whether a target or an aggressor, students involved in a bullying dynamic experienced poor sleep. The more frequently both aggressors and targets experienced or engaged in the behavior, the more likely the student slept poorly.
Targets or aggressors engaged in physical abuse and relational bullying reported the worst sleep disturbances. In both instances, 52% of those involved experienced poor sleep quality three or more nights over the past 30 days. Verbal bullying still disturbed those involved, though at a slightly lower rate: 41%.
But as we’ve mentioned before, bullying isn’t only limited to children or adolescents. Adults enduring workplace bullying also experienced long-term sleep difficulties due to workplace bullying.
Studies have shown that both bullied persons and witnesses to the bullying reported more sleep difficulties. Even two years later, some adults still experienced this difficult side effect.
There’s not always a distinct connection between exhibiting social aggression and experiencing a lack of sleep. However, it does appear that targets of bullying, and often aggressor/targets, experience consistent problems with a regular and healthy night’s sleep.
Can Sleep Issues Cause Bullying Behavior, and Vice Versa?
We know that bullying behaviors can cause sleep problems in children and adults, but what about the other way around? Can a lack of sleep actually cause people to bully others?
Researchers investigated 341 subjects who exhibited symptoms of sleep-disordered breathing. In this cross-sectional approach, teachers filled out conduct problems assessments using the Conners Comprehensive Behavior Rating Scales. Parents filled out a pediatric sleep questionnaire.
In general, they found that urban school children with sleep apnea did have a correlation with more aggressive behavior in school. Researchers concluded that sleepiness may impair emotional regulation, which can lead to increased aggression and — you guessed it — bullying.
Yet another study published in France explored sleep disorders associated with adolescent bullying. They included all types of people on the bullying spectrum — pure aggressors, pure targets, aggressor/targets, and neutral parties (students not involved in bullying). Their sample size of 1,422 students between ages 10-18 also spanned socioeconomically diverse populations.
They recorded results on several different scales:
- Revised Olweus Bully/Victim Questionnaire
- Athens Insomnia Scale
- Perceived Social Disintegration Scale
- Psychological Distress Scale
- General Aggressiveness Scale
- Antisocial Behavior Scale
All of these surveys combined allowed for a robust analysis from various student perspectives. The result? Bullied students showed far more sleep disturbances than neutral groups or pure aggressors. However, aggressors’ sleep schedules were more irregular and shorter than their schoolmates.
Ultimately, researchers believe sleep does have a moderating effect on aggression in socially aggressive people. That means better levels of sleep could help with increased social-emotional regulation. However, little research has been conducted around whether poor sleep is a self-perpetuating problem for aggressors or aggressor/targets.
That is: are children stressed due to participating in bullying, sleep poorly, and therefore have poor emotional regulation and bully more? Knowing the root cause between sleep and bullying can be muddled.
One finding in these studies is clear: anyone who experiences bullying may encounter sleeping difficulties in one way or another.
Other studies have shown that bystanders can also experience negative side effects from witnessing acts of bullying. But can it affect their sleeping patterns as well?
One study published in Europe’s Journal of Psychology set to find out. They drew on cognitive theories of insomnia to figure out if even worrying about bullying can create sleep difficulties. A total of 5,420 adolescents completed the questionnaire, offering a large sample pool.
As confirmed by other studies, this one found that pure targets, pure aggressors, and aggressor/targets were all likely to experience impaired sleep due to their involvement in bullying. However, bystanders in this study showed no significant correlation between sleep difficulties and worrying about being bullied. Overall, they found the link between insomnia due to bystander distress questionable at best.
However, the links between long-term distress in bystanders of family abuse has stronger correlation. A study published in the Internal Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health found that children who witnessed family abuse and community violence had higher instances of post-traumatic stress, internalized hostility, substance abuse, and suicide ideation.
In that vein, the link between post-traumatic stress and poor sleep could arguably go hand in hand. However, due to the conflicting findings in different studies, it appears more research needs to be conducted in this arena. Because socially aggressive people and those they target are often the center of studies, it makes sense why there are less studies conducted on the sleep habits of bystanders.
Handling Sleep Issues in Children Involved in Bullying Behavior
Understanding the link between poor sleep and bullying behavior can feel distressing if you’re a parent. Thankfully, no matter how your child is involved with social aggression, there are some techniques and practices available to help alleviate poor sleep and help your child get back on track.
If your child is engaging in bullying behavior against another student, it’s possible they are suffering from a sleep disorder.
Sleep disorders aren’t just a problem for adults. Some children exhibit sleep disorders due to:
- Limit-setting sleep disorder
- Childhood apnea
- Pain and stress
Insomnia is a challenging disorder to treat in children. The FDA has not approved any sleeping medications for children, a solution to which many adults in the United States turn. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have options.
As a parent, you can take steps to identify your child’s sleep disorder with a trusted pediatrician or child psychologist. Understanding those problems and addressing them may help alleviate sleep disorder symptoms in your child and reduce their stress and anxiety levels.
Here are a few solid steps you can take to improve your child’s sleep patterns, whether they’re involved in bullying as a participant, target, or bystander.
Set a predictable bedtime. No matter where your child is on the bullying spectrum, creating a solid and predictable bedtime routine is another way to reduce bully-related sleep problems and create a stable environment.
- Read to them before bed. Bedtime reading for children has shown to improve cognitive ability, especially when started at a young age. Many experts even encourage parents to begin this ritual with their newborns. If you have adolescent children who have outgrown this ritual, encouraging them to read a book before bed or taking away their electronics for the night is a great way to help them wind down and prepare for sleep.
- Select the right foods. Did you know that some foods can help both children and adults sleep better? Healthy meals and snacks with naturally occurring ingredients like tryptophan, magnesium, and Vitamin B6 may help lull your little ones to sleep. Think turkey, milk, eggs, beans, yogurt, bananas, cherries, and oats.
- Encourage good sleep hygiene. Practicing good sleep hygiene covers a wide array of healthy sleeping habits. You can model these for your children and set up the environment for them to succeed. That means preparing them for enough hours of sleep every night, going to bed at the same time, finding a quiet place to sleep, keeping their bedroom dark and cool, limiting screen time before bed, and following a bedtime routine.
- Shake it out. Both children and adults greatly benefit from exercise to help them sleep. During the daytime or right after school, finding ways to get your child outdoors and active will have cascading positive benefits on their overall mental health and sleeping habits. Think of visiting the jungle gym, walking the dog, or playing some touch football in the yard. If you have an older child, taking them to a rock climbing wall, signing up for a half marathon together, or joining a school sport could all be great ways to get out and stay active.
Taking these proactive steps could significantly help your child if they’re experiencing the negative link between sleep and bullying.
Bullying is never an easy issue to confront. It can be especially hard to know what to do if you’re watching a loved one or child struggling.
As the studies above show, bullying and poor sleep habits are closely linked. Providing children and adolescents with a safe place to share their concerns, a stable home life, and a balanced amount of sleep can help alleviate some of the challenges around bullying.
If you’re still not sure how to address the problem, speaking with a pediatrician, child psychologist, or other outside help may give you the resources needed to help your child feel balanced, healthy and happy.
Original article posted on Tuck.com.