Children who are bullied by their peers endure great emotional pain and suffering.
But a new study, to be published in the March 2012 issue of Pediatrics, found that children who are ostracized, even for brief periods, are significantly more likely to choose sedentary over physical activities.
Researchers asked children between the ages of 8 and 12 to play a virtual ball-toss game. They were told that they were playing the game online with other kids. In some of the sessions, the game was pre-programmed to exclude the child from receiving the ball for most of the game.
In the other sessions, the child received the ball one-third of the time. After the game, the kids were given a choice of any activity they liked. They were then monitored by a device that measured physical activity.
The researchers found the kids who were excluded were far more likely to choose an activity that did not require physical effort. They concluded that being ostracized may reinforce behaviors that lead to obesity in children.
Even though this study seems small, it is important, says Dr. Farah Lokey, a member of the Arizona Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Children who are prone to being bullied and then ostracized in school every day tend to spend more time at home and less time participating in activities with other children.
And that can damage self-esteem. “The key to getting these children active, and feeling good about themselves, says Lokey, who practices at Southwestern Pediatrics Gilbert, “is putting them into activities where they can shine on their own and meet like-minded individuals.”
Individual sports such as golf, swimming, and tennis can provide these opportunities, Lokey adds. “These sports not only allow them to become experts in the sports by learning these skills but definitely help their self- esteem and pride.”
Sports like Karate and other self-defense activities encourage treating others with respect. That keeps the concept top-of-mind for children.
When to worry
Younger school-age children typically begin their school years with a sense of excitant about learning and making new friends. But if a child seems suddenly less enthused and more fearful around school, or develops separation anxiety, that could be a red flag that bullying is going on, says Lokey.
Some children will show physical problems with no diagnosable cause, such as a tummy aches – but maybe only on the weekdays, not on weekends. Sleep problems or anxiety in social situations can also be indicators.
With older children, behavior can become more aggressive and defiant, says Lokey. Grades may suffer, and parents may notice a change in appearance as well as a tendancy to seclude themselves from others.
What to do
If parents do see sudden changes, they should speak to school officials and enlist the help of school counselors. Lokey says that pediatricians can be a great resource when parents have questions about these behaviors.
A child’s physician can talk to their patient in confidence and offer to speak with school counselors if needed. “Bolstering confidence and self-esteem in the children we pediatricians treat,” says Lokey, “is one of our main goals.”