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The Strange Link Between Eating Disorders and Bullying

Bullying can have a wide array of mental health consequences, and not just for the victims. A new study finds that kids who bully others are twice as likely to show symptoms of bulimia nervosa, an eating disorder classified by binge eating and purging.

Perhaps less surprisingly, kids who are the victims of bullying are more than twice as likely to suffer from eating disorders.

The Research

The research team at Duke University analyzed a database of health information on 1,420 children from North Carolina, between 1992 and 2003, starting when the kids were age 9. The kids classified as bullies had repeatedly abused other children (verbally and physically), spread rumors and contributed to social exclusion of victims.

Compared to kids not involved in bullying, the victims of bullies were more than twice as likely to show symptoms of anorexia (11.2 percent compared to 5.6 percent) and bulimia (27.9 percent compared to 17.6 percent).

This makes sense, given that eating disorders are often developed as an adaptive coping mechanism.

However, bullies were even more likely to suffer from bulimia (30.8 percent showed symptoms). This was true among both males and females, though researchers said bullies don’t seem to be at a higher risk for eating disorders as they got older. Either way, bulimia can have serious health consequences including: possibility of gastric rupture from binges, inflammation of the esophagus, tooth decay from vomiting, and potentially dangerous or fatal electrolyte imbalances.

Signs to Look For

If you suspect your child may have an eating disorder, there are certain signs to watch out for. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, these may include:

  • For Anorexia: inadequate food intake, a low weight, intense fear of weight gain, self-esteem issues and a preoccupation with body image.
  • For Bulimia: frequent episodes of consuming large quantities of food followed by vomiting, over-exercise, a period of starvation or use of laxatives (they may spend a long time in the bathroom after meals), bruises on knuckles, puffy cheeks or red, watery eyes from vomiting.

Protecting Your Children

As a parent, if you’re worried your child is being bullied, there are many signs to look out for. Your child may:

  • Come home with damaged or missing articles of clothing or other items
  • Have unexplained cuts, bruises, and scratches
  • Have few friends
  • Seem fearful of going to school or interacting with peers
  • Have trouble sleeping or frequent bad dreams
  • Experience a loss of appetite or other health problems
  • Seem anxious and suffer from low self-esteem

To help your child cope with bullying, it’s recommended to talk with his or her teacher and school administrators. More anti-bullying resources are available here.