Teen Bullying Can Trigger Eating Disorders

Contributors: Staff of Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

Bullying used to be confined to the schoolyard. Not anymore. Today, bullying is evidenced in every segment of society in every possible venue from professional sports events to city transit buses.

Relational bullying is escalating at a rapid rate throughout our country. This is bullying that transpires within female friendships. It starts very young, as early as second and third grade, and can have profoundly negative long-term consequences such as eating disorders.

Unlike traditional bullying, this form of interaction is not physical; it’s verbal. It is covert, passive-aggressive and insidious. This bullying comes in the form of gossip, secret-telling, or lies about another.

Often it is executed under the guise of friendship. One young girl might tell another in whispered tones: “Because I am your best friend I am going to tell you the truth. All the other kids think you are stupid and fat.” Why would this girl say this? Because it makes her feel better about herself to put another person down.

Girl struggling with bullyingWhat is so profoundly sad about this scenario is that a girl of eight or 10 years old does not have the intellectual or emotional maturity to understand what is truly transpiring. She might believe she is stupid and fat; after all, why would her best friend lie to her? In turn, her self-esteem plummets and her self-identity takes an enormous hit.

This type of cruelty can go on for years because the one on the receiving end of the bullying would rather remain in the friendship and be hurt, then leave and be alone.

This is because the fear of having no friends or existing as an outcast is worse than anything she can imagine. For a young girl, the thought of being ostracized by the group is completely terrifying.

Other forms of relational bullying may include but are not limited to the following [1]:

  • Taunting and Insults
  • Exclusion
  • Conditional Friendship Terms
  • The Silent Treatment
  • Indirect Attacks with Gossip
  • Consequences of Bullying

The emotional pain from relational bullying can continue, and undoubtedly, intensify. This young girl’s feelings of inadequacy, shame, guilt, and sadness can lead to depression and anxiety.

If she does not possess healthy coping skills or a positive support system at home, this can eventually result in an eating disorder, often accompanied by self-harming behavior. It hurts. Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder can provide an escape from the emotional pain.

Proactive Action to Combat Bullying

It is estimated that the vast majority of kids are bullied, with data suggesting that 24 to 45 percent of U.S. school children are bullied during the course of a year, and up to 20 percent are victimized several times per week [2]. In terms of relational bullying, while this type of bullying is common and connected with chronic emotional distress, many professionals and authority figures may undermine relational bullying as less serious than other forms of bullying [2].

Parents, especially mothers, can take steps to protect their daughters. These include:

Be an Excellent Role Model. If a mother wants her daughter to be strong, genuine, assertive, and non-passive-aggressive in relationships, she can strive to model that behavior in her own life. Living the example is the best step any mother can take to positively influence her child.

Encourage Social Diversity. It is healthy for girls to have more than one peer group with whom to interact. In addition to friends at school, she may become involved with extracurricular activities in the area of sports, social clubs or church. This means her identity and self-concept won’t be defined or shaped by only one group. This is especially important if one group turns on her for any reason. She won’t feel so alone, she’ll know she has other friends in her life.

Encourage Insight. If a child is experiencing relational bullying, talk about the “whys” of such behavior. Try to help her understand what might be behind a “friend” behaving in such a fashion. Help her to see it is not about her, what she has done or who she is; instead, it is all about the “friend” and what she may be lacking in her own life, such as parental love and support.

Communicate and Show Support. Let your daughter know you are always there to listen and support her. Make sure she knows that all things are “speakable,” meaning no topic is off limits. Encourage her to bring her thoughts and feelings out into the light of day, knowing that it they remain in the dark they will only grow, distort and fester.

Girl with school booksWe encourage all adults to adopt the policy of “if you see something, say something.” By doing nothing, you actually lend support to the bully. By reducing the incidence of bullying throughout our culture, perhaps we in the behavioral health field will experience a reduction in the number of women who come to us for treatment with emotional wounds and trauma dating back to early childhood bullying.


About the Author:  Nora Beasanski, LCSW, Primary/Family Therapist, Clinical Lead

At Timberline Knolls, Nora provides individual and group family counseling. She is a key member of a resident’s multi-disciplinary team in the treatment of an eating disorder, trauma, drug and alcohol addiction, and mood disorders. She works with families to foster communication, identify strengths and challenges, and teach the family how to support recovery for the resident and their family.

Nora received her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology with an emphasis on Health and Human Services from DePaul University in Chicago. She received her Masters of Social Work from Jane Addams College of Social Work in Chicago and completed addiction counseling coursework from Harold Washington College in Chicago. She is a member of the Illinois Group Psychotherapy Society where she is on the board of directors and co-chair of the Program and Training Committee. Nora is also a member of the American Group Psychotherapy Association and the National Association of Social Workers.


[1]:  NoBullying.Com, “The Effects of Relational Bullying”, https://nobullying.com/relational-bullying/
[2]: Psych Central, “Facts and Statistics on Bullying”, https://psychcentral.com/lib/facts-statistics-on-bullying/

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on June 20, 2017
Edited And Updated By: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on June 20, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com