Bullying: Its Long-Term Impact
Ask any adult—they remember every detail about being picked on, called names, or bullied as a youngster. My middle brother was overweight as a child—he recalled kids who would mock him—“Joseph, Joseph two by four, can’t fit through the bathroom door!” I remember children who would make fun of my last name and add a four-letter expletive to the end of it. I still remember being pushed down when I was 13 years old by a bigger kid. All of his friends snickered and laughed at my humiliation. I don’t think anyone ever forgets these encounters.
These experiences are painful as a child—but the ripple effects of childhood bullying crashes into adulthood too.
A recent study reported in the journal, Psychiatry, followed 1420 subjects who were evaluated 4-6 times between the ages of 9 and 16. The researchers asked the children and their parents if they had been bullied or bullied others in the three months prior to each evaluation. The researchers divided the subjects into four groups: bullies, victims, bullies who were also victims, and children who were not bullied at all.
The children were assessed again in adulthood—at ages 19, 21, and between 24 and 26. The researchers found that victims were 4 times more likely to have an anxiety disorder as adults compared to the other groups. Bullies who were also victims were even more distressed. They were 14 times more likely to develop an anxiety disorder as adults, and close to 5 times more likely to experience depression. Not surprisingly, bullies were 4 times more likely to have antisocial personality disorders as adults than those never exposed to bullying.
These effects persisted even after the researchers accounted for pre-existing conditions such as physical or sexual abuse, poverty, or family instability.
The lead author, Dr. William Copeland, concluded that bullying is not a harmless rite of passage, but can inflict lasting psychiatric damage on par with certain family dysfunctions. There was a previous study in Finland of 2500 children, which had similar findings.
These studies contradict the popular belief that children just need to learn how “stand up” to bullies or learn how to become “bully proof”. I remember adults telling me “just don’t let the bullies see how upset you are—that just urges them on”. This message implies that the victim is partially responsible for being bullied!
The fact of the matter is that bullying is painful and traumatic and can have lasting effects. This makes it all the more important for schools and communities to insure early identifications of problems, to implement prevention programs, and to take a strong stand against bullying. Children need to feel protected by the adults who are responsible for their care.
What are some helpful tips for parents?
- Check out www.stopbullying.gov. This website is sponsored by the United States Department of Health and Human Services and has up-to-date resources and information for parents, children, educators, and community members.
- Ask your children if they are encountering bullies. All too often children are reluctant to talk to their parents about name-calling, cyber bullying, or being physically intimidated by other kids. They may feel ashamed or humiliated. Even being around others who are being bullied can evoke considerable distress in children. It can evoke both guilt (for not intervening) and fear (worry about becoming a victim).
Be on the lookout for signs of your child having anxiety about going to school or participating in recess. Sometimes kids experience intimidation walking to and from school.
- Keep the lines of communication open. This is probably the most important thing that you can do. When your children feel comfortable talking with you, they will let you know what is happening in their daily life.
Were you bullied as a child? What did you experience? How did it impact you as a child?—as an adult? Share your story with the Family Talk community.