Lasting Legacy of Childhood Bullying: Psychiatric Problems In Adulthood

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It’s not just the victims of bullying that experience long-term consequences; bullies themselves are also at risk of mental health issues later in life.

In a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers report that bullying can have serious consequences on childhood development, and shouldn’t be dismissed as simply a playground rite-of-passage.

Starting in 1993, the scientists followed over 1,400 children at three different ages — 9, 11 and 13, and interviewed them and their caregivers every year until the kids turned 16.

Based on the interviews, they categorized the kids into four groups: victims only, bullies only, both bullies and victims, or neither. To determine the long-term effects of bullying, the researchers re-interviewed the participants when they were ages 19, 21, 24 and 26, and evaluted them for a wide range of different psychiatric disorders.

(MORE: The Relationship Between Bullying and Depression: It’s Complicated)

“Bullying is not just a part of childhood, or some sort of a harmless activity between peers. This is actually something that has very detrimental, and very long lasting effects,” says study author William Copeland of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.

All three groups who reported being involved in bullying experienced some long-term psychiatric effects in the form of anxiety, depressive, or antisocial personality disorders, or some type of alcohol or marijuana abuse. After controlling for family hardships that might also make these mental health issues more likely, the researchers found distinct patterns of psychiatric problems that distinguished the bullies from their victims. Victims of bullying were nearly three times as likely to have issues with generalized anxiety as those who were not bullied, and 4.6 times as likely to suffer from panic attacks, or agoraphobia, in which they felt trapped or had no escape, compared to those who were spared bullying. Bullies themselves showed a four times higher risk of antisocial personality disorder as adults compared to those who did not bully others, and children who reported being both bullies and victims seemed to fare the worst of all; these participants showed a nearly five times greater risk of depression as young adults compared to those who had not both given and received bullying behavior, and a 14.5 times greater risk of having a panic disorder. These effects also showed some gender differences; women had a dramatically higher risk, at nearly 27 times, of having agoraphobia, while men showed an 18.5 times greater prevalence of suicidal tendencies.

“For bullies, it’s a completely different kind of problem,” says Copeland. “With the victims, it is all related to their emotional functioning. For the bullies, they had higher rates of antisocial personality disorder, which is kind of related to criminal behavior, so they’re having completely different problems in adulthood than the victims.”

(MORE: Bullying Over Food Allergies)

The findings highlight the importance of considering school- and peer-based factors when kids are struggling, says Copeland. Many counselors, and research studies on the subject, focus on the home situation when children start acting out or becoming more withdrawn. Children’s relationships with their parents or maltreatment in the home are among the more obvious factors that affect behavior, but peer relationships may be just as critical in assessing young children’s development.

“What this study really suggests is that what goes on at school, and what goes on between peers, may be just as important in understanding their long-term function as what goes on at home. In childhood, when kids are in school, they spend a lot more time with their peers than they do with their parents so we should not be so surprised about this,” says Copeland. “When we see kids having trouble, we tend to ask them about things going on at home and we don’t tend to ask them how they’re getting along with their peers and whether they’re the victim of bullying. I think we need to rethink that a bit.”

(MORE: Why Autistic Kids Make Easy Targets for School Bullies)

Taking bullying more seriously, for example, as the potential seed for mental health and behavior problems in adulthood, could lead to better interventions and lower long-term health costs. Childhood experiences lay an important foundation for the type of people we become, and how youngsters interact with their peers is an important part of that dynamic.

20 comments
gregjockca
gregjockca

A well-written example is explored in the unsettling movie Girl with the Dragon Tattoo of a girl raped and abused by the parents, the social system and the government. Revictimization is far too easy in a world that already naively dismisses and discounts nonconformity itself as a "threat". We live in very fascist and pro-corporate times where eliminating people by discounting them as people with valid opinions is far too easy.

In the quest to damn antisocial behaviour, there is a further risk of further victimization against a victims' genuine problems that may ironically have *lead* to their *own* antisociality. Scapegoating is just too easy when poverty is the number one source of bullying in our hellish socio-economic nightmare that benefits an unseen 1% of the world while the other 99% are denied clean drinking water, a home or any other resources that are NUMBER ONE PRIORITY before we can start mandating to people to act right or ship out.

I am against genocide of all kinds. I hope you all are too. Reach out and dare to *understand* someone who *seems* at first blush to be "nuts" or "dark". Not everyone can AFFORD to be a good little christian and last time I checked Jesus didn't give a lick whether you were poor or not. Thank you.

RafiMetz
RafiMetz

I was bullied mercilessly in school AND at home by both my parents. I left when I was 16 and lived on the streets. In my case the fact that I was a year younger than everyone in my class made me a target, and then the fact that I was already beaten down by the physical and verbal abuse at home made me even more of a target.  That it affected my entire life is not even a question; only people who didn't experience being bullied could wonder if there are long term effects.

I didn't completely develop any self esteem until I was in my 40s, and now I'm OK, but I lost a lot of years. Anyone who is around kids should make every possible effort to stop bullies and protect the targets. Uncorrected, the bullies grow up to be cops, sadists, and political hacks, and the victims never grow up, becoming adult failures, suicides, and wasted lives.

straydog
straydog

It's sad to say that, regardless of the recent events (ie: shootings), people will continue to stick their heads in the sand and insist bullying is a natural part of growing up, that victims should "fight back", or "get over it" when the bullying has long since stopped. Is it any surprise that lingering psychological effects remain?

The lessons children learn from enduring something like this has far-reaching effects. The last thing a bullied child wants to hear is that they should "fight back"---how? why? when?---if it was that easy, they would've done it already. Fighting back requires self confidence, physical prowess, and a safety net of friends to intervene just in case. How many bullied children have these traits? These children are bullied BECAUSE they can't fight back. And they can't "get over it" because someone is telling them they aren't worth it, they're meaningless, that they deserve to be physically and emotionally abused--so they have no confidence to tell themselves otherwise.

This continuous exposure to abuse breeds anxiety, depression and in some cases (as we've seen in the news)---violence. None of this information is new, of course. I've seen it in the spotlight since Columbine (which took place while I was in HS in CO)---these kids causing such tragedy in schools may have other issues, but a connecting factor seems to be bullying. Do these kids get to that tipping point, where they've been bullied SO much, that they feel they have no other way out than to kill their tormentors? When a child feels they cannot fight back, and then is given the tools to do so (which carries little/no repercussions)--are we surprised that they turn weapons on the peers that made their lives so miserable?

Addressing bullying could have far-reaching effects---improved learning and participation, better connections with peers, more understanding and tolerance of others, and a positive experience that nurtures confidence and inclusion. People need these foundations to give them a better chance as being successful and productive.

But I agree that bullying isn't necessarily happening just at school. Bullying at home is an issue too, and of which many of us have experience. In many ways, bullying at home is even worse---you're being bullied by people who're supposed to love you. What message does that send to kids? That love involves being critical, antagonistic, belittling, and abusive. And then we wonder why kids who were abused, grow up to be abuse--they're getting skewed messages about what healthy, normal relationships with other people are.

We give our pets healthy and positive socialization to prepare them for adulthood...why aren't our children even getting that?

Paulpot
Paulpot

Kids who bully were already being bullied by someone. 

People who grow up to be violent were all bullied. 

You have to be bullied to become a bully. 

Murder and corruption and violation of human rights all begins with people whoi were inititly bullied themselves as children. 

This means all the worlds problems begin with child abuse. 

Child abuse is the cause of all the worlds problems. 

End child abuse and we could end murder and war. 

rhrhrh
rhrhrh

I was bullied, but it was by my brother, who beat me and verbally abused me.  The result physically was multiple concussions and a broken bone, but the verbal abuse - "you're garbage" "you're a loser" among the least obscene - was what got to me most.  That coupled with the fact that neither parent acknowledged it happening led to me cutting myself and suicidal thoughts.  I finally beat him up one day, and he didn't bother me again (his words were "what is wrong with you?" when I kept beating on him and would not stop - I'm female and younger by the way).

My concern is with the bullies that are missed - the siblings and the parents.  I know that a lot of bullying happens in school, but a lot happens at home too.


As for repercussions as adults, he refuses to acknowledge he beat me, then says "it was 30 years ago, you need to see a psychiatrist if it still bothers you".  Well, it bothers me that I was beaten and didn't realize it was not normal, and that my parents' response ("don't tell the police or they will take YOU away") was not normal, until I was in my 20's.  It bothers me that he doesn't care that he used to beat me, but I still deal with him because of my father's sake.  What is also sad is that he continues with manipulative behaviors - defining for others "what a familiy is" (it used to include taking other sibling's property without asking and never returning it, now it includes taking his out-of-control child to formal functions and not keeping tabs on him) and says I am the one who "is sick". 

This is an important study, but don't neglect that bullying in the family can often be much worse than bullying at school.  And also don't discount that grades and obvious behaviors don't have to change - I was getting all A's and eventually ended up at an Ivy, with five years being a bullying/beating victim.  My main advice is to not ignore your kids when they ask for help - whether your kids are your kids by birth, or your kids are your students.  A little care goes a long way.

robinsband
robinsband

As a former football player, I can report that, for boys, though not all jocks are bullies, pretty much all the bullies are jocks. If football coaches had any balls, they'd immediately bench anyone caught bullying, and high school bullying would shrink to near zero as instigators and emulators faced losing what they love most-- playing football.

Midwest2
Midwest2

It's about time that science has caught up with what parents already know! Now, if we can just educate school administrator's AND teachers. Are you listening, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan?

jairofgod
jairofgod

This is no delicate matter because what one learns garbado fits in genetics is bad or good, but how  good it would be better because these studies demonstrated

NaveedXVO
NaveedXVO

They were bullies because they had antisocial tendencies already. Is it genetic or is it environmental and can it be fixed are the questions worth answering. It seems like kids who were bullies came from bad homes, but obvs they share both environment and genetics with their family so it's not very easy to tell. 

Their parents do not care, you can't fix genetics, and you can't take children out of the home, so the only thing you can do is remove them from the general population of children. The trouble is in deciding who is the bully, even normal kids will engage in bullying behavior from time to time. You'd have to keep track of the child throughout their schooling years and know their family background to really be successful.

robinsband
robinsband

where are the kids who used to step in and defuse the bullying?

Albatross
Albatross

@rhrhrh To expand upon what you're saying, I was raised by bullying parents. They literally stated that they were never to be questioned or challenged, that they were always right, and the idea of raising a hand back against THEM remains laughably absurd in my mind. I remember once when I was ten I dared challenge my father on something I thought was relatively safe and minor, and he slapped me so hard he knocked me down.

YET when I was bullied in school - which culminated eventually in my being beaten unconscious with a lab stool in science class when I was 15 - my parents were completely frustrated that I never fought back. They'd yell at me about it - just fight back, one good punch and they'll leave you alone. It took years of therapy for me to realize the obvious - having been raised to never fight back against my bullying parents, I was equally unable to fight back against anyone else.

As for this study, yeah, I'd like to weep for the bullies and their psychological scars. And once they stop telling me that I should just "get over" my bullying I might actually do it.


rhrhrh
rhrhrh

My life improved greatly - my anxiety decreased, I was happier - when I admitted to myself that I was bullied (physically beaten and verbally abused), and it was not my fault.  This was a realization in my 20s about what happened when I was a young teen for several years.  I would say it definitely changed my brain, but the net effect was positive and more sympathetic towards others.

MichaelHead
MichaelHead

@thewholetruth People that cant control appetite have little will power. But thats ok....dont beleive me. just go stuff a gallon of ice cream and blame your problems on something besides your self. 

rhrhrh
rhrhrh

@NaveedXVO The line is drawn when physical and extreme verbal attacks occur.  However, you can't always tell by school performance if someone is bullied.

proud_mama
proud_mama

My kid did. He's the QB of the HS football team. Having been a victim of bullying growing up, he has a zero tolerance for bullying. This past year, he pulled a kid that was bigger than him, off a smaller kid. The big kid cussed him out and pushed him. My son told him to shut his mouth and not to push him again or he wouldn't like the consequences. The kid pushed my son again, asked him what he was going to do about it, and came after him. My son took a defensive posture and with one quick punch to the mouth, knocked the kid unconcious and split his lip. I guess those 8 years of tae-kwon-do paid off. The school suspended my son for 5 days.  We took him out for a steak dinner.

NaveedXVO
NaveedXVO

@robinsband Bullies are predators. They don't do it if it's not safe for them to do it. Kids create their own tribal culture and the victims of bullying are usually outcasts or those considered weird. The incentive to do nothing for the kids who might want to help is strong because going against the bully could potentially wreck their own status. The only kids less popular than the bullies are their victims, that's what makes them easy targets.

Adults need to understand that putting a bunch of children together creates this tribal culture. I don't know if there is anyway around it unless we change our society or school system.

robinsband
robinsband

@proud_mama Awesome. Tell me his favorite charity, and I'll contribute $100. By the way, has the bully changed his ways?

rhrhrh
rhrhrh

@NaveedXVO @robinsband Bullying doesn't only happen at school, and sometimes the bullying at home creates a bully at school or someone who is bullied more at school.

The "tribal culture" can be seen if you read about the "mom" who hired strippers for her son's 16th birthday party.  So many people are like "way to go" without thinking about maybe, just maybe exposing minors (the boy and his friends, who were younger by the way) to paid sexual acts (these were more like prostitutes than strippers, or woudl be in my state) could psychologically damage them.  BTW, "mom" is 33 with a 16 year old son...