Childhood Bullying and Psychological Development | Natural Health Blog

Date: 03/05/2013    Written by: Beth Levine

Effects of Bullying

Childhood bullying

It isn't easy for any parent to know their child is being bullied.  If it does happen, you hope that it will be short-lived and therefore relatively painless.  And since kids are known to be resilient, at least they should bounce back fine, right?  Well, maybe not.  According to new research on the topic, kids may not be quite as resilient as we once thought.  Childhood bullying may leave lasting scars that sadly follow its victims well into adulthood.

The study, conducted at the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, found that children who have been bullied grow into adults with a high risk of developing a number of psychological disorders.1  The subjects were 1,420 children who were part of the larger Great Smoky Mountains Study,2 made up of western North Carolina residents.  When the research began in 1993, the children were between the ages of 9 and 13.  The scientists had yearly interviews with each child and a parent or guardian until the age of 16, at which point the meetings became less frequent.

During the earlier meetings, the child and parents were questioned about the child's experiences with bullying in the previous three months, including whether the child had been the victim or the perpetrator of bullying in any instances.  Slightly more than one-quarter--26 percent, or 421 of the kids--admitted that they had been bullied at least one time recently.  Boys and girls were approximately equal in this regard.  Another 9.5 percent--or close to 200 of the children--reported that they had inflicted bullying on others, and interestingly, of these, 86 had been on both the giving and receiving end of the bullying spectrum.

The vast majority--more than 1,270--of the 1,420 participants remained with the study as adults.  At that point, the researchers began asking them for information about their mental health.  The volunteers who had been bullied as children had a higher risk of developing a psychological condition than those who had never been bullied.  The bullying victims were found more frequently to have depression, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, and agoraphobia.  The adults who had both been bullied and had bullied others also endured long-term psychological development issues, including the highest rates of depression, anxiety, panic disorders, and suicidal thoughts of all groups in the study.  Those who had bullied others but not been on the receiving end of abuse themselves had a greater chance of developing an antisocial personality disorder, which is probably not shocking to anyone who has dealt with a bully. It's also probably worth remembering that some studies have found that bullying may not be a choice; it may be hardwired into some brains. And even if it isn't, it's certainly hardwired into the media in which kids immerse themselves.

Even after taking other factors into account that might influence psychological development and mental health in a negative way, such as having been abused or living below poverty level, the researchers concluded that bullying had a profound effect on these children and did lasting damage.  And while the victims certainly appear to have borne the brunt of the harm, both during childhood and later on in life, as we have just seen, the perpetrators did not escape unscathed either.

Other research has found similar, if narrower, results regarding the far-reaching psychological effects of childhood bullying.  For instance, several studies that focused mainly on what is considered "indirect aggression" such as spreading rumors and excluding a child from a social circle have shown that the victims often develop some form of perfectionism by adulthood.3

It's not easy for kids to navigate their way through childhood and adolescence…and it is definitely that much harder if they are being picked on.  The Duke study serves as a reminder to all parents that there are times we need to get involved.  If your child is being bullied, it is imperative to take action.  Keep the lines of communication open in your family so your child can discuss his or her feelings.  Try to role play and give your child some tools for dealing with the bully.  And get the authorities at the school involved--most districts have zero tolerance policies nowadays that will help nip things in the bud.  Of course, that's not going to be as helpful if the bullying is taking place in cyberspace, as it so often does among tweens and teens these days.  If you just poo poo bullying as a rite of passage in childhood and hope it will go away, you may end up risking your child's future psychological development.

  • 1. "Bullied Children Can Suffer Lasting Psychological Harm as Adults." Science Daily. 20 February 2013. Accessed 25 February 2013.
  • 2. "The Great Smoky Mountains Study." Duke University Health System. Accessed 26 February 2013.
  • 3. Miller, Jessie L., and Vaillancourt, Tracy. "Relation between childhood peer victimization and adult perfectionism: are victims of indirect aggression more perfectionistic?" Aggressive Behavior. 9 March 2007. Accessed 26 February 2013.

Click for Related Articles