Adults Bullied In Childhood: Recent Long-Term Research

We all know bullying hurts. But how much do we know about the long-term effects? In other words, what about adults bullied in childhood? What happens when kids who were bullied become grownups?

I. The Bullying Problem

By all accounts, a new book by Emily BazelonSticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, is an important contribution to the study of the far-reaching problem of kids bullying kids. Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, states: “Emily Bazelon is doing the most honest, hard-hitting investigative work on bullying in America today. Sticks and Stones is a page-turner, combining compelling personal stories, rigorous reporting and practical advice for parents and educators. Read it: It’s essential.”

II. Adults Bullied In Childhood

As my own clients are adults, of great interest to me is the outcome of recent research regarding bullied kids in the process of growing up. Bazelon posted this on her website this week: “New Study Links Childhood Bullying to Adult Psychological Disorders, Surprising Even the Study’s Authors.”

Bazelon herself wasn’t so surprised, she says. Nevertheless, “…(T)he Duke study is important because it lasted for 20 years and followed 1,270 North Carolina children into adulthood.”

Psychiatry professor William E. Copeland and his team looked at three different groups: the child victims, the child bullies, and those who’d been both—termed “bully-victims” —and compared them as young adults to the general population.

Although Bazelon summarizes the results, an article on Healio gives an even more comprehensive breakdown. Some of the findings:

  • Bullies were more likely to have an antisocial personality disorder.
  • Victims were more likely to have bullied others.
  • Controlling for other factors that included family dysfunction, victims had higher rates of agoraphobia, generalized anxiety, and panic disorder.
  • Bullies/victims had higher rates of depression and panic disorder.
  • Female bullies/victims had higher rates of agoraphobia.
  • Male bullies/victims more often showed suicidal tendencies.

Adults bullied in childhood were more likely to have been raised in families with higher levels of dysfunction, notes Bazelon. Although the victims who came from a stable home were at significantly less risk of developing depression, anxiety was still an issue for many.

One’s home environment, however, didn’t make a significant difference for the other two groups. Bullying left its own distinctive mark: “In other words, these results suggest that bullying scars people whether they grow up in a home with two functional parents or with frequent arguing, not much parental supervision, divorce, separation, or downright abuse or neglect,” states Bazelon.

What’s responsible for these effects, then? It’s speculated that bullying in childhood affects victims’ physiological response to stress and/or changes their ability to cope. Another possible factor is “gene-environment interaction” (Healio).

One definite takeaway is the importance of prevention, which involves asking the right questions when assessing a troubled child’s behavior or mental status. Whether he or she is being bullied should not be overlooked.

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