Childhood bullying carries scars well into adulthood
A recent study has proven that childhood bullying does have a definitive impact on the mental and physical health of adolescents. Now, another new study out of Britain has extended that impact by decades, showing the effects of bullying on adults well into their 40s and 50s.
The study, the first of its kind, was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry this week. Researchers from King’s College London looked at data collected through the British National Child Development Study, which includes information on all children born in England, Scotland and Wales during one week in 1958. The researchers focused on 7,771 children whose parents provided information on exposure to bullying at ages 7 and 11, and who were then followed up with until the age of 50.
The researchers found that 28 percent of the participants had been bullied occasionally, while 15 percent were reportedly bullied frequently. As adults, the research showed those bullied in childhood were more likely to have poorer physical and psychological health and cognitive functioning at age 50. And those frequently bullied showed an increased risk of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, the research found.
In addition, those adults who were bullied in childhood proved to be more likely to have lower educational levels, with the men more likely to be unemployed and earn less, the findings show. Men and women alike were less likely to be in a relationship, to have social support and were more likely to report lower quality of life and satisfaction.
“We need to move away from any perception that bullying is just an inevitable part of growing up,” says Louise Arseneault, developmental psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s and the study’s senior author, in a statement. “Teachers, parents and policymakers should be aware that what happens in the school playground can have long-term repercussions for children. Programs to stop bullying are extremely important, but we also need to focus our efforts on early intervention to prevent potential problems persisting into adolescence and adulthood.”
The researchers defined bullying as “repeated hurtful actions by children of a similar age, where the victim finds it difficult to defend themselves.” They found harmful effects of bullying remained, even when other factors—including childhood IQ, emotional and behavioral problems, parents’ socioeconomic status and low parental involvement—were accounted for.
Dr. Shastri Swaminathan, psychiatrist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, says therapists have long suspected the effects of bullying last well into adulthood and that he’s seen evidence of this with his own patients. He says he agrees that people need to address bullying as a real and harmful issue, not as a childhood problem that fades into adulthood.
“The effects of bullying are very, very real—especially in this new digital age when kids have taken bullying online,” Dr. Swaminathan says. “The fact that we know have concrete proof that bullying affects people into their middle age should be extremely eye-opening. We, as a society, need to provide better and more effective intervention to bullying as early on as possible.”
Dr. Swaminathan says society has “given this a pass all these years,” as we assumed that bullying was often a normal part of growing up.
“Awareness is needed that this is a very real problem,” he says. “We need to talk to young kids, so they know it’s not OK and they can get the help they need, just like we do with abuse.”
He says many adults suffer in silence from the effects of bullying when they were much younger.
“Coming forward, these adults would do very well with proper counseling,” he says. “But we need to continue to try to catch this before they need help much later in life.”
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