Childhood bullying carries scars well into adulthood

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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  1. Celia Shoulberg April 22, 2014 at 12:12 pm · Reply

    I am 60 years old. When I went to school, it was “affectionately” called teasing, which made it seem nice and it was anything but that. I was taunted and called every fat name in the book, even some of the teachers laughed. Almost every day. Of course it leaves emotional scars. I can still remember alot of the things that were said to me. And being a sensative person, it had alot to do with the way I lived my life. All I can say is that I am glad people are starting to pay attention to this so hopefully innocent children won’t have to suffer the way I did just because they aren’t perfect looking or as smart as others.

  2. Ann Adlington

    I had one year of intense bullying while I was in 8th grade in the late 70’s. It definitely has affected me. I was lucky because I had very supportive parents who went to the school on my behalf. It didn’t do much good in stopping it but it did worlds of good in how I see myself. I went on to high school thinking I’d show them and I did. I am successful and very happy now. It still rears it’s ugly head at times and I am hyper alert to bullying with my kids. I worry that my kids will have to endure what I did. So far it has only been a worry. I’ve worked hard to raise kind, sensitive and respectful children and have taught them to intervene/tell an adult if they see someone being bullied.

  3. Kudos to both of you for posting here, and having a healthy role today in preventing / healing the effects of bullying.

  4. Thank you, Celia and Ann, for your courage in sharing your stories. Hearing your personal experiences highlights the need for added vigelence against bullying. Wishing you all the best!

  5. I’m very surprised that it has taken this long for society to wake up to the problem of bullying. As one who was bullied all through school, it was always obvious to me and I did not grow up in the city, but rather, the rual suburbs. Teachers and parents typically did noting, and perhaps couldn’t do much. Kids are good at discovering how to get to you when teachers aren’t around, bathrooms, locker rooms, bus stop, etc. Other kids join in with the priniciple-bully in order to side with the power-broker which offers them protection from getting bullied themselves. The victim is in essence, a, “Scape goat who is systematically, isolated, devalued, insulted, intimidated, extorted from,, and frequently physically brutalized. When teachers, parents, and others do nothing, in the mind of the victim and probably in the minds of the bullies, too, it validates the behavior with a tacit official community sanction. This, I think, may explain why victims some times retaliate against everyone in school shootings instead of just going after the principle bully. Those of us who were bullied in school tended to stick together back then. One high school friend took to carrying a CO2 pellet pistol under his coat in order to protect himself since teachers did nothing to keep him grom getting beat up. The bullies were relentless in their torments and would frequently pursue us after school let out. It was like being stalked by a hunter. One time when I walked home with my friend, a principle-bully and his supporters followed us home and entered my friend’s house to attack us and my friend chased them out with his BB Gun. I’m always amazed at the reaction communites have to school shootings from kids who were bullied. What do we expect from a kid who is subjected to what I’ve described?

    • Brian, thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience. It’s amazing to hear what children have had to put up with. Personally, I think we, as a society, need to think about how we view bullying so it doesn’t come to the drastic point of retaliation. We need to teach that added and escalated violence is never the answer. We need to pay more attention and give all the love and support we can to those kids who are being victimized, so they don’t feel they have no other option left than to take matters into their own hands. One thing that I’ve often thought back on is that the bullies are children, too, who were never taught any better or corrected for their actions. We need to stop the cycle before it begins. By speaking out here, you’re helping to do that. And we thank you!

  6. Sitting here at 4:37AM reading what Brian (23 April 2014, 11:42AM) and others (including the article author) wrote, I’m ashamed to admit, brought me to bitter tears. Let me get it out of the way now and say I don’t advocate any violence, even in retaliation. But I do remember every single day–without respite–the brutality Brian and others describe. I was terrified to be anywhere on school grounds without a teacher in protective range. I was terrified on the bus to and from school. I was terrified walking to and from home. As I got older, I became terrified of my parents’ reaction to learning yet again that I needed to go to the emergency department, their disgust that I wasn’t fitting in patently obvious. And I learned to recognize my teachers’ disgust and dismissal. They joined in, appearing to seek the approval of the popular and socially powerful school bullies. I remember looking up unexpectedly (for the teacher) during a Latin recitation class when I heard laughter and caught the teacher making fun of me. The betrayal hurt more than the class’ derision. I remember as early as 2nd grade a teacher taking me out into the hall, eyeing me venomously and finally sneering at me, “I hate you.” She drew out the word “hate” dramatically. I remember, like Brian said (“extorted”), kids demanding money from me for a lesser beating that day. I remember property–calculators, my bag and books–being violently destroyed. I remember being spat on by “friends” and, already mortified, earning the entire playgrounds’ acrid laughter.

    School was, no hyperbole, hell for me. And it did NOT end with adulthood. It continued in college, and years later, while in medical school, I remember a senior surgical resident slapping my hand with a bloodied scalpel during a lesson. I remember professors haughtily making snide remarks about my appearance in front of my medical peers. I remember an athletic, popular, younger medical school professor who was taking a seminar I was TAing saying as I passed by his group’s table to offer some help, “I hate that guy.” By then they called it “professional hardening.” They’re always gifted at covering up bullying with euphemisms. Ironically, it was a seminar on the physiological embedding of social stress, and the documented subsequent increases in disease risks. If the experts couldn’t stop themselves from bullying despite publishing broadly (to their professional benefit) on the corrosive effects, just what policy would be able to stop the average bully? It’s as if the propensity for the infliction of cruelty is deeply ingrained in human DNA.

    Bullying utterly destroyed my life. That’s no exaggeration. Worst of all, I’ve lost hope in the efficacy of so-called populational interventions. I just don’t believe we can change human nature. We seem only able to change the way underlying nature manifests.

    I didn’t mean to write so much, but I just couldn’t stop. Despite the catharsis, I don’t know why I added these words. People who’ve suffered chronic bullying already understand viscerally its effects. Many of us are currently living those effects. But we had to wait a lifetime for “research” to demonstrate in a way that appears more credible to those who don’t want to believe anything’s wrong with bullying that in fact it’s profoundly damaging? I don’t even know how to address that apparent irrationality.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments, EK. Your experiences brought me to tears myself. I don’t think the research diminishes your experiences or the pain you are still living with. I think it highlights and publicly acknowledges the pain you so eloquently described here for those who are in denial of the effects of bullying. And it opens a forum for those, like yourself, to share their experiences and put a face on the issue. Thank you for sharing your story here. I’m certain your bravery has touched many and will help those who need it get the help they deserve. Your strength is inspiring!

  7. Looking back on my own life, it’s just unbelievable to what extent the bullying in my life has damaged my life. It seems that any and all negative experiences to this day are a reflection of what I experienced growing up. Being openly gay didn’t help matters either, especially as an adult. Now that I’m retired at least I now have the freedom to socialize or not as I see fit. I’m lucky to have a few good friends that I can count on and a few family members that still love me. I am lucky that I was able to keep myself from self destructive habits and have lived a pretty healthy life otherwise.

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.