Childhood Bullying and Its Long-Term Psychological Effects

January 29, 2024   •  Posted in: 

Did you ever encounter a bully when you were a child? Going through bullying – whether it’s as the victim, an observer, or the bully – seems almost to be a quintessential experience of childhood. Many of us encountered a bully, in some form or another, during childhood. Being bullied is often misunderstood as a “normal” rite of passage for children.

But even though childhood bullying is relatively common and can be normalized, it’s far from harmless child’s play. Research shows being bullied as a child can have significant psychological consequences lasting for years. Bullying is a form of trauma, and trauma has long-lasting impacts.

Are you still grappling with the aftermath of being bullied as a child? There are ways for adults to heal from the mental health effects of childhood bullying and process their experiences.

Here is important information about the traumatic experience of childhood bullying and how it can affect your mental health even in adulthood.

What is the definition of bullying?

Bullying is generally described as a pattern of aggressive or intentionally hurtful behavior that happens between peers.

Not all aggressive behavior between children is bullying. According to the CDC, three main components of bullying can help us differentiate between bullying and other aggression[1]:

  1. Unwanted aggressive behavior
  2. There is a power imbalance between the bully and the victim; for example, an older child may bully a younger child, or a more “popular” child may bully a shy and socially awkward child
  3. This type of behavior repeats or is likely to repeat

In general, there are two different types of bullying, each as harmful as the other:

  • Direct bullying, which includes things like physical violence, name-calling, and other physical/verbal acts of aggression
  • Indirect bullying, which typically is characterized by social exclusion through rumor-spreading and other tactics

Unfortunately, childhood bullying is widespread. 1 in 5 school-aged youth report being bullied in the past year. These numbers are higher for LGBTQ+ youth; nearly 40% of them report being bullied.

If you were bullied as a child, you’re not alone. Many people have been in your shoes, and there are ways to heal.

How does bullying affect children?

Childhood and adolescence are unique periods of life in which your brain and identity are still forming. When you’re bullied during these critical developmental periods, it can lead to problems both in how well you’re able to trust and connect with others as well as how you see yourself.

Children who are bullied may develop strong feelings of resentment and anger. If no one intervenes in the bullying or protects the child, these feelings can become directed at the bully and the entire world. In extreme cases, victims of bullying may channel these feelings of anger into acts of violence. For example, in 12 of the 15 school shootings that happened in the 1990s, the shooters were bullied[2].

Some children direct their pain inward; they may start to feel shame about being bullied. They might take on the blame for the bullying and develop poor self-esteem.

Being the victim of bullying can also affect other childhood relationships. It isn’t only the bully’s actions that have an impact – it’s the way the bullying affects other children’s perception of them. Children who are the victims of bullying may be socially outcasted, which can lead to feelings of isolation, despair, and even suicidal thoughts.

What is the long-term mental health impact of bullying?

The feelings brought on by bullying are powerful and don’t tend to disappear after the bully moves on or you grow older. While some young people may be able to bounce back from the emotionally devastating effects of bullying, many others continue to grapple with the psychological consequences years – even decades – after the bullying stops.

Research shows adults who were bullied as children are more likely to[3]:

  • Develop post-traumatic stress symptoms
  • Have depression and anxiety
  • Experience significant problems in their interpersonal relationships
  • Have higher levels of inflammation in the body
  • Experience psychotic disorders
  • Have poor general health, including a higher incidence of body pain and headaches
  • Be smokers
  • Experience suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide

The British National Child Development Study followed all children born within a specific week in 1958 – over 7500 children – for 40 years. The researchers sought to understand how specific childhood experiences affected people later in life.

The results regarding bullying were startling. The study found children who reported being bullied constantly (around 28%) experienced negative emotional, physical, and financial effects up to 40 years later.

Not only did the participants who were bullied experience the health consequences listed above, but they also tended to have lower educational levels, higher unemployment rates, and lower overall earnings. They were also less likely to be in a partnership, less likely to have solid friendships and other social support, and reported lower happiness and life satisfaction[4].

These research results make it clear just how long-lasting the adverse effects of childhood bullying are. Bullying is far from a “normal” rite-of-passage – it’s a traumatic event that, like other trauma, affects health and well-being far into the future.

How Adults Can Heal From Childhood Bullying

Fortunately, even if you’re still grappling with the extensive effects of being bullied as a child, there are ways to heal.

Here are some tips.

Understand how childhood bullying affects you today

If you’re like many people who were bullied as children, you might not understand the extent to which these experiences – which happened so long ago – can continue to affect you in adulthood. You might be blaming yourself and feeling shame for some of these effects; for example, many people have thoughts like, “Why can’t I be stronger and just get over depression?”

Realizing that mental and physical health struggles, as well as certain life circumstances, could be connected to childhood bullying could clarify some things for you. It could help you have more compassion for yourself and understand how your childhood experiences have affected your life.

Practice self-compassion

Self-compassion is about being kind and caring toward yourself; this is never more important than when trying to heal from childhood traumas like bullying. Being bullied often impacts your self-perception. You might have become insecure or blame yourself for being victimized. Low self-worth may continue to affect you today.

Treat yourself as you would a dear friend who’s going through the same situation – or, if you can, as if you would treat a child who is being bullied now. What would you say to this child? How would you show this child you care about them?

You deserve to treat yourself with the same love and care. Understand you were a victim in childhood; you were hurt through no fault of your own. You can use an affirmation or statement like: “Dear little me, I’m so sorry you were bullied and made to feel so bad about yourself. You didn’t deserve that. You were just a child.”

Strengthen your self-esteem

If you were bullied as a child, you may struggle with self-esteem to this day. Work on building up your confidence. On top of treating yourself with compassion, you can also work on figuring out who you are as an adult, your core strengths, and mastering specific skills.

For example, perhaps you felt timid as a child, and being bullied made it worse. You may not have been able to truly discover your strengths because of the way bullying impacted your self-esteem. But as an adult, you no longer need to allow these feelings to hold you back from what you want to do.

You may want to try an improv class or join a local hiking group. Try branching out of your comfort zone and do things you felt too afraid or ashamed to do when you were being bullied.

Surround yourself with supportive people

Another way to rebuild your self-esteem after childhood bullying is to surround yourself with people who love you for who you are. Getting bullied as a child can significantly affect your relationships. You may have been outcasted or isolated in your peer group, which is incredibly painful. These experiences may have made you hesitant about trusting people and developing deep relationships as an adult.

But when you foster relationships as the adult-you and not the child-you who was bullied, you can start creating a network of people who know you for who you are. This can help you realize that what the bullies said about you isn’t true.

Seek mental health support

Childhood bullying is a valid trauma that can have severe consequences for your mental health, even in adulthood. You may be struggling with post-traumatic stress, depression, or anxiety symptoms due to your experiences with bullying.

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we have specialized mental health treatment programs that will holistically address every part of your well-being to help you emerge as your truest, best self. Not only has our depression treatment program been voted one of the best in the nation, but we also offer special programs for emotional abuse and trauma.

If you’re struggling with the aftermath of bullying you received as an adult, then let us support you. You don’t have to go through this alone.

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Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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