Are there Long-term Consequences of Childhood Bullying?
Over the last decade there has been greater concern about the effects of bullying on children. Bullying is almost always considered as a potential motivating factor whenever a new school shooting occurs. And many schools across the nation have instituted anti-bullying programs recognizing that there are immediate negative effects on children and adolescents. Short-term effects of bullying have been well documented, with experts increasingly seeing it as a form of child abuse.
But what are the long-term effects of bullying?
Thanks to a 50-year-long research project, we now have a much better answer to that question.
In an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, it has been shown that victims of bullies suffer the psychological consequences all the way through childhood and adolescence and into middle age. A trio of researchers, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings’ College London and the Department of Neuropsychiatry at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Medicine, examined data on 18,000 people born in England, Scotland, and Wales in 1958 and then tracked these people for the next 50 years.
The findings clearly show that bullying victims had poorer health as adults as did those individuals who experienced little or no bullying in childhood. Not only did bullied children grow up to have poorer general health, but their cognitive functioning was also poorer than the non-bullied people who were studied. Furthermore, being bullied was associated with higher levels of psychological distress throughout adult life. Among the noted psychological symptoms were an increased risk of both depression and anxiety disorders, and an increased risk of suicide.
If reduced general health and poorer psychological functioning weren’t bad enough, those adults who were bullied as children had lower educational levels, were more likely to be unemployed at midlife, and to be earning less than non-bullied peers. Social relationships in adulthood were likewise affected by being the childhood victim of bullying. At age 50, adults who had experienced bullying were more likely to be living without a spouse or partner, were less likely to be in consistent touch with friends, and less likely to have access to social support if they were sick.
Finally, another effect found by the researchers was related to attitude and a sense of well-being. Adult victims of bullying tended to have a lower perceived quality of life and lower general satisfaction with life.
This research is among the first studies to demonstrate that being bullied in childhood influences not only a victims’ mental health but also affects social and economic outcomes. However, there was one thing that researchers could not report on. That was to answer a very important question: Why does bullying have such a profound and pervasive effect on victims?
The authors of this study suggest that perhaps being bullied is the first stage of a cycle of victimization that perpetuates itself over and over again during the life of an individual. Other research tends to show that victimization is not usually one single event, but that victims are frequently victimized in different ways. So, it may be that children who are victimized grow up to be the targets of various kinds of victimization.
What does this research mean for parents?
I think that it means that as a parent you must be vigilant about signs that your child is being victimized by bullying. If you recognize that your child is being bullied, then you must take it seriously and help your child learn ways to stop the bullying. Also, once your child has been victimized, then you have to help them get assistance to minimize potential long-range outcomes. That may mean that you have to arrange for interventions and support to make sure that they get psychological counseling, academic assistance, and even regular physical checkups.
Recognizing that the effects of bullying just don’t magically disappear even though the bullying has ceased, you must be ready throughout your child’s developmental years to do what is necessary to reverse the effects incurred by your child.
On a broader scale, every parent of a school-age child must be willing to work with the local school system and the community to try to eliminate bullying and to provide resources for children who have been victims.