The Impact of Childhood Bullying on Adult Survivors
Many people who have not been bullied in childhood do not take this kind of aggression seriously. They think that bullying survivors should just “get over it,” and that it is no big deal. Recent research, however, shows that bullying in childhood has a dramatic negative impact on survivors' emotional health and self-image as adults.
Research has shown that the effects of bullying can still show up 40 years after the actual events. When compared to bullies, a study from Duke University indicates that survivors of bullying have the worst long-term emotional problems, including anxiety disorders, depression, and panic disorder. They may also have a lower socioeconomic status and earn lower salaries.
The Duke University study, which was conducted in collaboration with researchers from the University of Warwick, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Emory University, showed that children who were the victims of bullying may have chronic, systemic inflammation that continues into adulthood. Inflammation is a risk factor for health problems such as cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome.
A study of students by the University of Delaware who were victimized by peers in the fifth grade showed that these student are more likely to use alcohol, marijuana, or tobacco in the tenth grade. Some people may abuse substances later on in order to cope with the pain of their negative experiences.
The book Bullying Scars by Ellen deLara called these negative physical and emotional symptoms "adult post-bullying syndrome."
Types of bullying
- Ridicule, taunting, teasing, name-calling
- Making threats
- physical assault - hitting, slapping, poking, hair-pulling, kicking, pushing
- Exclusion from peers, isolation
- Stealing or damaging the victims' belongings
- Making suggestive comments or gestures
- Cyberbullying by email, social media, or blogging
When I was growing up, I was bullied from Grades 5 to 8, again in Grade 10, and at other points in time, as well. I was told I was ugly, stupid, and inept. I was fearful and quiet, so I did not fight back. As time passed, I came to realize that I see the world differently as an adult because of my childhood bullying experiences.
I believe that some of the struggles I had as a young adult with emotional and self-esteem issues were directly related to the bullying I had experienced as a child.
Possible results of childhood bullying
Poor body image: Some bullies called me ugly in grade school. One particularly humiliating incident happened when I was in high school. My class was nominating class officers for the year. Some boys would nominate me for each position. I had to go out of the class each time they voted. When I came back in, I saw that the boys were sniggering. By the time made the last nomination, I realized that the boys were trying to humiliate me by making me leave the classroom and then not voting for me.
They nominated me for “Freshie Queen” after that. They were quietly laughing at the idea of ugly me being queen of anything. As I reached adulthood, it took many a compliment from the opposite sex and a good look in the mirror to dispute the belief that I was ugly.
Poor self-esteem: Bullies often told me I was stupid and mocked me if I said or did the wrong thing in class. My self-esteem really took a beating. As I became an adult, I felt like I had to wear a mask of competence in the workplace. Deep down, I felt stupid and inept – ashamed of being an inferior being who did not deserve to be treated with respect like other people.
I felt anxious and scared inside that my employers would find out that I was really incompetent and incapable of doing a good job. Sometimes, I was so nervous that I ended up living my worst fears. I was yelled at, rejected, or fired.
Anger: I become enraged when I see injustice, such as children being ridiculed or people being exploited. When I was in my 20s, I had bursts of uncontrollable anger that was totally out of keeping with the situation I was in.
I came to realize that I had been stuffing down a lot of the pain of my childhood hurts, but that was like trying to put a lid on a volcano. Lava kept spewing out in the form of rages in the most inappropriate ways.
Building a tough exterior: By the time I was sixteen, I had built a wall around myself to protect myself from the pain inflicted by offenders. I did not want people to see how much I was hurting inside. Sometimes, I hid behind a sense of humor.
Many people who have been bullied seem tough on the outside, but are emotionally devastated inside. Maintaining a wall takes a lot of energy, and sometimes they really become sick of having to be cautious and suspicious of other people all the time in order to feel safe. It is tough for bullying victims to break down their walls enough to share their painful past with others.
There is a niggling worry at the back of their minds that when others hear their story, the victims will be judged or ridiculed.
Hypersensitivity: For me, the world was a scary place where people will hurt me without provocation or reason. I felt vulnerable (a feeling I hated) and almost expected people to hurt me. Sometimes I misinterpreted innocent remarks as verbal attacks. This makes me very defensive when dealing with issues that could potentially cause me pain.
Mental health issues: Many people who are bullied are at a higher risk of becoming depressed and having suicidal thoughts, and suffer from panic attacks, anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety, agoraphobia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I suffered from deep depression well into adulthood in part because of the bullying I had to endure in childhood.
Overcoming the negative effects of bullying
The good news is that all of these negative effects can be managed and, in many cases, overcome. Here are some things that helped people change from bullying victims to survivor.
Recognize how bullying has hurt them – Many people dismiss their emotional pain and berate themselves when they have not “gotten over it” as adults. Instead, bullying survivors should acknowledge what was done to them. One helpful way to process these experiences is to make a list of the bullies. Beside the names, survivors can write down the bully's actions and how they affected their victims. Once survivors understand the harm that has been done, they can start to heal.
Redefine who they are – people tend to allow other people to define who they are. My bullies told me I was ugly, ignorant, and stupid. I was an inferior being who did not treat me respect. I challenged this view. I told myself I was smart, attractive, and talented and accepted compliments from others.
Rebuild self-esteem - I pursued activities that rebuilt my self-esteem and surrounded myself people who were both honest and encouraging. I saw myself as a person worthy of respect. As a woman of faith, I also saw myself as a beloved child of God.
Love my body – I can choose to love my body instead of hating it because others thought I was ugly.
Let go of guilt and shame – I had to stop focusing on the past and asking questions like:
“Why didn’t I fight back?”
“Why did I believe them when they said I was ugly and stupid?”
“Why didn’t I give them a tongue lashing – something I have no trouble doing as an adult?”
I cannot change the past, so there is no point in beating myself up about it.
Forgive the bullies – when I forgave the people who hurt me, I freed myself from all the anger and pain they had caused. I also let go of a need for revenge. Bullies often get away with their offenses and are not held accountable for their actions, but so what? The bullies no longer had any power over me. Over time, I could look back without becoming upset or feeling the pain of being a victim.
Set boundaries – When I was a child, I was fearful and intimidated by my bullies. As an adult, however, I set clear boundaries with the people in my life. I speak up if I feel someone is being out of line or hurtful.
Pursue healthy relationships – I had many great friends and counsellors who helped me on the road to healing. Their honest feedback helped me restore my self-esteem and develop a more positive body image. They also helped me to pursue my talents and be successful in life.
Observers would say that I am stronger because I was bullied as a child, and that is true. However, there have been many negative consequences. For me, recovery from bullying has been a long process.
Sometimes, my feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression resurface—and must be faced and overcome. I am confident, however, that I am a survivor who can handle whatever is to come.