The Effects of Childhood Bullying into Adulthood

When the Center for Disease Control named bullying an "Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE)" in 2017, it validated the 30-year effort examining the long-lasting effects of childhood bullying into adulthood. The research efforts have suggested these principles: bullying is prevalent, being a target of bullying has a multi-symptom, negative impact, and the impact of being a target is long-lasting. Professors Patricia McDougall and Tracy Vaillancourt reviewed the literature in order to determine how far the negative impact can reach and which effects have the deepest impact.

The researchers selected 17 prospective studies to review. Prospective studies take a population and look at effects of over a long period of time, and so these studies looked at the effects of painful childhood experiences, including bullying, into adulthood.  The following are some of the findings:

  • Mental Health. McDougall and Vaillancourt found a "direct" pathway between childhood bullying and mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, that extend into early adulthood, with one study showing effects into mid life. The researchers also found "indirect" pathways, youth who had experienced bullying and who had described themselves as depressed or having low self-esteem were likely to be much more depressed in late adolescence and early adulthood.
  • Peer Support. Children who have a strong network of friends are less likely to feel the long-lasting effects of bullying. For children who had few friends during the bullying but more friends later, the impact of the bullying was shorter lived. 
  • Adult Support. When children were bullied and also reported high support from parents, they were less likely to report depression, behavior problems, and emotional problems later. The support of the teacher is critical, especially when children report low parental support. When children who are being bullied also report high levels of emotional support from teachers, the potential for emotional and behavioral problems is reduced later on.
  • Self-Evaluation. When children perceive themselves as victims and report high levels of threat, they are likely to experience more bullying victimization and increasing depression into adolescence. Several studies have shown that poor self-worth in children who experience bullying leads to self-blaming that can last into adulthood, opening the door to adult victimization.
The researchers concluded that "the strongest candidate" to interrupt the pathway between childhood bullying and long-lasting effects into adulthood was a strong support network of peers and adults. Parental support may have a bigger impact on younger children, and older children need a strong network of peers and a trusted teacher at school. They also suggest adults can buffer the effects of bullying by helping children and adolescents build coping skills and by supporting them in developing positive self-worth and healthy peer relationships. 

Bullying is not a rite of passage and does not have to be a life sentence. Parents and teachers have the ability to stop an undesirable pathway for children and adolescence.

"Every child deserves a champion 
- an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection 
and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be." 
~Rita Pierson


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