The Psychological Effects of Bullying on Kids & Teens
In This Section
- What is Bullying?
- Where and When Does Bullying Occur?
- Who Gets Bullied?
- Who Is Harmed When Bullying Occurs?
- What Are the Lasting Psychological Impacts of Bullying?
- Bullying and Suicide: Is It True?
- What Are the Misconceptions About Bullying?
- Who is Acting?
- Healing the Victim: How Can You Help?
- To Sum Up …
We've all been there. The playground, where one girl grabs another's hair and yanks her backwards off the swing. The lunchroom, where “the mean kid” smacks down a smaller boy's tray, spilling his food. The classroom, where a group of kids repeatedly taunt the youngest child in the class for being stupid.
From the vantage point of adulthood, bullying is mean-spirited and pointless, but it is unfortunately a regular part of childhood. (Indeed, even some adults haven't grown out of the habit of belittling others and pushing them around.) Luckily, bullying has finally entered the media spotlight, and the public outcry is forcing parents, teachers, administrators and policy-makers to step up to the plate and do something.
As with any public discourse, this inevitably means confusion, misunderstanding and misconception on the part of listeners. Oftentimes, when the topic of bullying crops up, people have more questions than answers. This paper will seek to clear up the confusion and correct the misunderstandings and misconceptions that have arisen about bullying, both recently and in the past.
We will start with a definition of bullying and a look at where it occurs and who is usually victimized. From there, we will take a closer look at who, exactly, is affected when bullying occurs (spoiler alert: it isn't just the victim) as well as the psychological impacts that can and do occur as a result. We will assess some of the common misconceptions and endeavor to separate fact from myth. Lastly, we will wrap up with an overview of what is currently being done about bullying and some ideas for how to help.
Although at first it may seem simple to define what constitutes bullying behavior, it does not always fit the classic stereotype of the older boy beating up his smaller classmate. Bullying is a multifaceted behavior that shifts with the situation, the people involved, the time and place.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”
According to this definition, bullying involves several factors:
- The behavior is not welcome to the person being bullied.
- It occurs among school-age children, so although bullying behavior may be found across ages, the technical definition of a bully is a child who engages in such behavior.
- The bully and bullied both understand the bully to have more power in the situation, even if other factors are “equal.” Of course, many times, bullies are bigger, stronger, older, have more friends, et cetera, which leads to a real power imbalance as well as a perceived one.
- The bully either repeats the behavior, or their access to the victim implies they will be able to.
But this may not comprise a complete definition of bullying. PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center is careful to point out that “while some bullying is physical and easy to recognize, bullying can also occur quietly and covertly, through gossip or on a smart phone or the internet, causing emotional damage.”
In such cases bullying still relies on a power dynamic that places one peer over the other. Perhaps a popular girl has a much wider reach with her nasty words, for instance, or an older boy is on the football team and can therefore influence many of the junior and senior boys at a high school. Such positions of power are often not used to harm, of course, but they can create a difference in power.
The main aspect of bullying is that it has a real emotional and psychological impact. Depending on the situation, it may
- Harass, or
- Otherwise harm
Sometimes bullying crosses the line into harassment, when it is based on race, ethnicity, sex, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or other factors. In this case, it becomes a legal issue.
Some definitions overtly state that in order for behavior to qualify as “bullying” the bully must intend to harm their target. However, that is not always the case. Sometimes the victim of bullying feels hurt or exposed by behavior that wasn't meant to make them feel that way. Equally, while the CDC's definition above states that bullying must be repeated or repeatable, some insist that bullying can be a one-off action. Despite these quibbles, most agree that it is very harmful behavior that occurs between students. And at this point, you might be wondering where and when this happens.
Bullying can occur anywhere, but it generally occurs at or near schools in places where adult supervision is limited or nonexistent. Examples include
- Locker Rooms
- Classrooms before lessons
The when is a little harder to define than the where. In terms of when each bullying incident occurs, it can happen at any time two students are in proximity of one another, though again, this usually happens at or near school and consequently will likely happen during or around school hours.
In terms of when in life bullying occurs, this changes as children age, according to the Child Trends DataBank's 2011 report. For instance, physical aggression starts out higher among students and then decreases consistently, with 18 percent of children aged 2-5 reporting experience with physical aggression, but only 10 percent of children aged 14-17 reporting it. On the other hand, harassment via electronic medium starts out very low, at only .5 percent for children aged 6 to 9 (and not at all for the 2 to 5 crowd). It then rises to 14 percent for those 14 to 17 years old.
It is impossible to predict who will get bullied based on their age, sex, race, class, sexual orientation, national origin or any other factor. Bullying occurs to people in all of these categories, and no one combination of traits can guarantee that a child will or will not be bullied.
However, those who frequently get bullied do exhibit some common characteristics. These may include a personality that tends toward caution and shyness, introversion, low self-confidence, unhappiness and anxiety. Bullies frequently don't have a large support network of friends (or may not have any at all) and may seem to relate better to adults than peers. For boys especially, being smaller or weaker than average can create a target.
Moreover, bullying does seem to shift based on sex and race. According to Child Trends, while males and females are equally likely to face physical intimidation, girls face a larger chance of relational bullying (teasing or emotional aggression) and electronic bullying.
It's also important to note that bullies share some common characteristics as well. Perhaps not surprisingly, bullies are often mean, confrontational, aggressive and spiteful. They use manipulation to get their own way, and generally have short fuses and exhibit impulsive behavior. Although they typically push other children around, using name-calling and physical aggression to accomplish their goals, they may also be aggressive toward adults, such as parents and teachers. They may lack the empathy that characterizes many of their peers, which may be why they are unable to feel for their victims. Classically, but not always, a boy bully may be bigger or stronger than average for his age.
In a word: everyone.
In this section we will take a look at who bullying impacts, with a brief glance at what happens when bullying occurs. In the following section, we will delve deeper into the lasting psychological impacts of bullying and what it means for healthy development and later life.
When children experience bullying, they have a tendency to become emotionally withdrawn. In cases where they were already quiet, shy and self-contained, they may become even more so, to the point where they have trouble interacting with their peers. Regular exposure to hurt, humiliation, and social isolation may cause them to sink deeper into a world of their own.
This world is not a happy one, however: it is filled with anxiety, depression, sadness and loneliness. Children may have trouble sleeping or eating, and may become unable to enjoy activities they once did. Academic performance plummets, and they may even skip class or drop out of school. It is also important to note that anger and rage is one possible emotional response to bullying. Many reports following school shootings have found that the child shooters were bullied by their peers.
On the outside, the child may appear more anxious, may seek to avoid settings where bullying frequently occurs, and may fall ill (or seem to) more often than normal. If they had friends, they may isolate themselves from them. They may even be at increased risk of suicide, though this is a knotty issue that we will address in full below.
Sure, so it's harder to feel sorry for kids who are intentionally mean to their peers in order to watch them squirm. Sadly, however, kids who bully others are just as at risk of short-term and long-lasting emotional problems as the children they victimize.
For one thing, bullies often have trouble relating to their peers. Because they can be violent, manipulative, cruel, without empathy and generally unpleasant, they may not have many friends. (Of course, bullies may also belong to a large social circle that they employ to exact their bullying behavior; it just depends.)
It is unclear how much the behavior in which bullies engage contributes to their emotional problems, and how much of it is simply symptomatic of other troubles. However, bullies are at greater risk for alcohol and drug abuse as adolescents, as well as for engaging in sexual behavior at a young age. They often get into fights, vandalize and drop out of school.
In some cases, kids who are bullied are also bullies themselves. They demonstrate many of the same behaviors as do bullies and victims. The interesting, and very sad, part comes later, when they reach adulthood and experience long-lasting psychological effects that are more severe than that experienced by either bullies or victims alone.
We tend to discount the role of observers in a bullying situation, but this is misguided thinking. Bystanders actually play a crucial role in bullying. Bullying may happen in isolated places – bathrooms, for instance, or an empty hallway – but it frequently occurs in places with lots of other children around. This includes the lunchroom, the classroom, the bus or the schoolyard. In fact, witnesses to their bullying behavior are often important to the bully, who may need an audience.
It is easy to understand why bystanders choose not to do anything, however. As ReachOut.org points out, there are many reasons an observer would prefer not to do something about the situation, including:
- Fearing the bully will make them his or her next target
- Believing it to be “none of their business”
- Feeling like a “tattletale”
- Feeling that intervention won't accomplish anything, especially if they have previously told teachers who haven't taken action
But it is important to understand that inaction is not passive. When bystanders do nothing, they are actively making a choice: to either ignore it, pretend it has nothing to do with them, or sometimes even watch with enjoyment. No matter what the case, observing without intervening is harmful, and not just to the victim or bully. It is harmful to bystanders themselves, making them more likely to drink and smoke, skip school, and become anxious or depressive. These behaviors can in turn lead to long-lasting psychological impacts, which we will now explore in detail.
Unfortunately, the effects of bullying aren't temporary, but last long into adulthood, and vary depending on the role of the person in the bullying situation.
The long-lasting psychological impacts stem directly from the short-term impacts that children experience as the result of being consistently bullied. Depression and anxiety tend to characterize their emotional outlook well beyond the bullying years, extending into their adult lives where they become chronic, sometimes lifelong, problems. These issues make eating, sleeping, working, exercising and engaging in interesting hobbies – all the hallmarks of a full, balanced life – more difficult. They also make it more difficult to make and keep relationships, whether with friends or romantic partners.
And according to the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, the conventional “sticks and stones” wisdom about what kind of bullying really causes lasting damage is backwards: It is actually emotional harm that lasts much longer than physical harm. Especially during childhood, when bodily damage heals readily, the victim's self-image may be permanently maimed: “Bullying is an attempt to instill fear and self-loathing. Being the repetitive target of bullying damages your ability to view yourself as a desirable, capable and effective individual,” Dr. Mark Dombeck of the Academy explains.
This results in the bully victim's inability to trust himself or herself as a capable individual. In particular, this has effects during tough or difficult times, where the victim has been taught they are too weak or hopeless to persevere, and so they do not. This can have major repercussions for work, relationships and other trying life situations that require persistence and grit to overcome or succeed in.
They also have difficulty trusting people, have reduced occupational opportunities, and grow into adulthood with the tendency to be loners. They make fewer positive choices and act less often in defense of their own happiness, owing mostly to the lack of perceived control instilled in them during their childhood bullying.
Bullies often grow up to be unhappy adults. Their methods of relating to the world around them often don't work very well in adulthood, where quick tempers and violent actions are generally shunned by society. They may have difficulty holding down a job, retaining friendships and maintaining romantic or even family relationships.
They may also be at greater risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, though this is more likely when they are bullied in addition to acting as a bully. However, most of the research that has been done has concentrated on the effects of bullying on those who get bullied rather than those who perpetrate the behavior, so reports are limited of the lifelong impacts on bullies themselves. However, it is indisputable that bullies are at greater risk for antisocial personality disorder.
Not surprisingly, those that both bully and were bullied at the same time display some of the most severe emotional handicaps in later life. Oftentimes bullies engage in learned behavior, which they were taught in the home by abusive parents, siblings, relatives or caregivers. They often remained depressed and anxious well into later life, and had a greater level of young adult psychiatric disorders even after researchers who conducted a study in JAMA Psychiatric, Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of Bullying and Being Bullied by Peers in Childhood and Adolescence, controlled for other issues.
According to the study, they are at even at even greater risk for long-lasting psychological disorders than being either a bully or being bullied on its own. And although this class of children, according to the study, had an elevated risk of family hardship at home, this was not the only defining factor.
Bully/victims also had elevated rates of childhood psychiatric disorders, agrophobia, panic disorder and generalized anxiety. Interestingly, when bully/victims were followed into young adulthood, they were at even greater risk of suicidality (suicidal or self-harmful thoughts) than pure victims. While only 5.7 percent of young adults who were neither bullies nor victims reported thoughts of suicide, a whopping 24.8 percent of bully/victims reported it. They also had the highest levels of depression, anxiety and panic disorder. This indicates that something about the combined nature of both being a bully and being bullied is very harmful indeed.
Many of the problems cited above for observers can leak into adulthood. Use and abuse of alcohol and tobacco can wreak havoc on bodies, and depression and anxiety can cause long-lasting problems with relationships, work and happiness. Skipping school or dropping out can also affect success later life.
This is an excellent reason to talk to children about the harms of bullying and ensure that they have useful, actionable ways to respond to a bullying situation when they see it. When children feel as though they can do something about unfair behavior, they avoid the issues that often attend helplessness, such as depression and anxiety.
A link does exist between bullying and suicide, but it is not as simple as assuming that a victim will contemplate or commit suicide. Rather, the situation stems from multiple factors.
According to StopBullying.gov, “Although kids who are bullied are at risk of suicide, bullying alone is not the cause. Many issues contribute to suicide risk, including depression, problems at home, and trauma history. Additionally, specific groups have an increased risk of suicide, including American Indian and Alaskan Native, Asian American, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. This risk can be increased further when these kids are not supported by parents, peers, and schools. Bullying can make an unsupportive situation worse.”
This is primarily because bullying leads to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, both of which can contribute to suicidal thoughts, explains the CDC. While there is no conclusive evidence yet that bullying “causes” suicide, the close association between being bullied and having suicidal thoughts means parents, teachers and administrators should closely monitor bullying behavior so they can put an end to it, and should watch known victims closely.
Children, as well as adults, should be educated about the relationship between suicide and bullying, to help them understand (as bullies, as victims and as observers) that this is not a harmless behavior, but one with serious consequences. Opening up the conversation and trusting kids with this information will help, not harm. In the next section we will talk about several other misunderstood aspects of bullying, in the hopes of dispelling harmful misconceptions.
Bullying has taken a front seat in the media and in schools these days, but unfortunately media attention often leads to more misconceptions than it solves. Moreover, due to persistent inattention to the dangers of bullying through the 20th century, our cultural understanding of its true nature is somewhat limited by beliefs that it is “not that big a deal” or “between the bully and the victim.” Several other misconceptions persist, including ideas such as:
- Adults can't do anything: They can. Teachers can watch bullies to deter behavior. Principals can discipline. Parents can report to schools, and should do so instead of contacting the child's parents first.
- Boys are more likely to be victims: As discussed above, girls are more likely to be victims of emotional and cyber-bullying, while boys and girls are equally likely to experience physical abuse.
- It starts with cyber-bullying: Actually it usually ends with cyber-bullying. Most bullies are not faceless enemies, but real people children meet at school. They may then progress to bullying through electronic means. Usually, however, if a child is being bullied, part of the process involves face-to-face interactions.
- Kids just need to toughen up: This myth is left over from the old days, when “boys will be boys” and kids just needed to “work it out.” Knowing the harm bullying causes, however, this is misguided.
- Bystanders don't have a role in bullying: They do. Always. Even if it is only giving the bully the audience he craves. But with training, observers could be taught to reduce bullying by noticing, reporting and intervening.
- Bullies are popular: Not necessarily. Bullies may be unpopular or sidelined themselves, so adults shouldn't only look to the top of the pecking order.
- It is obvious when a child is being bullied: In 2007 almost a third of kids in middle and high school reported experience bullying at school, but not nearly as many parents are getting these reports at home. And keep in mind that those numbers refer only to the kids actually reporting. It may not be obvious, so adults must try to make it easier for kids to report.
- Bullying must be physical: Another persistent myth from the days of schoolyard brawling. Parents, teachers and administrators now know that bullying can come from many quarters, to tragic effect.
- It's not anyone's fault: This may be true, and it may not be. However, parents have a responsibility to their children to ask about bullying, listen to what kids say, and report. Teachers have a responsibility to intervene, and administrators are responsible for creating policies that protect children. As a nation, we are responsible for looking out for our kids and legislating for change.
Many states have enacted anti-bullying legislation. This interactive map shows states, commonwealths and territories that have enacted laws, policies or both to halt bullying. While there are currently no federal laws that explicitly address bullying, many federal laws do have applications. If you know a child or are the parent of a child who is being seriously bullied, and are wondering about legal routes to stop the bullying, you can find a list of applicable laws here. These include:
- Harassment laws
- Civil rights laws
- Laws that address what role the school plays in dealing with issues of harassment, civil rights breaches and bullying
The key components of state anti-bullying laws have been listed here, where you can access them with an eye toward improving your own state's laws. These laws address what bullying is, how to report and investigate it, what types of conduct are prohibited in response to bullying, methods of communication, education and intervention, and informs readers that victims are still allowed to seek remedy in other ways, should their situation be applicable to additional laws.
If your goal is to help as many students as possible, whether as a teacher or a parent of a bullied child, you may wish to read up on these laws and become active in the legislation.
Parents and teachers who wish to help can make it clear that they do not tolerate bullying. Among the most harmful aspects of bullying are the feelings it creates that the victim is helpless and the situation is hopeless. By refusing to tolerate bullying, adults send the message that the child is not stuck in a helpless situation that will not change. This can offer huge relief to mental stress.
If a child has been bullied for some time, it is important to counteract the effects of that bullying. The primary damage suffered during childhood bullying is that which occurs to the child's self-esteem and sense of self-worth. In order to heal from this damage, the victim needs help building a strong, resilient and flexible identity that will allow him or her to deal with the challenges in life without giving up or perceiving the same lack of control instilled during childhood bullying. They must develop the inner trust that allows them to believe they can accomplish what they set their minds to, or else life may feel hopeless and pointless.
Help the child find tasks at which they can succeed, cultivate hobbies and interests at which they excel, and spend time doing activities they enjoy. This gives the victim agency, helps heal the wounds created by helplessness, and builds back up a self-image that they can rely on.
Bullying is a serious issue with serious impacts on victims, bullies and bystanders. Part of the problem is a culture of inaction, leftover from the old days when bullying was freely tolerated. Given the tragic results for children and adults, however, it is important to defeat this viewpoint once and for all and see bullying for the insidious problem it is.
This starts with a culture of openness and a willingness to intervene. Even as adults, this can be difficult, so imagine how hard it is for children. Therefore adults must step up to the plate first, and lead by example. We must continue to encourage public conversation about the effects of bullying so that we can overcome it. And we must let our children know that whatever is happening, they can tell us and we will support them.
Children don't always have a voice of their own. We must be that voice.
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